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Content Updated: 9th May 2015

SEASONAL UPDATE: May 2015

Red fox in woodland

Welcome to May and the final month of spring. Summer’s just around the corner! As we continue the slow plod towards longer days and stronger sunshine the weather has been rather unsettled, with snow in the north of the UK and several Atlantic low pressure systems bringing strong winds and heavy rain to much of the country earlier this week. More is forecast this weekend, but the models suggest that things will settle down a bit after that, returning to dryer and brighter periods in the south, with showery conditions for northern England and Scotland. If you’re planning to brave the weather, the RSPB have various activities planned this month, including tours of the Forsinard Flows National Nature reserve in northern Scotland, and a free evening nature walk around Arlesford  in Hampshire (More details on these, and others, here). The local Wildlife Trusts have a similarly broad range of events taking place across the country this month, more details of which can be found here. If staying in is your plan this month, the BBC’s Springwatch series returns to our screens for a three week run, starting on BBC2 on 25th May.

Robin feeding chickMammals: Fox cubs are out and about and may start following their parents into nearby parks and gardens as they start to explore in the vicinity of their earth; this makes May a great month to watch them. Badger cubs are also to be found above ground during this month and a dawn or dusk stakeout at your local badger sett is likely to be rewarded with cubs. Brown hares are very active at the moment, with some rapidly growing leverets to be found, although the increasingly tall vegetation makes spotting these mammals more difficult. May is a peak month for rabbit pregnancies and most colonies will have youngsters in residence now (more on that later). Indeed, rabbits – and particularly young rabbits – are a powerful draw for predators, so it’s worth finding a secluded spot by your local rabbit colony and sitting and waiting; odds are it won’t be long before a fox, weasel, stoat, buzzard or, come dusk, badger arrives. Closer to home things are heating up for your local hedgehogs, with the frenetic huffing and snuffling associated with courtship to be heard after dark at the moment.

Your local red and fallow deer will have lost their antlers by now and the process of re-growing them will have begun in earnest. Roe, by contrast, will now be in ‘hard horn’ (i.e. having shed their antler velvet) and will be starting to re-establish territories. Many of the female deer will be heavily pregnant and will start giving birth towards the end of the month or the start of June. With that in mind, if you come across a baby deer lying in the undergrowth, please do not touch it or take it to a rescue centre. It is exceptionally rare for deer mothers to abandon their offspring and perfectly normal for them to leave the youngster lying up in a secluded spot while they feed elsewhere. The mother knows exactly where her calf is and will return periodically to suckle it.

Palmate newtBirds: May is a great month for bird-watching and, more specifically, for bird listening! The return of the cuckoo, the chirruping-whistle of the nightingale, the bubbling churr of the nightjar and the treacly spring song of the blackbird lift the spirit. Tawny owlets can be found branching during this month, while most other owl species will be feeding chicks, making May a good month for owl-spotting. Unfortunately, strong winds and rain aren’t conducive to hunting for prey if you’re an owl. Many of our garden birds are now either sitting on eggs or rushing about finding food to feed their first brood of fledglings. I have seen some excellent shots on my Facebook newsfeed over the past couple of weeks of newly fledged robins and long-tailed tits. Towards the end of this month is a good time to look for recently hatched cygnets and great crested grebe chicks. Most people will have noticed that swifts, martins and swallows are now back in the UK and other species around during May include stonechats, skylarks, hobbys, winchats, lapwings, geese, turnstones, spotted flycatchers, and redstarts.

Reptiles and amphibians: Most of the amphibian breeding activity has ceased now with spawn having developed into tadpoles. May is, however, a good month for reptile spotting as we’re now into the breeding season for most species. As the days get warmer and sunrise earlier it can be tricky to catch more than a fleeting glance of many reptiles, as they need to spend less time basking before moving off to hunt. That said, early mornings can still be a good time to go in search of adders, grass snakes and, if you’re very lucky, the rare and elusive smooth snake. May is also a good month to go in search of sand lizards; the males are at their most vibrant (sporting a bright green and brown marbled pattern) as they focus on breeding. Unfortunately, sand lizards are confined to heathland in the south of England, which rather limits your opportunity to find these amazing little critters.

Invertebrates: There are plenty of spiders around at the moment, and I found a couple of large false widows and a few woodlouse spiders while moving some logs last weekend. We’ve also had our first ‘ball’ of garden spiderlings appear in the garden – these tiny yellow and black spiders start off grouped together in a ping-pong size ball and then spread out to set up mini webs in the nearby vegetation. There are plenty of butterflies and moths to be found as well and, in May, species to look out for include Duke of Burgundy, orange-tip, the fluorescent yellow brimstone moth and our most spectacular day-flying moth, the emperor. Pond-life is moving a-pace at this time of year and a dip in your local pond should reveal such delights as whirligig beetles, pond skaters, great pond snail, diving beetles as well as the ferocious dragonfly nymphs and water scorpions.

