Where have all the rabbits gone?

By:
Ross Bentley
Est. Reading: 3 minutes

Watchers of wildlife will be aware of one species that has been noticeably absent from our countryside in recent years.

The creature I write of is, incredibly, the European rabbit, an animal that thanks to the likes of Beatrix Potter and Richard Adams – the author of the wonderful Watership Down - has traditionally been regarded as an iconic feature of our rural landscape.

Only a generation ago there were so many rabbits they were seen as pests that caused millions of pounds of damage to farmers’ crops, but these days you don’t see many at all.

Because they are water meadows, the Common Lands have never supported a rabbit population but across the River Stour from Friars Meadow, the Wardman Meadows used to be home to so many rabbits that specialist netters were called in annually to catch them. This doesn’t happen anymore.  

I hardly see any rabbits these days – this year I’ve spotted maybe a couple of bunnies on the fields off the Valley Trail towards Melford and one or two young ones disappearing into verges on country roads. In fact, a clue to the changes in the wildlife make-up of our countryside can be found in the type of roadkill seen on our highways. Whereas, when I was growing up rabbits and hedgehogs used to be a common sight on the side of roads, these are now rarely seen. Today, they have been replaced by the carcasses of unfortunate badgers and muntjac deer.

Disease

So, where have all the rabbits gone?

In the past decades a highly infectious disease called Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV) has swept across the rabbit population. It is fatal to both wild and domestic rabbits although pet owners can rest easy as vaccines are available. However, any idea of inoculating the wild population is a non-starter.

RHDV is believed to have originated in the Far East before spreading to Europe and propagating in large commercial rabbit farms on the Continent. The original strain hit rabbit numbers in the 1990s and could be easily diagnosed as dead rabbits were found with blood coming from their nose. But in recent years, a second strain, RHDv2, has been identified which leaves its victims with no outward sign of infection. Many rabbits die in their burrows where the disease can spread easily.

Not since the devastating and cruel impact of myxomatosis in the 1950s has the UK rabbit population been so badly affected.

As far as the impact of RHDv2 is concerned, an article in this month’s British Wildlife magazine says that rabbit populations in different parts of the country have been affected to different levels. In parts of Scotland, where the author was based, the rabbit population has been reduced by 99% - a mortality rate as bad, if not worse than that caused by myxomatosis.

Keystone species

I first heard about RHDV2 about eight years ago on a visit to Cavenham Heath nature reserve a few miles north of Bury St Edmunds where the rabbit population has undergone an incredible decline.

The ranger there had kept comprehensive records at the site and counted over 1,000 rabbits on the reserve in 2009. Their number started to decline slowly after that before crashing in late 2015, when only 13 rabbits were spotted.

The sandy dry Brecks part of northwest Suffolk and southwest Norfolk was a stronghold for rabbits and the remains of artificial warrens where rabbits were bred for fur and meat can still be seen. Interestingly, rabbits are not native British animals. They originate from Spain and Portugal and were introduced by the Romans and then the Normans and kept in man-made warrens for hunting. The wild rabbits we have today are a descendants of the escapees of yesteryear.

In the Brecks they have become a keystone species that has changed the landscape. Almost 1,000 years of scratching, burrowing and nibbling away at the heathland has created a habitat that rare species, such as the stone-curlew and numerous invertebrates and plants, now depend on for their continued survival in East Anglia.

Stone-curlews, an unusual bird that looks like a roadrunner with thick knees, for example, need bare patches to put their eggs on - they don’t lay within vegetation, but make a scrape in the bare ground. They also aren’t adapted to moving through dense vegetation and like heathland as it offers good visibility, so they can see predator’s coming.

When I visited the rangers were recreating this habitat by hand - using rotavators to stir up the land and create bare patches – waiting for the rabbit population to recover. At the moment, it looks like a long way back.

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