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If you wake up on the first day of the month saying, “Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit” good luck will stick with you for the rest of that month. It’s a superstition that some believe.
While I’m not sure it works, I know wild rabbits are environmental gems. Without them entire ecosystems can collapse. That’s because feral rabbits are a keystone species; they’re the glue that keeps a habitat together. Unfortunately, wild rabbit numbers are declining regionally, nationally, and globally.
Rabbits foster bio-diversity but commercial breeding threatens wild rabbits
“Rabbits are incredibly important because their grazing and digging activity keeps the ground in a condition that is perfect for sustaining other species,” Diana Bell, professor of Conservation Biology, School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the U.K., says. “Sadly rabbit populations have declined dramatically in the U.K. and across Europe, and the European wild rabbit is now listed as endangered in its ancestral Iberian Peninsula range. Their decline is largely due to a spill-over of new viruses from commercially bred rabbits.”
Bell explains, “Viruses like Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHDV1 and RHDV2) were first discovered in farmed rabbits where high densities and enclosed conditions promote their evolution. Both quickly got into wild rabbit populations, which for example might contact the waste products from these establishments and are also spread very easily on foot, vehicle tires, etc. They are caliciviruses and the second despite only being initially reported in 2010 has since jumped to about nine species of hares, plus badgers, shrews and voles.”
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease has spread to parts of the western and southwestern U.S. “We’ve tried to keep this virus out of the country, but there have been sporadic outbreaks in domestic rabbits,” Jennifer Graham, a veterinarian at the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals and head of Cummings School’s Zoological Companion Animal Medicine at Tufts University, says. “For example, there was one situation where a woman working in a restaurant that served rabbit brought the virus home to her own rabbits.”
“Once the virus gets into the wild-rabbit population, there’s no way to stop it from rapidly spreading and becoming endemic,” Graham says. “Veterinary epidemiologists feel this disease is going to be pretty established throughout the country by next year.”
Rabbits can’t transmit the virus to humans. The bad news is that it’s a highly contagious and insidious virus. It can survive extreme temperatures and lasts for long periods of time in the environment, and people can transmit it via their clothing and shoes.
Why we need feral rabbits
Bell collaborated with other researchers and found wild rabbit habitats increased the numbers of endangered plant, bird, and insect species that are beneficial to the environment. “Rabbits are incredibly important because their grazing and digging activity keeps the ground in a condition that is perfect for sustaining other species,” she says. “The project has seen species recover in record numbers, including the endangered beetle and several plants.”
Bell worked closely with researchers from the Brecks-based Shifting Sands project. “The project was set up to save some of the region’s rarest wildlife,” she says.
The Brecks is home to approximately 13,000 different plant and animal species; it’s located along the Norfolk and Suffolk border in the U.K. Shifting Sands is one of 19 projects across England that make up the national Back from the Brink initiative. Together, these projects aim to save 20 species from extinction and benefit over 200 more.
“The Shifting Sands project has shown us how important rabbits are to entire ecosystems, and it is vital that these habitats are conserved and protected,” Bell says.
Bell sees rabbits on a daily basis. The UAE campus is home to hundreds of rabbits and Bell has been researching them for more than 30 years. “After several years of hard work by this multi-partner project, the fortunes of species classed as declining, rare, near-threatened, or endangered are now improving in the Brecks.”
Wild rabbits are not pests
Some see wild rabbits as pests. Many gardeners in the U.K. and here in the states complain about rabbits eating their tomatoes, lettuce, and other fruit and vegetables.
Environmentalists like them because rabbits eat weeds, and their urine and feces help nourish the soil. “Wild rabbits are essential workers,” Bell explains.
The only time rabbits are a problem is when they’re relocated to new territories. They become invasive, over populate, and destroy plants by overgrazing. Despite their small size, one rabbit eats the same amount as one sheep.
Left in their natural settings, they are beneficial to neighboring plants and animals.
A rabbit revolution
“We encouraged a rabbit revolution in the Brecks,” she says, “and we have produced a toolkit in partnership with Natural England to help landowners of similar rabbit-dependent habitats to do the same. Simple cost-effective ways of encouraging rabbits include creating piles of felled branches, known as brush piles, and banks of soil. Monitoring over the past three years has shown the interventions work.”
“Our work resulted in evidence of rabbit activity in significantly higher numbers,” she says. She pointed out that 91 per cent of brush piles showed paw scrapes and 41 per cent contained burrows. Even when burrows did not form, the brush piles helped expand the range of rabbit activity.
A collaboration of environmentalists
The UEA research team worked in collaboration with Natural England, Forestry England, Plantlife, Breckland Flora Group, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Buglife, the Elveden Estate, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to deliver this ambitious partnership project.
It has seen five kilometers of ‘wildlife highways’ created, more than 100 specimens of rare plants re-introduced, habitat created and restored across 12 sites, species encouraged, and landscape-management practices improved. The project has also seen seven species of plants, birds, and insects increase in numbers.
Among those species recovering are rare plants such as the prostrate perennial knawel that is unique to the Brecks, basil thyme and field wormwood. The endangered wormwood moonshiner beetle, lunar yellow underwing moth and five-banded digger tailed wasp are also increasing. All these species are identified in the U.K.’s Biodiversity Action Plan as being priorities for conservation.
Teeming with life
Charles Dickens described the Brecks as “barren land.” “They are anything but,” says Pip Mountjoy, project manager at Shifting Sands. “It’s 370 square miles of sandy heathland, open grassland, and forest support almost 13,000 species, making it one of the U.K.’s most important areas for wildlife.”
“That wildlife is under threat. Felling trees and encouraging a species that is often considered a pest may seem a strange solution. But in this instance, carefully managed ‘disturbance’ is exactly what this landscape and its biodiversity needs. The project’s interventions have provided a lifeline for this unique landscape.”
“These rare habitats are becoming overgrown and species are declining as a result of changing land management practices and human impacts. It’s our responsibility to restore and maintain these spaces for nature. Some of these species exist only here and, if lost, will be lost forever.”