Plants and fungi: Bluebells have been around for the last couple of weeks and there are still pink campion, and even a few primroses and violets in roadside banks. In spite of the strong winds this week there still seems to be a considerable amount of blossom on the trees. If you fancy seeking out some plants this month, why not brush up on your orchid identification: early spider orchids, bird’s-nest orchids, the dazzling-pink lady orchid and the aptly-named early purple orchid are to be found in May. While you’re out, you may also want to help survey the state of Britain’s wildflowers – PlantLife are running their National Wildflower Monitoring Scheme. If you’re heading for the coast this month, spring squill, English scurvy grass and common thrift (or ‘sea pink’) are among the plants on display.

In the event that the weather improves this month and you decide to take my advice and sit watching your local rabbit colony, this month’s feature should help you understand some of the behaviour you witness.

Pick of the Month – The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

I suspect most of us have, at some point in our lives, come across a rabbit. You may even have one, or several, sharing your home. Indeed, the People Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) recently estimated that there are 1.7 million pet rabbits in the UK and, worldwide, there are some 40 different breeds. Unfortunately, it seems many of us don’t know the humble rabbit as well as we may think, and a recent PDSA survey estimated that about 8% of Britain’s pet rabbits (amounting to about 150,000 animals) are being kept in hutches that are too small for them, and almost half aren’t getting the recommended amount of hay or grass. The survey also highlighted that about 70% of pet rabbits are kept solitarily, despite this species doing better with company. If you have a pet rabbit and keep it on its own you might be forgiven for thinking that all rabbits do is sit around all day eating grass. Take a look beyond the garden gate, however, and spend a bit of time getting to know your local wild bunnies and you might be surprised how much more there is to them than meets the eye.

Rabbit? Hare? Where?
Brown hareIn Britain we have three members of the Lagomorpha (literally ‘hare-shaped’) order of mammals: the brown hare, Lepus europaeus; the mountain (or Irish) hare, Lepus timidus; and the rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus. All of these animals share a similar basic body pattern and have many behavioural traits in common, which can lead to some problems telling them apart. Indeed, the separation of burrow-living rabbits from the non-burrowing hares was only accepted, taxonomically, in the early 1900s and, prior to this, rabbits were classified as Lepus cuniculus. Rabbits are, however, generally significantly smaller than hares, with proportionally much shorter ears and shorter hind legs. They grow to between 34cm and 50cm (1-1.6 ft.) in length, with another 4-8cm of tail, and weigh in at around 1.2-1.5kg (2.6-5.5 lbs).  Brown hares (right), by contrast, grow to 70cm (26 in.) long and can weigh up to 7kg (15.5 lbs). The size of the ears is particularly helpful when separating the species. Hares have ears that are at least the length of their head, while rabbit ears are shorter than their head length. Fur colour is variable but typically grey-brown on the back and blue-grey on the stomach, with a red/ginger patch on the back of the neck. The ear tips are brown, unlike those of hares which are black, and the tail has a black upper surface and is white below.

Globally, the Lagomorpha order is made up two families: the Leporidae, which contains the rabbits and hares; and the Ochotonidae, which holds the vole-like pikas. Overall, the Leporidae contains about 60 species grouped into 11 genera, including Orcytolagus in which we find our rabbit sitting alone. The European rabbit’s Latin name, Oryctolagus cuniculus, translates roughly as ‘hare-like tunnel digger’ and alludes to a way of life that involves digging sometimes complex burrow systems called warrens. This species evolved in what is now southern Spain at some point during the Middle Pleistocene (781-126 thousand years ago), and spread from there into northern Europe. Rabbits are native to the semi-arid regions of the Iberian Peninsula (i.e. Spain and Portugal) in southwestern Europe, and Morocco and Algeria on the north African continent. Thanks to some help from humans, rabbits are now found widely throughout Europe, from Ireland in the west to Poland and Ukraine in the east and north into southern Sweden. There are also introduced populations in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. Part of the rabbit’s success has been its adaptability, which has allowed it to colonise a wide range of different habitats including heathland, grasslands, meadows, deciduous woodland, sandy soils (e.g. sand dunes), mixed farmland and even cliffs up to about 500m (1,600 ft), although they do appear to avoid conifer forests.

British rabbitCarrots are divine. You get a dozen for a dime
In many populations, wild rabbits are essentially nocturnal and tend to show a clear daily cycle of activity: they emerge from their burrows are dusk, feed throughout the night, and return to their burrows during the early morning. Rabbits are, however, quick to adapt to human activity and, in areas where they are not subject to heavy persecution, it is not uncommon to find them out feeding during the daytime. Even in largely undisturbed populations, however, they are found resting or preening above ground during daylight hours and still do most of their feeding and socialising under the cover of darkness.

