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Rabbits © Hilary Chambers

The European Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus is the only member of its genus and the progenitor of all domestic rabbits. The wild Rabbit weighs 1.2–2 kg and is predominately a uniform brown/grey uniform colour with an orange nape. It has been bred domestically to produce animals of different sizes and shapes for over 1,000 years beginning in French monasteries between the 6th and 10th centuries. There are now 80 recognised domestic breeds exhibited in the UK with each having its own standards in size, shape, fur and colour. The Netherland Dwarf breed is disqualified in judging if it weighs over 1.134 kg, whereas the minimum weight for exhibiting British Giant Rabbits is 6.123 kg for does (British Rabbit Council website, 2012).

Rabbits are renowned for two things, their digging ability and their exceptional breeding rate. In fact the rabbit’s scientific name translates as “a hare-like digger of underground passages” though the European Rabbit is actually one of only two out of 30 species of rabbit across the world to dig its own burrow (Lumpkin and Seidensticker, 2011). After the last glaciation the European Rabbit was confined to Iberia, but as early as Roman times it was introduced to western and central Europe as a source of fur and meat.

The Romans started to fence off areas of land in order to “farm” Rabbits, a practice known as cuniculture. This practice was continued when Rabbits were introduced to Britain, which was generally agreed to have been in the 12th century (Sheail, 1972). Substantial areas of land were cordoned off with large embankments and walls, known as warrens, in which Rabbits were contained to a large extent. Several of these were on islands or at least used the coast as a boundary to help confine the rabbits (Henderson, 1997). Sheail (1972) shows the distribution of placenames in England containing the word “warren”. There are 10 shown for the whole of the North East from Warrenby at Redcar in the south to Waren Mill near Bamburgh in the north: all but one are close to the coast. However the extent of warrens would have been much wider than those that left placenames. For example on Lindisfarne a rabbit warren is recorded as far back as 1377, when it belonged to the See of the Bishop of Durham (Raine, 1852).

For several centuries Rabbits spread very little from the vicinity of warrens. Indeed Sheail (1972) records that “Bewick and other naturalists generally believed that wild rabbits were unable to fend for themselves and, without the protection of the warren, would soon be extirpated.” It was not until changes in agricultural practices and greater game protection, from around the 1750s onwards, that rabbit populations started to increase significantly (Harris and Yalden, 2008).

The Rabbit by Thomas Bewick

The Board of Agriculture Reports for the 1790s show Durham as one of the few English counties with no reports of Rabbits though it notes several warrens on the Northumberland coast (Sheail, 1972). This is unlikely to have represented the actual situation and by 1864 Mennell and Perkins report “This species abounds everywhere in our district. The sand hills or links along our coast are an especially favourite locality, and at Bamborough and other similar places their numbers are prodigious. The Rev. H. B. Tristram informs us that the black variety is met with in Castle Eden Dene.”

The Rabbit population continued to increase exponentially but while it was a valuable source of meat in the dark days of the World Wars, it nevertheless caused very serious problems for agriculture. It certainly seemed to have struck a nerve with Vesey Fitzgerald (1942): “The rabbit is a menace. It is a menace to agriculture. Up to the outbreak of war it was costing this country some millions of pounds annually … It is a menace to forestry and it is a menace to the interests of the game preserver. … Its value as a cheap … food and the value of its fur for clothing … cannot be weighed against the damage it does. It remains a menace.”

Every effort was made to control and reduce Rabbit populations; however, it was not until the introduction of myxomatosis into Britain in autumn 1953 that any substantial reduction was achieved. Myxomatosis ran rampant through the wild Rabbit populations and before long perhaps 99% of Britain’s wild Rabbits were dead. In the North East it will have no doubt had the same devastating effect. Tegner (1972) talks of a few recovering populations in Durham and Northumberland as if they had all but died out and Ashby (1965) makes a similar point about them recovering in Teesdale. However Rabbits must still have been widespread as the provisional distribution maps of British Mammals (Corbett, 1971), which had relatively poor coverage for most species, still shows them as present in around 20 10 km squares spread throughout much of the region for the period 1960-69, though with a notable absence from the Tees lowlands and much of upper Teesdale.

