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The changing role of rabbits in Britain’s ecosystem

Rabbits are a fixture of our landscape, says Lindsay Waddell, but their function in this country’s ecosystem has changed over the years

The humble rabbit has been a part of the gamekeeper’s lot since the beginning. There are records of bones of rabbits left behind by the Romans, but it was not until the Norman Conquest that the rabbit got its foothold in Britain — and it made the most of it. 

The fact that it can breed at a few months of age, and carry on doing that throughout the year with only a 30-day or so gestation period, gives the rabbit the edge on the other things in the countryside that would eat it — and there are plenty of them. Indeed, once it became established it also became the major food source for most of our predators and helped drive their populations by virtue of being a good and regular feed.

Although the fur was valued, the rabbit was initially very much a supply of fresh meat and kept in enclosed areas known as warrens. These were a valued asset, guarded and managed by a team of warreners, and woe betide anyone who tried to steal or poach rabbits from a warren. Once they escaped into the open countryside, the rabbit became a target for just about anyone in need of a meal. Such was their value to the meat and fur market that there were plenty willing to risk the wrath of landowners in an attempt to obtain one with a snare, dog or ferret. Hundreds of thousands were culled every year for food and skins. 


This 18th-century oil painting by Edward Bird depicts a poacher showing off a caught rabbit to his family



For the hungry farm labourer or miner, that mattered little, as they were simply interested in acquiring a meal for their family or to earn a few pennies by selling any spare ones they happened to catch. Night-time poaching was rife with running dogs as well as with long nets. I was once given an insight into night ferreting — the holes were blocked during the day and as soon as darkness allowed, the sets were ferreted with purse-nets to take the occupants.

Rabbits were not really classed as a sporting quarry until the advent of the modern shotgun, when shooting them either bolted by ferrets or being driven across rides became a feature on some estates. One elderly keeper I knew told me they had to cut rides in the extensive beds of growing bracken, over which the rabbits were driven to Guns who had been invited just for the day’s sport by their employer. Bags of hundreds were shot in this way in a single day. 

Individual views of the rabbit very much depended upon what your occupation was in the countryside, with farmers, foresters and gardeners really quite disliking them due to the damage they caused. In a fairly short period of time the once-prized food supply went from being a valued food and fur commodity to becoming a national pest. 


Despite the UK rabbit population being far smaller now than prior to myxomatosis, localised populations can still cause problems for landowners


Rabbits were not seen as a sporting quarry until the advent of the modern shotgun

By 1950 the cost to agriculture was estimated at £50 million per year, and it was incumbent on any landowner to ensure rabbits from his land did not destroy the crops of another, otherwise he was liable. 

The huge agricultural losses, coming so close to the end of World War II when food was at a premium, resulted in myxomatosis being brought to Britain in the early 1950s. Such were the losses, I can recall the smell of dead rabbits, as myxi, as it became to be known, marched into Scotland, killing around 98% of the whole rabbit population. 

In a very short time thousands of people lost their jobs, as there were simply no rabbits to control, sell or eat. Indeed, the first estate I worked on in Perthshire, Dunsinane, inoculated some of their wild rabbit population, as they thought there would be none left and that they would become a valuable asset. This didn’t happen though, as the rabbits left behind elsewhere had some immunity to the disease and their recovery began. 

What did not recover was the public appetite for rabbit, with many being put off eating them by seeing the unfortunate sight of animals with the disease. Until recently, rabbits were making the same sort of money I had known from 30 years ago, about £1 each. 

Rabbit meat has plummeted in public opinion and is now a rare sight on the kitchen table

Our war on rabbits is sadly not at an end as yet another disease has arrived on these shores, and this one seems to be doing more long-term damage than the myxi did. Rabbit haemorrhagic disease seems to be one from which the rabbit is struggling to escape as, following large-scale kills in local populations here, there does not seem to be any real recovery on the ground. It has already decimated rabbits over large areas of Britain. 

There will always be isolated island populations of rabbits that survive, but many of the species that have relied on the rabbit for food for thousands of years are having to find alternative sustenance. This, in turn, drives down some of those species at local levels.


Tenacious animals

Field trials have also suffered due to the lack of rabbits, as they were for many years the mainstay of spaniel events. Organisers are now having to purchase game in order to fill the bag. 

One thing that is certain is that the rabbit is tenacious; it has had to be throughout the course of its history, with just about everything wanting to kill it. They will bounce back.