Part of the adaptability that has allowed rabbits to colonise a large range of habitats is their catholic diet. Rabbits are entirely vegetarian in their feeding habits, but will take a wide variety of vegetation, including crops such as germinating cereals, young trees, lettuce, cabbages, root vegetables and so forth. Grasses, buds, bulbs and bark are also eaten, particularly during the winter months. Being exclusively vegetarian, rabbits have evolved a fascinating digestive process. Cellulose from plant tissues is a tough structural protein that requires some significant effort to digest if the rabbit is to get the most from its meal. To this end, the rabbit gut houses an ingenious separation mechanism that allows the larger particles in the digestate (a thick soupy mix of partially digested food) passing through the digestive tract to be filtered out and re-ingested to ensure maximum digestive efficiency.

The rabbit digestive system begins with a stomach, leading into a small intestine, where most of the nutrient absorption takes place. The food passes out of the small intestine and into the large intestine, which is split into a bacteria-rich fermenting chamber called the caecum and the colon, which leads to the rectum and anus. Basically what happens is that the food passes out of the small intestine into the caecum, where it is pushed back and forth by muscular contractions in the chamber walls (called peristalsis). Every so often a large, powerful contraction flushes part of the caecum contents out into the colon; but in some cases a special wall-like structure (called a haustra) is deployed that filters out large particles and sends them back into the caecum – ultimately, only particles smaller than 100µm are able to pass out of the caecum when the haustra is in place. Now here’s where it gets interesting. The haustra is building up a collection of large particles of undigested food, which is partially fermented and mixed with a range of microorganisms, that will then be coated in a thick and tough mucus (a vitamin B12-mucoprotein complex, if you’re interested!) that can be literally peeled off with tweezers. These ‘capsule type’ soft faeces are then passed into the colon and out through the anus to be eaten by the rabbit. These soft faeces, more correctly termed caecotrophs, are rich in vitamins, minerals and microbial proteins and are so essential to the rabbit’s health that they do not even touch the ground – the rabbit eats them directly from its anus. Lab studies have shown that rabbits rapidly lose condition if they cannot access their caecotrophs and can die if this continues for more than a couple of weeks. The pellets are swallowed whole (no chewing) so the membrane remains intact and thus the pellet remains whole in the stomach for several hours while the microorganisms breakdown the plant material inside, releasing the nutriment. The mucus coating appears very effective at protecting the microorganisms from the highly acidic conditions (pH 1.9) of the rabbit’s stomach.

This whole process of reingesting the faeces, a process called refection, is, in principle, no different from the ‘cud chewing’ seen in many herbivores; it’s a mechanism that allows the rabbit a second chance at digesting its food, ensuring it can extract as much nutriment as possible. Once the food particles fall below the ‘magic’ 100µm threshold, they are passed out as the small, hard, dry pellets that many of us recognise as rabbit droppings. So, rabbits produce two types of dropping: a soft one that we never see because it’s eaten immediately, and a small, dark brown/black round hard pellet that consists of largely indigestible parts. These hard pellets are used to mark out the rabbit’s territory, as we shall see in a moment.

Gee, ain’t I a stinker?
Rabbit scent markDespite how it may appear at first glance, rabbits are highly territorial and use scent to mark out the boundaries of their core areas. Each population (colony) of rabbits is subdivided into several distinct groups; these normally consist of four or five unrelated males (bucks) guarding up to about eight, generally related, females (does), although the social system varies from pairs to up to 20 individuals, depending on the population density. The group will maintain a core area, typically around a breeding warren, that will be defended from neighbouring groups and the boundaries of which are marked with scent. Scent is deposited from special glands on the chin – submandibular glands – and tends to be rubbed on branches and other conspicuous objects within the territory. Urine is also deposited around the territory and the hard pellets mentioned earlier may be coated in a scented mucus from the anal glands before they’re deposited in shallow scrapes, called latrines, or on anthills (or other similar locations) along the territory border – such pellets are generally darker in colour than normal. Females will also mark the entrance to breeding stops with urine and males have been observed spraying urine at females. The largest, most dominant, buck in the group has the most well developed scent glands and is responsible for most of the scent marking done by the group. In rabbit society scent is used to allude to group identity, sex, age, social status and reproductive condition. (Image: Rabbit 'scent station', with urine mark and some hard pellets.)

