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Gundog rabbit trials

With the UK’s wild population ravaged by disease, David Tomlinson wonders whether he will ever see the return of gundog rabbit trials

Young rabbit

Young rabbit

Once the staple quarry of the rough shooter, the humble rabbit has become something of a rarity in the countryside, with the result that generations of modern gundogs have little or no experience of them. Their scarcity may be most pronounced in southern Britain, but the rabbit population of the UK is a fraction of what it once was. (Read rabbiting – a walked-up run.)

In the early 1950s, Britain’s wild rabbit population was estimated to be between 60 million and 100 million — a staggering number of animals. Shooting men took them for granted, farmers cursed them and a whole host of predators, from buzzards to foxes, feasted on them.


Then, in June 1952, a retired French physician, Dr Paul-Félix Armand-Delille, obtained some myxoma virus and inoculated a pair of rabbits. He released them close to his home in the Eure-et-Loir area, to the west of Paris. The disease spread through the rabbit population like wildfire, though it wasn’t until October of the following year that it was recorded in England.

No one knows how it reached us, but it seems certain that it was brought here deliberately. To begin with, its impact was limited, but diseased rabbits were deliberately released in new areas around the country, so it was widespread by the end of 1954.

Within a few years, it was estimated that 99% of our wild rabbits had died. Intriguingly, though, the rabbit’s range wasn’t reduced, for sufficient animals survived to maintain its widespread distribution throughout almost the entire British Isles. Rabbits are only absent from a few offshore islands.

Myxomatosis never went away and rabbit populations would build up, only to collapse in the autumn when the disease returned. However, it started to lose its virulence as animals gained genetic resistance and there were signs of populations recovering.

Then, in 1992, rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) appeared in UK domestic rabbits. It soon reached the wild population and has been with us ever since. In recent years, a new variant of RHD — known as RHD2 — has been prevalent and this has suppressed rabbit numbers.

Thus, I was delighted with a recent rabbit encounter. I was walking, dogless, in the late afternoon alongside a damp valley fen. On the other side of the footpath, on slightly higher ground, were a series of small, uncultivated fields that clearly provided rabbit paradise, for they appeared to be one extensive warren.

A sweep of the binoculars revealed 50, 60, possibly 70 rabbits — big ones, medium ones, baby ones. There were rabbits everywhere, all doing what rabbits do, which is eating, chasing and sitting enjoying the evening sunshine. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many in one place. (Read how deep is a rabbit burrow?)

This sighting was a one-off and I haven’t seen significant numbers anywhere else, but it was a reminder that the rabbit isn’t lost from our countryside and that numbers may yet recover. Whether this is a good thing depends on your point of view. Farmers certainly won’t welcome them, but it’s great news for the rough shooter. There’s arguably no finer sport than hunting rabbits with a good spaniel.

Many modern gundogs may have little or no experience of rabbits

Whether there will ever be sufficient numbers again for rabbit trials to become a feature of the spaniel-trialling calendar remains to be seen. Rabbit trials had a great deal in their favour, not least that they were much cheaper to run than those that depend on costly pheasants or partridges. My experience of rabbit trials is limited, although 20 years ago I went to watch a novice spaniel trial that was to be held exclusively on rabbits.

Rabbit trial

I had always wanted to see a rabbit trial, as it promised the chance to see spaniels working at their best. The trial was held in October on an estate in Hampshire. After an hour of spaniels hunting hard and furiously, not a single rabbit had been seen, let alone shot.

The trial was paused while an urgent discussion was had with the gamekeeper and host. They agreed that pheasants could be shot instead of rabbits, so the trial continued. To this day, I wonder why it went ahead, as the keeper must have known there were so few rabbits on his ground.


Introducing puppies to rabbits in pens always used to be an essential part of gundog training, but penned rabbits are no more resistant to RHD than wild animals, so far fewer trainers have pens than was once the case. There is, however, a vaccination available against the disease. It’s obviously much easier to vaccinate domestic rabbits than wild ones.

Many trainers swear by wild rabbits, but semi-tame domestic rabbits, particularly one of the larger breeds such as Flemish giants, are equally effective for puppy training and easier to work with.

My spaniels and I encounter far more hares than rabbits these days. I’ve never come across a hare pen in the UK, but I was once shown one in the south of France. The chasseur that had the pen on his farm was very proud of his lièvres (hares). As far as I understood, the pen was used for breeding hares (a favourite French quarry species), not for dog training.