Image courtesy of Danni505 Public domain dedication.
The rabbit is found in a wide variety of habitats, but prefers those with short grass such as improved grasslands or arable areas. Peaks in population size are found in areas with sandy soils and chalk, as opposed to clay soils (Cowan, 1991; Harris et al., 1995).
Rabbit density is positively associated with livestock grazing, owing to the higher nitrogen content of grazed swards (Iason et al., 2002; Bakker et al., 2005; Lush et al., 2014). More specifically, the rabbit prefers shorter grass swards (Smith et al., 2005; Petrovan et al., 2011a) with low plant diversity (i.e. intensively grazed pasture; Lush et al., 2014), and with predator control measures in place. Livestock production in the UK is in decline (UK National Ecosystem UK National Ecosystem Assessment, 2011). However, several features of less intensively managed landscapes, such as the presence of field margins, hedgerows, and woodland, are also beneficial (Trout et al., 2000; Petrovan et al., 2011a). These features presumably offer the necessary cover to escape predators (Iason et al., 2002), while still providing high quality forage (Bakker et al., 2005).
• IUCN Red List (GB: n/a; England: n/a; Scotland: n/a; Wales: n/a; Global: NT.). • This species has not been assessed for Article 17 of the EU Habitats Directive.
Population size estimates in Harris et al. (1995) were 37,500,000; 24,500,000 in England, 9,500,000 in Scotland and 3,500,000 in Wales. The density estimates for the majority of habitats were taken from Harris et al. (1995), so a comparison of population sizes is limited to differences in range size and habitat availability. Nationally, there are changes between the two reviews in the estimated availability of key habitats (arable land, broadleaved woodland, coniferous woodland and improved grassland), generated by a combination of true change and methodological differences, irrespective of any range change (see Sections 2.3 and 32.3 for further details). Adjusting the results to reflect more probable temporal changes in the composition of the British landscape — using differences between the 1990 and 2007 Countryside Surveys (Carey et al., 2008) — generates a 9% reduction in population size. The lack of confidence limits around the current estimate means that the significance of this reduction is unclear
Nationally, there are changes between the two reviews in the estimated availability of key habitats (arable land, broadleaved woodland, coniferous woodland and improved grassland), generated by a combination of true change and methodological differences, irrespective of any range change (see Sections 2.3 and 32.3 for further details). Adjusting the results to reflect more probable temporal changes in the composition of the British landscape — using differences between the 1990 and 2007 Countryside Surveys (Carey et al., 2008) — generates a 9% reduction in population size. The lack of confidence limits around the current estimate means that the significance of this reduction is unclear
There is a decrease in population in all UK mainland countries.
Five papers were identified by the literature search: one contained estimates of pre-breeding population density; two provided post-breeding estimates; one provided an index of rabbit abundance; and one provided evidence of a temporal trend.
No percentage occupancy data were available, so the population size for this species is overestimated. 42% of the population is attributed to arable and horticultural land, for which the density estimate is taken from Harris et al. (1995). Most of the land within the species’ range consists of arable and horticulture (32%) and improved grassland (37%)
The density estimates derived from Harris et al. (1995), and hence the overall population size estimates, are somewhat at odds with the known preference of rabbits for areas with short grass swards and low plant diversity, such as improved grassland (Lush et al., 2014). For example, the densities given for unimproved grassland and coniferous woodland are 500 rabbits km-2 and 200 rabbits km-2 respectively, whereas the recent estimate for improved grassland is only 48 rabbits km-2. However, given the extreme variability in rabbit abundance, a large sampling effort is required to produce robust evidence on median densities with reasonable precision. Therefore, using a single central estimate for each study is likely to introduce considerable error. The density estimate for improved grassland is based on a relatively small amount of data (one paper with seven replicates; Petrovan et al., 2011a), resulting in 95% confidence limits of 30km-2 to 60km-2. These densities were estimated using spotlight counts, which may only represent ~60% of the total number of rabbits within the unit area (Poole et al., 2003; Petrovan et al., 2011a), although this percentage may vary greatly depending on the area under study. Further data would provide a more robust estimate, but it is likely that a density at the upper confidence limit is more representative for this habitat type. The estimate for improved grassland was 250km-2 in Harris et al. (1995), which though considerably higher, falls within the confidence limits.
Estimates from Harris et al. (1995) were based on the authors’ adjustment of over-wintering population estimates from high density areas.Factors such as outbreaks of myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease have severe local impacts (Petrovan et al., 2011b), but these are rather poorly understood on national scales. The long-term impacts of these diseases on populations are also unclear (beyond anecdotal evidence of regional recoveries from previous population crashes), making it particularly difficult to extrapolate from historical evidence on habitat-specific densities. In addition, rabbit populations are inherently highly variable, even in the absence of disease, so there is considerable uncertainty in density estimates both within and between habitat types. The application of a single median density (current method) or single adjusted density (Harris et al., 1995), particularly where data are limited, may not, therefore, result in a reliable population size estimate. A stratified survey approach, using different geographical regions and habitat types, would improve the current estimates.
Range is stable Habitat in decline population in decline.
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