If scent doesn’t work to keep intruders out of the home range, rabbits will fight. Before any direct physical contact is initiated, however, the aggressors will use a variety of body language to convey their intentions. A rabbit with ears upright and facing forward, for example, is relaxed, but when the ears turn outwards it indicats that the rabbit is annoyed or tense, while ears facing backwards is a sign that the rabbit is about to attack. A flicking of the back feet is also used to signal annoyance, while high-pitched squeals and the thumping of a back foot are used to indicate alarm. Fights involve combatants jumping and twisting while each attempts to bite or scratch the other. Dominant males from adjacent social groups within the same colony will maintain their territory using a series of displays, including parallel running along, and scraping the ground at, the boundary. In a fascinating article to BBC Wildlife back in 2007, University of East Anglia rabbit biologist Diana Bell described how new social groups form. Dr Bell described how a social ‘budding’ occurs. When the number of females in the current group exceeds about eight, some of them start restricting their activities to the edge of the territory and it becomes progressively more difficult for the dominant buck to defend both groups. At this point, an immigrant buck will often challenge for dominance of the tearaway does and a new social group is born within the colony. Dr Bell also noted that if the dominant buck is lost from the group, the testes of a fortunate subordinate will dramatically increase in size within a few days and he will take over.

Rabbit colonies tend to create underground tunnel systems, their warrens, in well-drained sandy soil, which may be large and quite elaborate. At the extreme of their range where population densities are low, in northeast Scotland for example, they may dig a single simple burrow, or behave more akin to hares and create a shallow depression (a ‘form’) under the cover of some bracken/bramble in which to shelter. There is no such thing as an average territory; it varies widely according to rabbit density and habitat type and can be up to 750 square metres (900 sq yds).

Breeding like…
Rabbits have an incredible reputation for being able to rapidly increase their population and there are several reasons for this. Firstly, rabbits are sexually mature early in life, able to breed at about 14 and 16 weeks old for females and males, respectively. Secondly, they are what we refer to as induced ovulators with a postpartum oestrous; in other words, they don’t have specific breeding seasons like many mammals (the act of mating stimulates the does to ovulate) and can conceive straight after having given birth. In essence, this means that they can breed at any time of the year and, with a gestation period of 28 to 33 days and an average litter size of five young (called pups or kittens), a female could potentially produce 50 offspring in any given year. Of those 50, ones born early in the year may themselves breed in the same year. In reality, however, Diana Bell and her colleagues never observed a female on their ‘rabbit ranch’ at the University of East Anglia’s campus producing more than 10 kittens in a single year. Indeed, despite not being tied to a specific breeding season, most rabbit kittens are born between February and August, and April-June is the peak time for pregnancies. Furthermore, when conditions are adverse (e.g. in times of drought) females will resorb foetuses, and some studies have observed a large scale reproductive suppression when the population rises too high. Of course ‘too high’ is habitat-dependent and can mean anywhere between 25 and 100 rabbits per hectare – under such conditions subordinate females may fail to produce litters. How this social suppression operates isn’t known and, curiously, if rabbit numbers continue to rise beyond this threshold, there comes a point when the reproductive suppression is lifted and the colony continues to breed as normal!

Juvenile rabbitsPregnant does will compete for the prime breeding chamber(s) within the warren and these generally go to the does with the highest social rank. Low ranking does are often relegated to digging their own single-chambered breeding den, known as a ‘stop’, the entrance to which is meticulously covered with vegetation each time the female leaves. The nest chamber is lined with grass, moss and fur pulled from their belly, and into this the pups are born; naked, blind and weighing 30-35g (about one ounce). Over all, the birth lasts about 10 minutes and the female licks each kitten clean as it emerges. Once the litter is complete, the doe will nurse them for less than a minute and then leave. The mother visits the kittens briefly once each day, generally staying for only a few minutes to suckle them; an anti-predator strategy. Immediately after birth the kits are very vocal and actively try to suckle and, when the female leaves, they immediately settle down and burrow into the nest lining. The kits start moving around the nest after about seven days and their eyes open at about ten days, shortly after which they will make brief forays out of the nest chamber. Interestingly, studies of rabbits in captivity suggest that the female doesn’t take much interest in her kits – she doesn’t brood them, she seldom cleans them and doesn’t retrieve any that stray from the nest. In addition, when the doe returns to the nest she simply positions herself over the litter and doesn’t appear to give them any help to suckle. By contrast, in the only example of paternal (male-based) care in leporids, male rabbits will defend young from aggressive females, who may attack and even kill strange kittens. In her BBC Wildlife article, Diana Bell noted that there’s no love lost between the rabbit kittens; even tiny babies will bicker and bite each other in the nest. Kittens born to high status females are likely to develop a high social status themselves.

