Exploring the life of wild rabbits in the Derbyshire countryside
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 September 2019
Paul Hobson takes a look at the life of a common mammal that is facing a new threat
Rabbits or White Rabbits are words which many of us choose to usher in the first day of a month. Opinions vary as to whether they should be the first words spoken that day or said before midday, but saying them is meant to bring good luck. In some cultures carrying the foot of a rabbit was also believed to bring good fortune. Probably not for the rabbit who once used it for hopping about, but I suppose not many of us have one buried in the fluff at the bottom of our pockets or handbags nowadays. Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit is a delightful children's book that is familiar to most of us and it's difficult to avoid the Easter bunny, who seems to be appearing in our shops earlier each year. So I think it's safe to say that rabbits appear in many aspects of our lives.
Coney is an old, medieval name for a rabbit. It was originally used only for adult rabbits, while the name for a young rabbit - now often referred to as a kitten - was actually rabbit. This then morphed into using the name coney for all ages, until more recently when we took a backwards step and began to just call them rabbits.
In the wild, rabbits are one of the most common mammals in both Derbyshire and Britain as a whole. Whilst a lot of their life is nocturnal they love nothing better than to graze in the late afternoon or early morning, which makes them one of the more visible and watchable mammals in the county.
The social life of a rabbit is complicated and, like all mammals that readily form large groups or colonies (warrens), tension is never far from the surface. When the warren becomes full, underground space, where the rabbit is safer away from the eyes of predators, is at a premium. Only the tougher and more experienced bunnies can defend their own burrow. Younger and weaker adults often have to live far more on the surface, or leave to create new warrens elsewhere.
Rabbits not only have to contend with the aggressive and complicated lives of other bunnies but also the ever vigilant attention of many predators such as foxes, stoats, weasels, badgers, buzzards, owls and even herons. Many bunnies never make their first birthday, but they support so many other species both directly and indirectly.
Where rabbit populations are large, and they can quickly become so, they have an incredible impact on the local ecology. Rabbits are selective grazers. They don't eat all vegetation equally, selecting only those species they find tasty. This means that the natural flora of an area, such as that in many of our fantastic limestone dales that are populated by rabbits, is often wildflower rich and less choked by the more aggressive grass species. Rabbits also have a tendency to nip out young trees, which again keeps the environment open. So by managing their surroundings to create conditions best suited for themselves they are landscape creators.
Rabbits were introduced by the Normans so have only been here for just shy of a thousand years, which may be a long time in human terms but is a short one ecologically. However, they have had a great impact on our green land. Worldwide, wild rabbits have spread across the globe due to human intervention and now live in all the continents apart from Antarctica.
In some ways it seems that rabbits have a good life but the fact that they make fantastic casseroles, provide excellent clothing and are a serious pest mean it's no surprise that we have turned our hands, bows, ferrets, snares and guns against them for many centuries.
In modern times, however, we have unleashed two huge and devastating diseases on them, neither of which was government sanctioned. The first, myxomatosis, appeared in Kent in 1953 and was deliberately spread by placing dead, infected rabbits into warrens across the county and probably beyond. The effect was an incredible pandemic that killed more than 90 per cent of Britain's rabbits. However, they are nothing but tenacious and with a natural resistance the population grew again, although it has never reached anything like the huge population of the 1940s. Myxomatosis is still here and rabbit populations are held in check continuously by repeated outbreaks of the virus.
The second disease to affect rabbits appeared in Britain in 2013. It's incredibly lethal and known as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) and is caused by the calicivirus. This new threat first appeared in China in 1984 and has spread both deliberately and inadvertently throughout the globe. RHD usually kills over 90 per cent of any rabbit population but oddly the disease didn't affect rabbits younger than a month old. However, a new strain has appeared in Britain, RHD-2 and this does kill the kittens as well. So far we are not sure of the effect that this young disease will have on the country's, and county's, rabbit population. The effects will be viewed differently by various interest groups ranging from farmers to ecologists.
Reducing Derbyshire's bunny population can be argued to be a positive thing. They do eat a lot of crops and can be a serious pest in woodlands. However, they are an integral part of our natural fabric and so many other species are now dependent on them. It is to be hoped that RHD will behave in the same way myxomatosis does, controlling the excessive populations but in the long run not affecting too much the fortunes of other species. Only time will tell. u
Vaccinations are available from vets to protect pet rabbits from myxomatosis, RHD-1 and RHD-2.