Walking with rabbits

On almost every walk you take you’ll see signs of rabbits. With a bit of detective work, says Amy-Jane Beer, this evidence can help you piece together the secret lives of these remarkable mammals

9th September 2013
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Peter Rabbit has been my lifelong friend, so I had mixed feelings about the sequel to Beatrix Potter’s original tale (published in 1902), written by actress Emma Thompson, reportedly at the request of Peter himself. It’s a lovely book – I’m just trying not to mind that he didn’t ask me.
Peter isn’t the only rabbit to have infiltrated British literary consciousness. Forty odd years earlier, a white rabbit was followed down a burrow by a curious young girl, and they tumbled together into Wonderland. In the 1930s came Alison Uttley’s twee Tales of Little Grey Rabbit and then, in 1972, came Richard Adams’ epic Watership Down. Compared to the lurching fantasy of Wonderland and the rustic charm of Peter and Little Grey, the lives of Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig felt grittily realistic, even if they did have language, culture, politics and spirituality. According to the rabbit mythology of Watership Down, the Sun-God called Frith gave life to the Earth and decreed to El-ahrairah, the first of all rabbits “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a thousand enemies. And whenever they catch you they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger… listener… runner…”

Gone in a flash
This all rings strangely true as I stroll in my local wood. Early summer brings the best opportunity for rabbit spotting, and here, on a steep, south-facing bank of the Yorkshire Derwent, I’m reminded immediately that natural selection has not left the “Prince with a thousand enemies” helpless. The rabbits are out in force, including a cluster of youngsters – kits – taking their first wide-eyed look at the world above ground. Kits are often less wary and thus easier to watch than adults, but these have plenty of sentries to warn them of my approach.
The first rabbits to spot me warn the rest of my approach. I hear the short, sharp ‘dhup’ sound of a long, furry back foot thudding into the turf – just once, but it is enough. A dozen pairs of satellite-dish ears swivel in my direction, and eyes bulging from the sides of the head give almost 360 degrees of vision. I glimpse the flash of one retreating tail, then several, and they are gone.
Rabbits may lack the superlative speed and mystique of hares, but their acceleration and agility are still extraordinary. Combine these with an effective early warning system, and it’s no surprise that getting close to a wild rabbit is a challenge, even for the stealthiest field naturalist.
Having blown my approach, I take a tussocky seat, back to a tree, downwind of the warren. The vegetation is rabbit-cropped to a putting-green sward. Gilbert White rarely mentioned rabbits in his Natural History of Selborne (1789) but he did note the quality of turf associated with warrens, describing it as “incomparably the finest” for use in gardens.
The soils here are free draining and comfortably dry to sit on. Rabbits share my preference for a dry backside – their fur loses its insulating properties when sodden, so a damp-free burrow is essential.
I often find patches of this grey-brown fur caught on brambles or barbed wire – it’s deliciously soft to the touch and you can see why it provides not only perfect insulation but also protection against scratches and scrapes, and even minor bites. Rabbits spend a lot of time caring for it and pregnant females pluck the fur of their belly to line their nests, so even naked babies benefit from its luxuriant softness and warmth.
Whenever you see rabbit fur, cast around for the owners’ distinctive tunnel-like paths in grass and hedgerows, no more than four or five inches wide. These will give you a good idea of rabbit commuting routes. In the past, poachers would set snares along these paths in the hope of a free supper.

What pellets tell us
With the rabbits gone, I take a longer look at their warren home. These may have a handful of entrances – or hundreds, depending on the availability of alternative easily dug soils in the area. The rabbits sharing a burrow system often have a strict social hierarchy in which high-ranking males monopolise breeding opportunities. Among females, only the highest ranked females have access to the best and safest breeding burrows.
Rabbits spend a great deal of time underground and it’s easy to forget this life of darkness and privacy. But one thing we do know about burrows is that they are rather clean. Rabbits avoid soiling their homes by using outdoor latrines. These latrines are easy to find and a useful indicator of the size and activity of the population.
Rabbits produce two sorts of droppings. The first are pellets of soft paste but you won’t see them, because they are immediately reingested. This ‘coprophagy’ ensures the rabbit gains maximum nutritional benefit from its food – in fact the second pass of part-processed plant matter through the gut is so important that without it a rabbit will soon suffer deficiencies. After this second eating, hard, dry droppings are deposited with a dab of scent from the anal gland in conspicuous locations, serving as territorial boundary markers.
My patience is rewarded when the kits return to the surface, noses a-quiver. Though they are probably only about a month old and not quite weaned, it’s more than likely they are about to be usurped by a new litter. Female rabbits can mate again soon after giving birth and gestation is a mere 30 days. In decent conditions, a doe can rear four or five litters of three to eight kits in a year.
Breeding ‘like a rabbit’ is a strategy to cope with high mortality. Foxes, polecats, wildcats, buzzards, eagles and barn owls all rely heavily on rabbit prey – sometimes almost to the exclusion of all else.  Hence also the ceaseless vigilance and the need to have a burrow entrance within a short sprint away.

Our rabbit-carved world
It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of rabbits in our countryside. The first myxomatosis outbreak (see below) was a dramatic reminder of their ecological importance. With the rabbits gone, numbers of foxes, stoats, buzzards and other predators plummeted. Weasels, on the other hand, did rather well for a year or two – the sudden increase in overgrown grassland boosted the populations of their principle prey, field voles.
Other effects were less predictable. The relief of grazing pressure led to the extinction of the large blue butterfly, which relied on the sun-warmed turf of rabbit-grazed downland favoured by a red ant, Myrmica sabuleti. The ant mistakes butterfly eggs for its own young and feeds the caterpillars until they pupate. When the short turf was replaced by long grass, the ant vanished and so did the large blue.
The UK rabbit population today wavers around 38 million. Resistance to myxomatosis has increased, but it still reaps a grim toll most summers. The mild winter of 2011-12 led to a particularly bad year in 2012. From June, my local warrens were all but empty. But as spring unfurled this year, the rabbits are back, digging, listening, running. Their familiarity is such that we rarely spare them more than a passing thought. We shouldn’t confuse ubiquity with worthlessness – rabbits are a prime example of the extraordinary living in plain sight.


Sixty years of myxomatosis

By the early 20th century, the British rabbit population of some 100 million was regarded as a pest. In Australia the problem was even more acute. Experiments between the wars suggested that a virus, Myxoma, might be a means of control. Myxoma was endemic in South American rabbits, which carry it without serious effect, but caused a fatal disease, myxomatosis, in European rabbits. The theory was tested in Australia and in France in 1950 and 1952, with devastating effect. Then, in September 1953, myxomatosis appeared in Britain, near Edenbridge in Kent. Officially no one knows how it got here, but the suspicion that its introduction was deliberate has never quite gone away. A 200-acre area around the outbreak was fenced off and every remaining rabbit was gassed. Nevertheless, the disease soon cropped up elsewhere.
It seems likely that infected rabbits were deliberately released around the country. By late 1955, up to 99 percent of Britain’s rabbits had died – painfully and publicly.
The horror of myxomatosis led to the Pests Act 1954, making it an offence to deliberately spread Myxoma. Since then, the rabbit population has recovered, though myxomatosis is still at large here. But the search for means of controlling rabbits continued. The highly contagious rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV), discovered in China in the 1980s, is usually fatal and has no cure, though domestic rabbits can and should be vaccinated. In 1995, RHDV escaped from a trial on in Australia and killed 10 million wild rabbits in weeks. RHDV appeared in both domestic and wild populations in Britain in 1992 and there have been sporadic outbreaks since. 

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