Rabbit milk is rich and this allows the kits to grow rapidly in spite of the short suckling bouts. It also appears that the milk may play a more important role than simply supplying nutrients to the growing youngsters. In a fascinating paper to the journal Physiology & Behavior in 1994, Agnes Bilko and Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary and her colleagues found that rabbit pups raised in captivity by mothers fed a specific diet showed a clear preference for that diet when they were weaned. The biologists found that when they fed nursing does juniper berries the pups they suckled were much more likely to eat juniper berries when they took to solids than those suckled by does fed only a standard food pellet. Bilko and her co-workers suggested that aromatic cues to the mother’s diet are passed to the kits from the milk and any faecal pellets deposited in the nest.

Prince of a Thousand Enemies
Nobody is entirely sure how many rabbits there are in the UK. Back in 1995, there were an estimated 30 million, the number having risen to 40 million by 2004. More recent guestimates suggest there may be 45-50 million in the country today. Whatever the true count, the National Farmers’ Union estimates that rabbit activity (digging, eating crops, etc.) causes £100 million of damage per year. The perceived threat to the agricultural industry is so great that much work has gone into finding ways to control numbers or even eradicate rabbits altogether. As we have seen, though, rabbits have an impressive potential to replace their numbers, which makes most control methods very labour intensive and hence expensive. Rabbits are prey for about 45 different species of predators – including foxes, badgers, weasels, domestic dogs and cats and various birds of prey – and there has long been debate over what part predators can play in reducing rabbit numbers. A variety of different studies on enclosed populations has provided mixed results. The general consensus, however, is that predators can do little to reduce a healthy rabbit population, although they may be able to maintain a lower population or reduce the growth rate of a recovering one. Studies in Australia, for example, have found that foxes can slow the increase in rabbit numbers, and in one instance, where rabbit populations were recovering from a severe drought, the numbers increased four-times faster at sites where foxes were removed than at sites with foxes. In some cases, the presence of predators may also be able to expedite a population decline that is occurring for other reasons, but there is no convincing evidence that predators alone can reduce rabbit numbers. This makes sense, logically, because most predators are seasonal breeders and, as such, do not have the capacity to rapidly increase their numbers in response to more rabbits.

It appears that rabbit populations are largely driven by climate (which affects habitat quality and thus food availability), accidents (burrow collapse and drowning take a significant toll), agricultural development and disease. Other factors, such as predation, competition with other herbivores (e.g. hares) and hunting take a back seat until the population is stressed by one of the aforementioned factors. In most populations climate seems to have the largest impact, but under certain circumstances disease can take a devastating toll. This is all the more apparent where diseases have been deliberately released by humans in a bid to reduce rabbit numbers.

In the late 1800s the prime minister of New South Wales and his ‘rabbit minister’ put up a bounty of £25,000 (equivalent to some £2 million today) to anyone who could come up with a biological solution to the rabbit plague that was out-competing sheep for grazing in Australia and New Zealand. Many people tried and failed to come up with a solution, including Louis Pasteur’s nephew, Adrien Loir, who was apparently thwarted in his attempt to bring a chicken cholera bacteria into Australia by border control. It was several years later when, in 1936, a biologist working in Cambridge put forward a plan to test a ‘new disease’ that had killed significant numbers of rabbits in South America on the 10,000 rabbits on the island of Skokholm off the Welsh coast. The pathogen was released into Skokholm’s rabbit population, but had hardly any impact on the numbers. Despite the setback, the same disease was released in Australia in 1950, with much more significant results. This was the myxomatosis virus and it had a catastrophic impact on the population. We now know that on Skokholm a key ingredient was missing from the jigsaw – there were no rabbit fleas to spread the virus. Granted, Australia lacked the fleas too, but here it was readily spread by mosquitoes and, where mosquitoes were scarce or absent, rabbits were manually infected by methods I will not recount here to prevent distressing my readers. Within three years the myxomatosis pestilence had killed 99.8% of Australia’s rabbits.

Red fox carrying rabbitHearing of the ‘promising’ results of the myxomatosis virus in Australia, a French scientist procured a vial of the disease from a bacteriological lab and inoculated two rabbits he caught on his land – within six weeks 98% of the rabbits on his estate were dead and within a year so were most of the rabbits in France! It is thought that birds carried the virus across the English Channel and it arrived in Britain during the autumn of 1952. The UK government tried to contain the outbreak after its initial detection in rabbit populations in Kent (eastern England), but in many cases it was deliberately spread by farmers who wanted to reduce the number of rabbits on their property. It has been estimated that some 99% of Britain’s rabbits were killed by this virus during the 50s. The myxomatosis virus is spread by invertebrates (mainly fleas and mosquitoes in Europe) and manifests as a swelling of the eyelids and nose, slight at first but worsening over time; lesions subsequently appear below the ears. The unfortunate rabbit is left blind and deaf and its ultimate survival depends on the weather, predation level, age and any genetic resistance it may have (more on this in a moment).

