Scientific name: Oryctolagus cuniculus
Descended from ancestors in Eastern Asia, rabbits were introduced to the British Isles in the 11th century by the Normans who used them for food and fur. In those days they were a valuable commodity and warreners, employed to look after them on large estates, lived in fortified houses so that they could fend off poachers. In later centuries they were taken around the world for similar reasons, much to the regret of most of the new host nations. They did not become widespread in the countryside until the early nineteenth century when they escaped from the warrener's control.
The Easter Bunny is believed to originate in Saxon folklore of Northern Europe. They were the earthly symbol of the goddess of Spring, Eostre (or Eastre). Later Christians adopted various pagan festivals to help spread their faith and Easter festivities celebrated at the spring equinox, with the rabbit a symbol of fertility and the renewal of spring, was chosen as it might link to the renewal of the monotheistic faith. German christian immigrants brought the tradition to North America and the symbolic rabbit was depicted with baskets of eggs which had probably been boiled to preserve them during the fast to be consumed at Easter when it ended. This has now developed into chocolate eggs, but the only egg-shaped objects provided by the real thing are not to be consumed!
The typical clean, sloping bite on a small branch of a deciduous Rhododendron. Most of what has
been chomped off was not eaten, just left as evidence of the dastardly deed.
What some would regard as cuddly bunnies are destructive pests if they roam free in the garden, especially in the vegetable plot. They are not as destructive in the flower garden as most of the decorative plants are not very tasty.
When they attack an established plant it usually survives, but is weakened and unsightly - young plants and seedlings do not. The foliage is grazed off and the roots are excavated - often they do not even eat the young branches and foliage, leaving the evidence to annoy the gardener. Some say that they are tasting or keeping their teeth in shape, but to the gardener they are truly the beasts of the devil, sent to drive us to distraction. Their habit of scraping little mounds surmounted with a few droppings and urine for territory marking is very annoying. This ruins any advantage gained by using a mulch to suppress weeds. They seem to use the same spot all the time - usually at the front corner of a border or in the lawn (they also mark territory by rubbing a scent gland on their chin, over plants and twigs). In the winter when food is more scarce they will eat tree bark, usually the smooth bark on young trees; this can ruin an establishing orchard. A deep fall or drift of snow can bring lower shoots within their reach. Plant roots are also vulnerable and sometimes the edges of perennial plants are excavated for a meal. In the vegetable plot, carrots are favourite, just as the storybooks tell us, and they will borrow down into a drill of potatoes to reach the tubers.
Herbivores need a long gut to digest plant material and rabbits do not have one. To overcome this their food passes through the gut twice, a process known as refection. During sleep the mouth is kept close to the anus, a soft pellet of food is re-ingested for further digestion and the absorption of B vitamins, which are manufactured by bacteria in the caecum. The dark, round pellets deposited during the day are the result of this second passage.
Each rabbit consumes about 0.5kg of food per day, so they can be very destructive to crops and to grazing land in drier regions, as seen when they were at their peak in Australia where they created deserts. By the 1950's in the UK they were destroying about £50 million worth of crops per year.
In 1952 a viral disease called myxomatosis was first found in some wild rabbits in Australia. This was transferred to populations in France to reduce the numbers and by a mysterious route was imported to the British Isles. Two years later 99% of the population had been wiped out. They have since recovered due to developing resistance to the virus and are now estimated to destroy about £100 million worth of crops annually.
Another infection, Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD), has been found in the wild population in Britain since 1994; it is not as widespread as myxomatosis yet. The rabbits do not show any external symptoms like the inflamed head and eyes during myxomatosis. VHD causes severe internal bleeding and the corpse looks normal. Also known as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) it is a calicivirus which was first recognised in China in 1984, by 1986 it had spread to Europe; other variants can attack cats. In Australia and New Zealand it has been released as a biological control.
The damage they cause is not always detrimental as their grazing keeps areas in rough scrub land clear of bushes allowing some other plants to thrive. This was seen during their decline in the 50s and 60s when the scrub regenerated and some other wildlife lost their habitat - eg. the Large Blue Butterfly (Maculinea arion) became extinct in Britain, it lays its eggs on wild thyme flowers and this died out when the rabbits were not keeping more dominant plants grazed down.
