Pie filler, pest or pet of underappreciated beauty, the rabbit is a dumb, gregarious commoner who will nevertheless scream, fight and kill when warranted, says award-winning naturalist writer John Lewis-Stempel.
Would you be a happy bunny if I threw? Or do I pull a rabbit out of the hat and jump on it? Maybe you are caught like a rabbit in the headlights?
There is no surer sign of an animal’s importance than multiple entries in the national book of idioms. Or places named after the creature. Perhaps you are reading this article about ‘coneys’, as the European rabbit is commonly known across Britain, in Coneygar Hill, Dawlish Warren or Braunton Burrows?
Here again, Oryctolagus cuniculus is surely unique in that it means so many things to so many people. Emblem of Easter and bane of Mr. McGregor everywhere, the bunny is equal parts anthropomorphic hero of children’s books, fur trimmer, pie filler and the nation’s third favorite pet. A million pet rabbits live with us.
Hippity jumping on the lawn in the evening, quivering velvet nose, rabbit is a bundle of cute hair.
But how does such a gentle being conquer the countryside? To understand the success story of the rabbit, you have to, like Alice in Wonderland, go down the rabbit hole.
What is the difference between a rabbit and a hare?
Despite the related looks, the rabbit is not a hare; this last lagomorph relies for its survival on speed, clocking 40 mph on the earth’s surface; the rabbit manages a decent 18mph speed, can leap 9ft, has nearly 360° vision and independently rotating ears – not easy prey, but not exactly difficult prey for a fox, weasel or eagle .
How do rabbits avoid predators?
For safety, the rabbit goes underground, digging a network of tunnels or warrens (work done by the female of the species, mostly). Here he spends most of his time when he is not grazing, that is, almost all daylight hours.
To avoid alerting beasts of prey, rabbits tend to remain silent, unless caught, when crying out in distress. Even in the jaws or beaks of death, all hope is not lost for the rabbit; a heavy, startling kick of the hind legs and pinching of the teeth – which, by the way, are constantly growing and are ground by grazing – can defeat the fearsome weasel. Yet despite all their senses and strategies, 90% of rabbits die within their first year and most within the first three months of life.
However, new rabbits are always on the way because deep in the earth’s welcoming belly, a doe will give birth to a new litter. And another. Even when the loathsome disease myxomatosis struck in 1953, nearly exterminating the British rabbit, the rabbit jumped back and resumed its munching of Mr McGregor’s garden. Rabbit redux.
How many babies do rabbits have?
From the bottom of his dark underground fortress, the Rabbit launches his reign over the world. It replenishes its strength by re-ingesting a specific type of its own feces called caecotrophs, which are packed with protein and vitamin B. Then the rabbit reproduces in proverbially prodigious numbers; a doe or doe can have up to eight litters a year, 14 “kits” per litter – a potential 112 in total every 12 months – and is aided in her mothering efforts by the females of the family.
Endearingly, rabbits are gregarious. They groom each other. They huddle together to keep warm. (All qualities that make rabbits pets.) Yet the rabbit, behind the whiskers, is a fruitful Spartan survivalist. A dominant female—and rabbit society is strictly hierarchical—will kill rival kits, dragging them by the scruff of their necks to the surface to perish. This is how Old Mother Rabbit protects the fate of the warren; too many kittens playing in the place attract predators. In crowded areas, pregnant females can eliminate their own embryos by intrauterine resorption.
What is mymomatosis?
In October 1953, the myxoma virus was discovered in Edenbridge, Kent, and life was never the same for the country’s rabbits – or for our people. Although the British government tested myxomatosis as a means of controlling rabbits in the 1930s, the 1953 outbreak was accidental, crossing the English Channel from France, where the introduction was intentional. Many British agricultural producers were overjoyed at the death of an agricultural pest, but the sight of tens of thousands of bloated, unloaded and dying animals effectively ended rabbit as a national dish.