Some 40 years after the first ‘myxi’ outbreak, Asian scientists found an even more deadly virus doing the rounds at rabbit farms in China after it was apparently imported from Germany in commercially bred angora rabbits. The virus attacks the liver, causing necrotizing hepatitis, resulting in severe internal bleeding; death occurs shortly afterwards as internal organs shut down. The disease was, rather aptly if somewhat macabrely, named Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease, or RHD for short. Symptoms include a fever, blue colouration of the skin, anorexia and frenetic behaviour. This is a highly contagious disease that can take a heavy toll on rabbit populations. The first case was in China during 1984 and it spread to Europe two years later, detected in Italy during 1986 from where it appears to have spread to Russia and much of Europe by 1991. RHD arrived in the UK in 1992 and there was an outbreak in the Channel Islands in 1993 before it finally arrived in Ireland during 1995. Australian scientists imported the virus from Europe in 1991 and began field trials on an island population of rabbits in 1995. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the virus jumped to the mainland during the following year, at which point the Australian government decided that trying to stop the virus was impossible and they declared it a legal biological control agent and re-named it to the less intimidating Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD). RHD is also spread by mosquitoes and fleas and, again, received human help as farmers collected the organs of dead rabbits, ground them up and spread them on their fields. As with myxi, the virus was catastrophic for the population, with a mortality rate of 90-95%.

You might be thinking that, in spite of the significant declines in rabbit populations caused by myxi and RHD, rabbits are still a prominent component of the countryside both here and in Australia and New Zealand, and you’d be right. One of the benefits of having a short generation time (i.e. being able to build your numbers up quickly) is that even if only a few rabbits survive exposure to a virus and subsequently develop immunity, the population can recover in a relatively short period of time. This is exactly what has happened. Studies in Norway, for example, have found that some rabbits do indeed develop immunity to myxomatosis virus and, in Australia, the mortality rate dropped from 99% to about 40% before RHD was released. Even after RHD had so dramatically reduced the population in New Zealand, by 2011 about 40% of rabbits were surviving exposure to the virus. Over the years scientists have experimented with increasingly virulent strains of these viruses, but rabbits have been quick to adapt. Indeed, even after the release of viruses, the use of poisons, gassing, warren destruction, shooting, trapping, and so on, rabbits are still a common Antipodean species. In the Iberian Peninsula, by contrast, a combination of myxi, RHD, over-hunting and habitat fragmentation is proving too much for the rabbit and populations have crashed, fuelling fears that they may even become extinct in the region.

In the event that a rabbit manages to out manoeuvre its predators, avoid exposure to viruses and is fortunate with the habitat in which it finds itself, it may expect to live for three or four years, although about three-quarters will die in the first three months after birth and, of the remainder, half will die before their first birthday. Overall, only about 13% live past the age of one. That said, many pet rabbits will live nine or ten years and the oldest wild rabbit on record, tagged in Poland, made to the grand old age of twelve. In her 2003 book, Rabbits and Hares, Annie McBride makes the startling revelation that, on average, any given rabbit population is made up of completely new individuals every two years!

Domestic rabbitFurry fiend or fluffy friend?
Rabbits have had a tumultuous relationship with humans over the centuries: widely hunted for meat and fur, kept as cherished pets, worshipped as deities, and persecuted as pests. Rabbits are not, however, always a pest and there are examples where they have played an integral role in the conservation of other species in the UK, including the polecat and several rare birds of prey. The modification of habitats by rabbit grazing produces microclimates that humans once created with agricultural techniques that have been lost in many areas. Indeed, their grazing and burrowing is now recognised as an important part of increasing biodiversity in a variety of habitats, including chalk grassland and heathland.

Once a meat of kings, rabbit has enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity in Britain in recent years. Marketed as naturally low in fat and cheaper than beef or chicken, many supermarkets now stock rabbit meat and it appears on the menu of an increasing number of pubs and restaurants. Scotland’s Rural College estimates that Britain produces 2-3,000 tonnes of rabbit meat each year, with a further 5,000 tonnes imported from countries including China, Hungary and Poland. Our increasing consumption or rabbit meat has led to an increase in the public awareness of where such meat is sourced. Much of the imported meat comes from animals kept in battery farms and, despite battery cages for chickens having been banned across the EU since 2012, it is apparently still legal to raise rabbit in similar conditions. It is estimated that around 300,000 are kept for use in scientific research worldwide.