They are social animals, usually living in groups with 2 or 3 males (bucks) and 3 or 4 females (does), raising their young in the main warren or in a blind tunnel among weedy undergrowth, tall grass or brush, known as a "dig" or "breeding stop". If a rabbit decides to make a breeding stop in the garden it is very persistent, re-digging if it is filled in - even a year later in the exact spot and at the same angle of dig!
Each group has a territory and they rarely go more than 500 metres from home. When conditions are favourable they can establish large underground warrens going down about 3 metres in sandy soil, and supporting about 100 rabbits. As nocturnal animals they are most active from dusk until mid-morning, spending the warmest and brightest part of the day in a shaded area or in their burrows.
Gestation takes 28 to 30 days so litters are produced monthly from late winter to summer. From 3 to 8 kittens are born blind and furless, but are independent after about 30 days and sexually mature in 4 months. The young are left in the nest for most of the day and the mother returns to suckle them once a day to lessen the risk of predation. The females are ready to breed again quickly and can produce up to six litters in a season. Fortunately about 90% die in their first year and the rest don't often live for more than 3 years. Their natural predators are foxes, stoats and cats; young rabbits are taken by buzzards, badgers, and weasels.
some small branches encircling a Penstemon for protection
These all take away from the full appreciation of the plants, but usually the rabbits only seem to concentrate their attacks on newer planted beds, so the protection may be removed the following year, when they are established and better able to survive. In winter if the snow is deep the fence or planting guard can be breached so the snow should be cleared away.
A fence is not always practical or aesthetic in the ornamental garden so various concoctions have been devised over the years to deter the rabbits - with doubtful success in some cases. They usually require constant application, especially after rain.
- A spray of equal parts of water and ammonia with a few drops of washing-up liquid to improve dispersal, sprayed around the plants (not on them).
The fungicide thiram is abnoxious to rabbits and is formulated as a repellent as well, there are also pepper derivatives.
- A solution of colophene in alcohol can be soaked into rags and placed around the area on poles.
Planting fox gloves around a vegetable plot is supposed to guarantee a rabbit-free area (probably the foxes that come around to try on the gloves scare them away!). The number of seedlings generated would soon see this plan abandoned.
Others include mothballs, cat fur clippings or fox urine, but how many cats would you need to shear, how do you find a fox urinal and the aroma in the garden would put most people off as well!?
- Tiger and other big cat manures can be purchased from some zoos, and is said to be very effective, but should be placed carefully and well marked to avoid accidental encounters yourself.
A device with a detector linked to a hose pipe which delivers a squirt of water can work for a while, but should be moved around to confuse, and remember to turn it off when you go into the garden!. I don't know what the postman might think either.
- One of the most effective deterrants is the pet cat or dog which leave their scent around. Feral cats are helpful as well and spend many hours stalking the rabbits in my garden.
- Traps are another method, but then what do you do with them - rabbit stew and furry slippers or take them to a remote spot for release? You are also likely to catch the cats which are stalking the rabbits.
- Non-locking snares are still legal in this country and are set where they come through the fence, or in larger settings, in the path they usually follow with regular spots or "beats" along it where they hop. The snare is set between the "beats" at a height of 16cm (6½ inches) so the rabbit leaps forward into the loop of the snare which is suspended from a firm anchor. A good time to discover entry points and paths followed by the rabbits is after a fall of snow when the typical pattern of their footprints are clearly visible (picture right).
- An electric fence consisting of a single strand set at an appropriate height on insulated stakes, should work for larger areas, but has to be constantly checked and as it is at a low level the surrounding foliage has to be kept clear to avoid shorting it out. It might be an alternative to chicken wire when establishing an area.
There are published lists of plants which are 'rabbit resistant', but young rabbits tend to nibble at any plant to see if it is tasty and excavate the roots, sometimes dislodging the whole lot. Plants with caustic sap, spines, tough leathery leaves or very aromatic foliage are not usually on the menu.
The city authority of Stockholm in Sweden has hit on a novel solution to use the rabbits culled from the public parks. They are used as a renewable energy source to heat homes; about 6,000 were incinerated in 2008.
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