Rabbits are small mammals in the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha, found in several parts of the world. The male is called a buck and the female is a doe; a young rabbit is a kitten or kit. Some rabbits are about the size of a cat, and some can grow to be as big as a small child. Small rabbits, such as pygmy rabbits, can be as little as 8 inches (20 centimeters) in length and weigh less than a pound. Larger species grow to 20 inches (50 cm) and more than 10 lbs. (4.5 kilograms).
The largest rabbit breeds are the checkered giant, over 11 lbs. (5 kg); Flemish giant, 13 lbs. (5.9 kg) and over; giant papillon, 13 to 14 lbs. 5.9 to 6.3 kg); and giant chinchilla, 12 to 16 lbs. (5.4 to 7.2 kg). The world’s longest rabbit, according to Guinness World Records, is a Flemish giant that clocked in at 4 feet 3 inches (129 cm) and 49 pounds (22 kg).
Small rabbit breeds include the Britannia Petite, under 2.5 lbs. (1.1 kg); Netherland dwarf, under 2.5 lbs.; dwarf hotot, under 3 lbs. (1.3 kg); and Himalayan, 2.5 to 4.5 lbs. (1.1 to 2 kg).
Rabbits are known for their insatiable reproductive habits for good reason. They breed three to four times each year. This is because only 15 percent of baby rabbits make it to their first birthday. So, to ensure that the population grows, rabbits have more babies. Each pregnancy produces three to eight babies. After four to five weeks, a kit can care for itself. In two or three months it is ready to start a family of its own. If there is a lack of natural predators, an area can quickly become overrun with rabbits.
Diet and eating habits
Rabbits are herbivores that feed by grazing on grass, forbs, and leafy weeds. In consequence, their diet contains large amounts of cellulose, which is hard to digest. Rabbits solve this problem via a form of hindgut fermentation. Rabbits are hindgut fermenters; they use bacteria and protozoa in their caecum to break down the structural carbohydrates in plant matter that mammals cannot digest into volatile acids, which they then absorb and use as their main source of energy.
Rabbits are crepuscular eaters — they prefer to eat at dawn and dusk. They are vegetarian and “fibrevores” — the majority of their diet should be fibre .Because of this high fibre diet, rabbits need to digest their food twice to get the maximum nutrition from it. To achieve this, rabbits produce a special faeces called caecotroph which they eat, digest again and then finally expel as the familiar round pellets.
Rabbits are incapable of vomiting. Because rabbits can’t vomit, if buildup occurs within the intestine due to rabbits eating items that aren’t high in fiber, then it can cause intestinal blockage.
Rabbits are social animals, living in medium-sized colonies known as warrens. They are largely crepuscular, being most active around dawn and dusk, although they are not infrequently seen active during the day. During the day, rabbits prefer to reside in vegetated patches, which they use for protection from predators. At night, they move into open prairie to feed. Rabbit populations seem to be greatest in ecotone habitats and less in scrublands or grasslands. Rabbits in grasslands are preyed on by carnivores. Birds of prey are their primary predators in scrublands. Ecotone rabbits are preyed on by both.
Rabbits require at least 55% water content in their diet to reproduce successfully and to maintain a healthy condition. Rabbits are essentially mixed-feeders, both grazing and browsing, but grass is their primary food source. They nevertheless have a diverse diet of grasses, leaves, buds, tree bark, and roots. They will also eat lettuce, cabbage, root vegetables, and grains.
Rabbits as pests
The rabbit has been introduced as an exotic species into several environments, often with harmful results to vegetation and local wildlife, making it an invasive species.
Despite the rabbits cute reputation as a much loved cartoon character in the form of bugs bunny or peter rabbit, they are also a major pest species throughout the world. This mammal is largely underestimated by most but their capabilities to breed as well as, chew, eat and dig through most landscapes is second to none.
For those whose property falls victim to the destruction caused by rabbits it poses problems in a variety of ways depending on the land use. The problems will only multiply if the rabbit population is left unregulated.
Here is a section of the typical habitats and the problems rabbits cause in such an area.
- Farmland, estates
7 rabbits will eat as much as a sheep. With this in mind it doesn’t take much to understand how even a small population of rabbits can decimate a colossal amount of crop. It is estimated that rabbits cost the British agricultural industry £100million a year through crop damage. Without doubt they are the number one pest species for farmers.
- In areas where horses and other livestock are kept
When one considers the volume of what a rabbit can eat (as stated above) it is easy to understand the loss of grazing they cause. This in turn often means there is a need to buy in extra forage to counteract the loss of grazing at a great expense. Burrowing rabbits also pose a threat to livestock and horses alike. Animals breaking legs in rabbit holes is not uncommon. Depending on the value of such livestock and the likely cost of vet fees to successfully repair the injury it is often the case that the animal is put to sleep.
- Forestry, plantations and orchards
Rabbits play havoc in such places and cause hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage to such industries each year. Ring barking (gnawing the whole way round the base of the tree) is the most common problem. If such a tree has its lower bark completely removed by rabbits – which is common in colder weather conditions the tree will die. If the rabbits only chew part of the way round the trunk, the tree will be able to retain a certain amount of nutrition however this often means disease and fungi can take hold. The targeted trees also become weak and unstable. This problem obviously poses the threat of collapsing trees and potential accidents as well as the loss of earnings from trees dying. This can also have a negative effect on habitat management.
In areas where coppicing takes place and rabbits eat the new growth the remainder of the tree will die off. Saplings are often targeted as well, meaning they will need to be replaced to provide correct woodland management. Tree guards can help to a degree but rabbits often chew through them in times of hardship. Rabbits are also capable of reaching heights of 50cm plus when stretched out on hind legs and capable of climbing if there is low foliage around. When rabbits attack fruit trees, the next harvest will be a ‘bumper’ crop as it is natures’ way of carrying on by producing extra seeds. This however is short-lived as the trees invariably die.