Despite the discovery of a pro-rabbit champion in Sir Winston Churchill, who criminalized the deliberate spread of the disease, myxomatosis was allowed to run its course, with a 99% mortality rate of rabbits on the south coast of England to the Shetlands. The main vector was the rabbit flea. The shooters lamented the loss of game, the hatters and the furriers the lack of fur.
Rabbit populations revived when individuals developed resistance to myxomatosis, which became endemic. However, a new imported plague, viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD), caused a second decline in the rabbit population in Britain, being 80% fatal to infected local populations. Myxomatosis still kills rabbits as well, and their numbers are declining across the country. Even the ever-resilient rabbit requires a bit of conservation effort these days.
What do rabbits eat in the wild?
When rabbits venture above ground to feed, they rarely stray more than 80 feet from their burrow – and often with a pre-planned, closer “bolt hole” to escape Mr. Fox. or Old Brown. They graze rapidly for the first half hour of the evening meal, then more selectively for another 30 minutes. They are simple eaters – another reason for the species’ historic boom and geographic spread – with the bulk of the diet consisting of grass, wildflowers and grains. (Warner Bros. notwithstanding, carrots aren’t the Bugs Bunnies’ favorite food.)
Are rabbits spoiling the countryside?
The rabbit suffers the injustice of all things common, in that its beauty is overlooked – a rabbit’s fur is an intricate marvel of bronzes and silvers – and its value underestimated. After having been a supply of tray, clothing, pest control and pet, the rabbit today carries another portfolio. Environmentalist. Where rabbits have nibbled and scratched over the centuries, they have created a special environment of mowed grass and warm, bare earth that is a haven for rare flowers and basking reptiles.
Rare flora encouraged by rabbit browsing include prostrate perennial knawel, Scleranthus perennis ssp. prostrate, which does not exist anywhere on the planet outside of the Breckland moors of Norfolk. The loss of wild rabbits to myxomatosis contributed to the extinction of the great blue butterfly in 1979.
Next time you see that quivering velvet nose, tip your hat to the great survivor, legged prime prey and eco-engineer of the British countryside that is the humble rabbit.
Are rabbits a native species in Britain?
The rabbit’s record in Britain is astonishing for a relatively recent arrival on our shores – or rather a re-arrival. Britain had its own native population of rabbits before the exterminating Ice Age and the animals were reintroduced by the Romans, but did not thrive, only to be imported in the 12th century by Norman invaders.
Originating in the Iberian Peninsula and southwestern France, rabbits were widely bred in ancient Rome – where kits were a delicacy – and then by monasteries, probably because the Catholic Church considered young rabbits n were not meat, but fish and could therefore be eaten during Lent.
The pagan Vikings, by becoming Christian “Men of the North” settled in France, took the habit of the rabbit; the Bayeux Tapestry depicts Norman soldiers transporting rabbits in sacks and crates to England, where the animal was raised in pens or warrens, covering an area of approximately 1,000 acres. (At first the delicate rabbit could not dig burrows in wet, cold English soil, so they were made for it by drilling with augers.) The warren was tended by a “warrener”, who lived in a lodge, often fortified, which he protected his charges against predators and poachers.
Rabbit meat was so prized that it could only be bought by the wealthy; in 1465, when George Neville was installed as Archbishop of York, 4,000 rabbits were provided for the celebratory feast. The animal’s fur was also sought after. Henry VII preferred black Norfolk rabbit fur to line his night attire. Over time, the rabbit fur industry developed (notably in East Anglia), notably with the making of felt headgear by gluing rabbit hair with shellac.
The rabbit proved impossible to contain and, outside the Norman warren, multiplied exponentially, thus reducing its own value. In the 13th century, the market price for a rabbit carcass averaged 3½d luxurious, plus an extra penny for the skin. Two centuries later the price had fallen to 2¼d. In the 18th century it was fodder for the poor, and by the 1950s the British countryside was creaking under the paws of 100 million people.
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