In addition to being kept for their meat or use in studies, the rabbit is a common pet, with nearly two million pet rabbits in the UK alone. Recent research comparing the genome of domestic rabbit breeds to that of wild rabbits by scientists at Uppsala University in Sweden has revealed that rabbits were first domesticated in the monasteries of southern France about 1,400 years ago. Nobody is entirely certain why the monks started keeping wild rabbits in artificial warrens, but there is some suggestion that it happened around the time that the Catholic Church decreed that young rabbits weren’t considered meat, but fish, and could therefore be eaten on Fridays and during Lent. Whatever the reason, the artificial selection practised by the monks was the starting point for the variety of rabbit breeds we have today. In her fascinating book, Rabbit, Victoria Dickenson tells how, over time, these monastic rabbits grew larger than their wild ancestors, developed different coat colours and changed their behaviour to become more comfortable around people. According to Dickenson, by the 15th century, white rabbits were being exchanged as gifts among the nobility of Europe, and black-coated rabbits were being specifically bred in Britain for the fur trade.

When the rabbit first became established in the British countryside has long been an issue for debate. Archaeologists have found rabbit remains dating back to the Cromerian Interglacial (750,000 to 350,000 years BP), but it appears that rabbits didn’t make their own way back to Britain after the last ice age. We know that various invading forces brought rabbits with them, but it’s tough to get a handle on which was the root of the present-day wild population. For many years scholars have argued that rabbits were first introduced by the Romans, the Normans, and the Angevins – there are even some who suggest, quite curiously given the palpable lack of fossil evidence, that rabbits are actually native. A big part of the challenge here is that historical records are often rather ambiguous in their descriptions, and there is a tendency for early accounts to lump rabbits and hares together simply as ‘lagomorphs’. In 2005, archaeologists excavating a Roman settlement at Lynford in Norfolk found the remains of a 2,000 year old rabbit dinner, which may represent the earliest evidence of rabbits in post-glacial Britain. Prior to this discovery, the Normans were credited with introducing rabbits during the 12th Century, with the first definite record of a rabbit warren coming from the Isles of Scilly during 1176. There is a record of a warren from Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel dating back to 1183, one from Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight in 1225, the first from Wales in 1282 with a warren in Flintshire, and there were established royal warrens in Scotland by the mid-1200s.

If the Romans were the first to establish warrens in Britain, there is no convincing evidence that rabbits escaped into the Romano-British countryside and the Doomsday Book of 1086 makes no mention of them. Indeed, it seems that rabbits probably didn’t start escaping from warrens in any appreciable numbers until the mid-13th century and some authors suggest that the Black Death’s influence in reducing the countryside labour force in 1349 probably aided the rabbits’ escape. Rabbits were certainly well established in the wild by the mid-1500s and, in 1551, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner wrote: “there are few countries wherein [rabbits] do not breed, but the most plenty of all is in England”. Over all, I think Naomi Sykes and Julie Curl sum the situation up nicely in their 2010 study of the rabbit’s history in Britain:

When the historical, iconographic, zooarchaeological and landscape evidence are considered together, the obvious conclusion to draw is that modern populations descend not from animals introduced by either the Romans or the Normans but from individuals brought to Britain as part of a fully-fledged and pan European ‘coney culture’ that included warrens and ferrets, all of which appear in Britain at approximately the same time: the late twelfth century.

So, evidence of successful Roman and Norman rabbit introductions in Britain is dubious to say the least, although there is compelling evidence to suggest the Romans may have tried.

New Forest rabbits

Whatever you’re up to this month, take care and I hope to see you back here in June. As always, I love hearing from readers; any queries or comments regarding the information on the site can be sent in using the addresses on the Contact page (Note: Some website questions are answered on the FAQ, while many animal-related questions are covered in the Q/A). Photos can be e-mailed to a dedicated e-mail address - please keep them coming and don't forget to check out my Photos Needed page. I'm also interested in hearing any reports of unusual behaviour in any of the animals featured on this site, or interactions between humans and wildlife. Thanks as always for your continued patience and support and a special thanks to Rachael Webb, Janis Gascoigne and Tony McLean for donating their stunning photos to this month's update.

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WildlifeonlineOkay, for those of you that are new to the site, let's take it from the top!

What is Wildlife Online?
Essentially, WLOL is an educational website about British wildlife. The site contains profiles of various British animal species, with new articles in preparation all the time. The site also has articles looking at wildlife-related subjects, including hunting and animal emotions. This site is purely a hobby of mine; it does not generate any money or contain any advertising and, for the time being at least, I am happy for it to stay that way.

What does Wildlife Online aim to achieve?
The ultimate goal of the website is to be useful. My intention has always been to provide un-biased, accurate information that’s accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Increasingly people are coming into contact with their local wildlife and whether such interactions are positive or negative, they generally inspire a desire to learn more about the species. Moreover, there are still a great many misconceptions surrounding our wildlife (fox behaviour springs immediately to mind) and these are brought up time and time again during discussions in the media. Each article aims to provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of the species in question by drawing on information from the media, books, TV programmes and the scientific literature. I feel that this combination of sources, along with my own observations and those of my friends/colleagues/readers provides a unique online resource of British wildlife information. My hope is that the information provided here will go some way to changing people's perceptions of the creatures with which they share their parks and gardens.

