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WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

The Loveable Rabbit. Oryctolagus cuniculus

Rabbits belong to the Family Leporidae of the Order Lagomorpha and placed in the Genus Oryctolagus.

The male rabbit is called a buck. The female a doe and the young kit or kitten.

They were formerly called coney, from the French conis, from the Latin cuniculus -rabbit.

Bunny-from the Scottish Gaelic bun { Scut of the rabbit} 

Photograph courtesy of  J.J. Harrison {creative commons Attribution}

History of the rabbit in the UK.

 You can not go far in the British countryside without happening upon the loveable rabbit.

The rabbit is generally thought to have been introduced by the Normans over 900 years ago.-others believe it was the Romans that brought this fecund mammal to our shores. However, this loveable mammal came here it has had an impact unrivalled in the animal kingdom on the land.

Apart from man { and latterly sheep }  this animal has changed much of our landscape that would be unrecognisable to the people that lived here before its introduction. Rabbits keep the grass down to a level of short turf and they have the same impact on tree saplings and shrubs. regeneration of woods are therefore stopped from occurring.

This change of landscape also impacted on our native wildlife and many species of plants such as the green winged orchid rely on the short grassy areas created by the grazing rabbits, which are in turn relied upon by many species of insects, particularly butterflies { many of them species that are classed as nationally rare} and their larvae.

Because the grass is nibbled very short it allows the sun to warm the earth so much quicker than would be the case of long grass. Many invertebrates take an advantage of this warm earth in which to lay their eggs. The importance of grazing by rabbits is borne out by the fact  that when myxomatosis {see below}  decimated the rabbit populations in the 1950s, in some places rare butterflies disappeared altogether within two years of the rabbit's demise and have never returned.

Conversely, on allotments and arable land the rabbit is not regarded as being loveable, but a pest that can are capable of inflicting serious damage on crops. 

Description of the rabbit

Rabbits and hares being somewhat large and also familiar members of our "native " fauna make look superficially similar, but, there are several differentiating factors both in their life style and appearance.

The ears of the rabbit are long and out of all proportion to its body size when compared with other mammals. If layed forward over the face they nearly reach to the tip of the nose. they are about 3 inches long {7and a half centimetres}. The ears are sensitive and capable of swivelling, turning independently  in any direction giving maximum hearing to the rabbit. Rabbits always seem to be sniffing the air, but, they rely more on their ears than their sense of smell to detect predators.

The eyes are large and prominent and situated to the side of their head, once again this gives the rabbit maximum all round vision. 

The hind legs are longer than the forelegs and so greatly developed for running at speed over short distances. Instead of pads on the sole of the feet, to protect the foot and legs from being damaged as a consequence of hard running, they have feet covered in thick hair which gives them a firm grip, either on hard rock or slippery snow.

The tail known as the scut, is very short and turned up measuring up to three and three quarter inches.{ nine and a half centimetres} The fur is formed in three layers, there is a dense, soft woolly under fur, through which push through longer and stronger hairs giving the coat its colour. There is then a still longer but much less numerous set, scattered among the others. The coat becomes much denser in winter.

The rabbit is a much smaller animal than the hare, greyer in colour, with smaller ears and feet, and the black tips of the ears son noticeable in the hare are often much smaller or the black is absent altogether.  The average weight of the rabbit is 1.2 to2kg. The length of the head and body is about sixteen and a half inches. { approximately forty and a half centimetres}.

It also differs from the hare in the structure of its heavier skull, smaller eyes, shorter ears, and the legs, unlike those of the hare, are not designed for long distance speed. Normally the rabbit is a silent creature, except for low grunts and growls, which are inaudible to human ears in the wider countryside, which express anger or pleasure. But when terrorised  by the imminent attack by a stoat and other predators, the rabbit will render a high pitched loud scream. 

The red fox is just one of a plethora of predators that prey on rabbits.