Rabbits cause all sorts of problems in gardens. They love eating plants and flowers (normally ones of value), so cause great annoyance to those who like to keep their garden aesthetically pleasing. Such targeted plants need to be replaced once rabbits have relied upon them as a food sources. Their droppings and urine also taint and burn lawns meaning they often look unkempt where rabbits frequently graze.
They also dig scrapes in search of young shoots, in time this can often mean lawn replacement is needed, at great expense to the owner. As in forestry, ornamental garden trees will also be attacked again causing considerable expense for replacements.
Their burrows also provide the risk of injury to humans and pets alike. Burrows often increase in size annually, if the rabbit numbers are not controlled, meaning a garden could soon resemble a war zone. Rabbits are resourceful creatures and often take up residence in places other than in holes such as under decking, garden sheds and even houses. This could potentially cause issues such as subsidence and the risk of fire if they chew through electrical wires. Wild rabbits can also pass on diseases to unvaccinated pet rabbits, which could result in the loss of the pet.
- Railways, motorways
Such areas normally consist of steep embankments covered in varying amounts of vegetation. This provides an ideal & potentially safe environment for rabbits, providing them with food, shelter & little predation. These areas often contain a high population or rabbits which then feed on adjacent land causing thousands of pounds worth of damage to crops etc.Trees and plantations on embankments regularly become targeted & once ring barked by rabbits they die & can become unstable, the burrows they dig can also cause subsidence both of which- if unnoticed can cause serious accidents. In these areas rabbits need to be controlled for Health & Safety reasons.
- Sports Grounds and Public areas
These are often favored habitats for rabbits in both urban & rural areas. The most likely reason for the need for rabbits to be controlled in such places is mainly due to digging. As rabbits continue to dig scrapes & burrows this heightens the chance of a member of the public falling & injuring themselves- which could potentially result in a lawsuit against the landowners or managers. Cricket squares prove irresistible and overnight can become unplayable. Rabbits can also cause damage to sports equipment such as football and cricket nets as well as posing a fire risk if they take up residence under buildings in the vicinity – through chewing wires. In such areas rabbits can be very much a Health & Safety issue.
- Conservation Areas
Rabbits cause problems in such environments for various reasons. They eat a variety of plants & they don’t differentiate between the common & rare ones which can affect the existence of such plants. They tend to graze systematically from their burrows outwards which can mean the loss of habitat for various insects & small mammals, which in turn can have a dramatic effect on birds of prey that rely on such hunting grounds.
Destruction of areas can be caused by burrowing on embankments & hills alike, subsidence & erosion often occur meaning species such as the very rare burrowing solitary bee could lose its few favored sites in this country. Trees & shrubs often get ring barked which in turn means they die! Whilst dying & rotten trees can provide food for some creatures it can also mean the loss of food & shelter to others.
In such areas rabbits need to be managed carefully to avoid the loss of native species – as rabbits are not indigenous to this country.
- Industrial Areas
Such areas are often busy places of work that need to run efficiently. Rabbits are resourceful creatures & thrive in both rural & urban areas.
Rabbits tunneling under path/roadways, hard surfaces & buildings can cause weakness & damage to the structures in the form of erosion & subsidence. Burrows & scratching caused by rabbits digging also pose the treat of people injuring themselves through falls. Rabbits that find their way into artificial burrows such as wire ducts, wall cavities or drainage pipes can cause fires & flooding through chewing & digging. In severe cases this can cause hundreds of thousands of pounds in property damage & loss off earnings & is very much a health & safety issue.
Rabbits can contract a variety of diseases and viruses – none of which can be passed onto humans – here are the main two. Myxomatosis is the most common disease that rabbits catch, which is carried via fleas that pass from rabbit to rabbit. There are many different strengths/ strains of this disease. In more severe cases rabbits become blind, lose weight & die slowly. Rabbits are however showing a certain amount of immunity to this man made disease which was introduced in the 1950’s. VHD (Viral Haemorrhagic Disease) is 2nd to myxomatosis & is passed from rabbit to rabbit in many ways, the virus can be airborne as well as by physical contact. It normally kills within 48 hours & those rabbits who succumb to such ill fortune can normally be diagnosed by blood visible from their orifices.
Diseases and viruses can quickly infect densely populated areas of rabbits – this in turn causes much distress and suffering to those infected. Effective control measures and management are the best ways forward to avoid diseases viruses spreading.
Grazing and burrowing by rabbits can cause serious erosion problems, reduce recruitment and survival of native plants, and modify entire landscapes.
Rabbits also threaten the survival of a number of native animal species by altering habitat, reducing native food sources, displacing small animals from burrows, and attracting introduced predators such as foxes. Rabbits are believed to have contributed to the decline or disappearance of a number of species, such as the greater bilby, yellow-footed rock-wallaby, southern and northern hairy-nosed wombats, the malleefowl and the plains-wanderer.
Rabbits are eaten by introduced predators such as foxes, wild dogs and feral cats, which can result in artificially high populations of these pest animals in some areas. If rabbit numbers decline suddenly the pests turn their attention to native prey, causing ‘hyper-predation’ impacts on native animals.
Agriculture loses thousands of millions of dollars a year because of overgrazing by rabbits. Rabbits can also have significant impacts on Aboriginal and historic cultural heritage. For example, overgrazing by them has worsened soil erosion in Mungo and Kinchega national parks, exposing culturally significant sites such as Aboriginal burial grounds.