Why create a website when there are books and TV programmes about your subjects?
Books can be a fantastic resource and I can't imagine being without my library. Not all libraries are, however, equally well stocked, and not everyone has the funds to splash out on what are often very expensive wildlife books (especially those written by scientists). More importantly, much of the scientific research never makes it out of the journals into books and TV shows. Similarly, many of the early books -- which contain some of the pioneering work on the species -- are now long out of print and can be difficult or expensive to track down. Books have the 'luxury' of being able to devote their entire contents to a particular species, covering all aspects of its life history. Television, by contrast, is a much more limited and variable medium: the programme editor(s) has to create a show that is likely to hold the viewers' attention and appeal to a very wide audience. The result is that, although some reach this compromise very well, many documentaries focus heavily on the 'wow factor' (multitudinous slow motion shots of Great whites leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals, for example) and this often comes at the inevitable expense of the information about the animal. Finally, both books and TV programmes go out of date quite quickly; new research is being conducted all the time. Consequently, a website is an ideal and dynamic intermediate - it offers the opportunity to provide a decent amount of information about the subject that can be updated at the metaphorical drop-of-a-hat as any new research is published.

Why include so much information?
I honestly believe that if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well. There are hundreds of websites with brief species profiles and if that's all WLOL offered there would be little point to it. I understand and appreciate that some people find being confronted with large volumes of text very daunting while others are of the 'too long; didn't read' mind-set and will thus be turned off by the amount of text facing them. I have tried to remedy this as far as possible via two avenues: there is a Speed Read section with a brief profile of each species featured in a main article; and each article has been 'virtually split', with the aid of hyperlinks, into sections that allow people to easily jump to the information they're looking for. Ultimately, I want to provide as much information as is feasible in order to provide the reader with the clearest appraisal of each species or topic; I hope that most readers approve of this approach.

Why haven't you included a complete bibliography?
My intention with WLOL is to provide the information in an accessible format, which means that anyone should be able to read an article and understand the information in it. Consequently, I didn't want to format it as a scientific paper because the current format allows for a much more informal approach and writing style which, I hope, will appeal to a wider audience. Most people should find enough information in the article (I typically provide the name or one or more of the authors and the journal and year) to track down the original scientific paper. When I take information from books, I always give the name of the author(s) and the full title of the book for easy reference. I am also happy to provide full details of any of the references upon request.

Are you really qualified to do this?
I'm certainly not an expert on any of the subjects presented on this site. The articles stem from my varied interests in natural history and biological sciences. In terms of qualifications, I trained as a scientist (studying natural sciences at degree and postgraduate level) and all I really do is interpret information, blend it with associated research and personal observation, and present it in what I hope is an accessible format. Unless specifically stated, I do not claim any of the information on this site to be my own research. I have built relationships with some of the many diligent researchers who have produced the data that I use, and I am happy either to recommend an expert or provide my own opinions on a subject.

As a final note, I want to make a quick reference to the quality of the material on the site. The great French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, once said: "If you would be a real seeker of truth, you first must be willing to doubt as far as possible all things." This is very sage advice, especially when it comes to believing what you read on the Internet. Most Internet sites (indeed, some books and TV shows too), including this one, have no form of peer-review (i.e. nobody with experience of the topic checks the site for accuracy); consequently pretty much anyone can have their own little corner of cyberspace and information can make it onto websites that is either misguided, or downright false! When creating material for this site I take every care to ensure that the information I present is accurate. Invariably errors will creep in; typos are almost inevitable (although each article goes through several levels of proof reading before it appears online) and research is always underway on the species featured here, so the data can go out of date almost overnight. Each page has regular (ish!) reviews, however, during which I update the information, adding details of new findings and taking out that which is now thought highly unlikely. You can see most of the books I have used in the preparation of this site on the Recommended Reading page and I have provided links to some of the most interesting sites I came across during my research – these can be found under the appropriate sub-heading on the Links page.

Anyway, I digress.... I hope you enjoy looking around the site and I hope equally that you get something worthwhile out of it. Any comments, suggestions or (constructive) criticisms are welcome via e-mail - appropriate addresses can be found on the Contact page.

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DISCLAIMER: All the photographs and artwork on this site are either my own work or have been donated by readers. All images remain property of their authors and, if you wish to reproduce any of the pictures, consent must be granted by the appropriate person - requests can be directed via myself or see FAQ. For more details on the content of this site, please see the full WLOL Disclaimer.

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