Photograph courtesy of Ronald Laubenstein

Diet and predators

The rabbit is almost exclusively a vegetarian,its chief food being grass and the tender shoots of gorse, they will also eat clover, young crops and salad products such as lettuce. The exceptions to this vegetable diet is its occasional indulgence in snails.

The rabbit has many enemies, they are taken by owls, hawks all members of the weasel family, fox , cat,and  dog, but by far the main enemy of the rabbit is man.

Wherever there is food and its enemies are not to numerous the rabbit occurs almost everywhere in the UK and Ireland.  two hundred years ago these animals were scarce in Scotland, but now it is found in abundance up to the extreme north of that country.

Breeding and lifestyle

rabbits are sexually mature at an early age and often begin to breed before they are full grown. The females are distinguished by the shape of the head which is longer and more delicately arranged than that of the male.

Image from the book Animal life of the British Isles Edward Step- 1921

The males, too are restless and quarrelsome. They are promiscuous breeders and the entire care for the family is undertaken by the mother. Litters of rabbits succeed one another rapidly between February and September, less frequently in autumn and during the winter months.

The litter size varies from 2-3 up to 8. The higher number being those of the warmer months. young rabbits are born with a sparce covering of hair and are blind and death., the ears are closed and have no movement until about the 10th day, the eyes open a day later. During this early stage the mother will stay with her kits throughout the day and go out to feed at night.

By the 15th day  the kits will begin to make forages from below ground. before the are a month old they are capable of an independent existence. Until this point in time the mother will defend them against predators, even the most ferocious of enemies, using her powerful hind feet against her adversary, which usually makes them beat a hasty retreat.

 

photograph courtesy of Norrie Adamson {Creative Commons Attribution}

Where rabbits have been established in a locality a system burrows both extensive and complicated with escape holes {bolt holes} which may be numerous and stop runs for nursery use. These tunnels are about six inches in diameter, increased locally to a foot to provide passing places. The residential areas are always blind chambers leading from the main passages. 

Adult rabbits do not indulge in bedding materials but rest on the bare earth. The does, however, make beds for their young by use of their own under fur as a soft bed for them. These tunnels are frequently used by other animals, if necessary, by enlarging them to allow access for their larger bodies.

In the book Animal Life Of The British Isles  {1921} Edward Step states " When rabbit earths are ferreted they sometimes yield more than rabbits; a fox. a cat, a stoat, with several rabbits and rats, have been driven out of the same earth"

Where rabbits find the ground to hard or to wet, it makes do without tunnelling underground, making runs under vegetation such as bramble, gorse or on moors among heather. These rabbits were once known to "sportsmen" as shrub rabbits or bush rabbits and they wrongly thought of them as being a separate species.

Myxomatosis an obnoxious disease.

Myxomatosis is one of the most obnoxious diseases to occur in the animal kingdom and it hit the UK in the 1950s. It was thought to have arrived by being illegally imported onto an estate in West Sussex {southern England}. To compound this fact in some areas, infected rabbits, were placed into healthy rabbit populations. The European rabbit is the species which is greatly affected and by 1955 about 95% of all rabbits in the UK were dead.

Although it is still commonly encountered in the UK the virus {transmitted by fleas} has noe weakened. It is now estimated that 35% of diseased rabbits mow die compared with the 95% when the disease was first introduced. The infected does that survived continued to produce litters which seem to have produced an increasing genetic resistance to the disease.

Myxomotsis had an indirect affect on other species {as previously mentioned}. those were the species that relied on the short, rabbit grazed turf. Rabbits prior to the disease was the main source of meat for many country folk. The rabbits popularity as a source of food after the outbreak came almost to a full stop, and it is doubtful if it will ever regain its former prominence.

Other species of rabbits are affected by myxomatosis such as this American jack rabbit but mortality rates are much lower than those of the European rabbit. Photograph courtesy of Steve Hillebrand.

Photograph courtesy of Lee Eastman.

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