Reddish Vale Country Park
Rabbits originally came from north-western Africa, Spain and Portugal but are now widespread across much of Europe. It is thought that they were first introduced into Britain by the Normans and were kept in large, enclosed warrens for their fur and meat, but the remains of a 2,000 year old rabbit has cast doubt on this. The remains were discovered at an early Roman settlement at Lynford in Norfolk and it is thought the Romans could have introduced rabbits into Britain as early as AD43.
Rabbits have gnawing teeth and so used to be classified as rodents, but both rabbits and hares have been re-classified into a group of their own, Lagomorpha.
Rabbits are sociable animals and live in colonies in burrow systems known as warrens. A warren is dug to a depth of three metres and will cover a large area with many entrances. The inside is a maze of interconnecting tunnels with living quarters and nesting chambers. Usually there is a dominant doe within the colony and she will fight other does for the best nest site. Dominant bucks run up and down the boundary leaving droppings and rubbing the ground with their chin to mark the territory with scent from their glands.
Rabbits are mainly nocturnal, emerging from their burrows at dawn and dusk, although on warm, sunny days, or in undisturbed places, they may be out during broad daylight. Feeding takes place close to the warren, so the vegetation is kept short by grazing.
The rabbit, having many enemies, is always on the alert for danger. If a rabbit spots danger, it will warn the others by thumping with it's hind foot. A flash of white from under the rabbits tail as it runs for a burrow also acts as an alarm signal. The rabbits prominent eyes are set so that it can see over a wide area.
Most of the rabbits day is spent underground, resting and passing soft, almost black droppings, these they eat so that more nourishment can be extracted from them. The rabbits then produce hard, pellet like droppings above ground, usually in a special latrine area.
To breed like rabbits is a common expression and rabbits live up to this saying! In one year, a doe can produce more than 20 offspring and many of these will breed themselves when only 4 months old. Spring and summer are the main breeding times, but breeding can start as early as January if the weather is mild enough. The babies (kits) are born in special nests made by the doe which is a dead end burrow, often separated from the main warren. The doe makes a nest from grass or straw and lines it with fur plucked from her chest. After a gestation period 28 - 31 days, a litter of 2 - 8 babies is born. At birth they are blind, deaf, hairless and hardly able to move for their first week. Their mother visits them for only a few minutes every 24 hours to suckle them and then she seals off the nesting chamber with soil.
By the eighth day, the young are covered with fur and two days later their eyes open. By the sixteenth day, they have ventured out of the burrow and started to eat solid food. They are weaned and independent at 30 days. Their mother will already have mated and be expecting another litter. This prolific breeding is normally balanced by many deaths caused by predators, road traffic, shooting and trapping. Apart from man, rabbit's predators include foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, buzzards and cats.
Man is the rabbit's main enemy since it is regarded as a major pest for the last 200 years. Rabbits cause a lot of damage to crops, gardens and the countryside. Early in the 20th century when the rabbit population was much larger, they caused such extensive damage to crops and trees that they were included in the pests act of 1954.
In 1954, a flea-carried viris called 'Myxomatosis' was introduced to the wild rabbit population and this killed more than 95% of Britain's rabbits. Myxomatosis is a distressing disease, affecting the eyes and brain. The drastic reduction in rabbits also caused a decline in the number of foxes, buzzards and other predators as well as affecting the growth of vegetation; unwanted plants such as gorse, bramble and course grasses were encouraged to grow.
However, rabbits are once again more common, having developed a resistance to the virus, although populations in some areas are occasionally affected by new strains of the virus. The photo on the right was taken in late summer 2006 of a rabbit with the virus during an outbreak at Reddish Vale. The rabbit was blind and disorientated.
Even though rabbits are once again causing damage to crops and forest plantations, they are providing their predators with much needed food.
Also, without rabbits, much of our downland and cliff tops would be overgrown with gorse, bramble and hawthorn scrub. Rabbits suppress the growth of shrubs by nibbling the growing shoots; the resulting turf encourages the growth of low-growing plants such as vetches and refoils. In turn, these small flowering plants attract many butterflies and the short grass is suitable for ther insects such as ants. The insects in turn attract many species of bird. Cliff tops are not suitable for crops, so rabbits are tolerated here and actually do more good than harm.
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