While myxomatosis continues to take a toll on Rabbits throughout the region, the emergence of less virulent strains of the disease has allowed Rabbit numbers to increase again. The National Gamebag Census recorded a significant increase in numbers over the period 1961-2009 with a rapid increase of around 109% from 1989-1995. This was followed by a significant decline from 1996 and then a stabilisation of numbers (Aebischer et al, 2009). It was postulated that the more recent decline was due to the introduction of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD), which first appeared in the UK in 1992. RHD is an extremely contagious and lethal disease in European Rabbits, but its effects in Britain have not been as dramatic as myxomatosis, as it would appear that a large proportion of British Rabbits carry antibodies for a similar virus which confers significant immunity (Trout et al, 1997).

While Rabbits may be recovering their numbers they are still estimated to only be around 35-40% of pre-myxomatosis levels. Nevertheless, Natural England guidance note TIN003 (2011) states: “The rabbit has once again established itself as the major vertebrate pest of British agriculture, causing economic losses estimated to be in excess of £100 million annually”.

However Rabbits can also have a positive effect: for example, their grazing and digging has been important on a localised scale for maintaining short swards and open areas in brownfield sites across the Tees Valley, thereby allowing opportunities for certain plant and invertebrate species that might otherwise be swamped by more rank vegetation. The Rabbit population on Lindisfarne also played an important part in the past in maintaining the nature conservation value of the dune vegetation around the Snook, but the recent decline in Rabbit numbers there has meant that their role has been supplanted by livestock grazing. This reduction in Rabbit numbers is however considered on balance to be a positive thing as grazing levels can be better controlled with livestock, and in some cases the high levels of Rabbit grazing were masking the spread of invasive plant species in the sward (Andrew Craggs, pers. comm., July 2012).

MARS Rabbit

Rabbits are the only terrestrial mammal to have been recorded on the other North East islands. On Coquet Island, domestic Angora Rabbits were introduced in the 19th century by the Duke of Northumberland. While this domestic strain might not have persisted, there was a population of Rabbits there until the winter of 2004/05 when they died out (Paul Morrison, pers. comm., July 2012). On the Farne Islands the long-standing Rabbit population on Inner Farne was initially eliminated by the wardens in 1972 but was re-introduced in 1973 when it was realised that they were performing a useful function, which benefited the nesting birds. The restricted habitat on Inner Farne meant that numbers were kept low, with as few as ten over the winter period when they would supplement their diet by eating seaweed (Perry, 1978). In February 2008 wardens arrived on the island to find Rabbits lying dead, thought to be the results of a viral disease, though tests by the University of St Andrews found that these were the most inbred Rabbits that they had ever tested. This was the end of the current population on Inner Farne, though Rabbits still exist on the smaller island of West Wideopens, and a consultation is currently underway about re-introducing Rabbits to Inner Farne (David Steel, pers. comm., Sept 2012).

The Rabbit is one of the most ubiquitous and most recorded mammal species in our region. It has been recorded in all 10 km squares with the exception of four, part squares on the western border; a coverage only exceeded by Mole Talpa europea. Northumbria Mammal Group does not have any data on relative population sizes across the region but anecdotally Rabbit numbers seem to be particularly noticeable in the uplands to the west of the region based on road kill. However this may just be due to populations in those areas being concentrated near to roads and away from possibly less favourable areas such as extensive heather moorland. In the borough of Hartlepool, where the authors are currently based, it has been recorded in every tetrad including a small, isolated population around the former gun battery on the tip of Hartlepool Headland. It is likely that a similar situation exists across much of the rest of the lowlands in the North East.


Written by Jonathan Pounder and Ian Bond (last updated Nov 12)