Rabbits dig extensive burrows, or warrens, in dry soil or banks, with entrance holes of about 20 cm diameter, although they may sometimes nest in dense scrub. Footprints in soft mud may show the claws and a furred sole, and tracks show the animal’s characteristic hopping gate, with the front feet placed in line before the outer rear tracks. They leave their small, round droppings around the warren entrances and often on raised mounds such as old ants’ nests.
They mark the boundaries of their territories using scent glands under the chin.
Rabbit tracks in the snow
The rabbit is so well known as to not really require description. Adult rabbits measure between 45 and 70 cm from head to tail. A fully grown rabbit can weigh about 2.5 kg, although 1.5 to 2.0 kg is more usual. Males (bucks) and females (does) are similar in size. The fur is greyish brown with a pale belly and a reddish tinge to the nape. Colour variants are quite common with black (melanic), white, and piebald all reported. This may be a consequence of
inter-breeding with escaped domestic rabbits. The rabbit’s tail is brown with a white underside which is very obvious as the animal moves away. The rabbit is of a more squat appearance than the brown hare and lacks the black tips of the hare’s longer ears. The legs are also noticeably shorter than those of hares. The rabbit’s prominent eyes are placed well to the sides of its head, providing a wide field of view to detect potential predators.
Rabbits occur wherever there is suitable ground for burrowing – they are more
common in light, dry soils – but woodland edge, pasture, sand dunes, large gardens
and embankments all provide suitable habitat.
Rabbits eat a variety of plants, favouring upright and cultivated grasses. They also eat many arable crops including cereal, root and leaf crops. Their impact on pasture land can result in closely nibbled turf with many annual weeds encouraged by the
disturbance of the soil. This provides useful habitat for some insect and bird species.
The rabbit uses a process called refection to extract maximum nutritional benefit
from their food, they produce soft moist faecal pellets at night which they reingest,
allowing the animals to absorb nutrients produced in the large intestine.
Breeding from January to September, they raise up to 8 litters of 4-8 kits (or kittens) each year after a gestation of 30 days. The kits are born blind, deaf, and naked. After 10 days they open their eyes, and after 25 days are able to leave the warren. The doe may leave the young in the nest while she feeds, in which case she will seal the entrance to the nest with a plug of soil and vegetation. The young are sexually mature at 4 months and may breed in their first year. Rabbit society is structured around older, dominant bucks and does who defend a group territory around the warren. Subordinate animals are excluded and may dig themselves small isolated burrows. Rabbits tend to feed in groups and will signal danger by stamping their feet or standing upright, when running they flash their white tails which may also serve to alert other rabbits.
Most rabbits die during their first year but they can live up to 9 years. Foxes, stoats
and weasels are the principal natural predators of rabbits although badgers and
domestic cats, along with buzzards, will also kill them. Gulls and crows will also take rabbits, but normally as carrion. Rabbits are subject to a number of external and internal parasites. One of these, the rabbit flea Spilopsyllus cuniculi is the carrier of the myxoma virus, the causative agent of myxomatosis, which resulted in the death of 99% of the UK’s rabbit population following its introduction in the 1950s. Myxomatosis is a virus of a south American cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus species) which causes a relatively mild disease in its natural host. Rabbits are also heavily controlled by hunting - shooting, trapping and ferreting - and many are killed by road traffic.
Did you know?:
Also known as coney, ‘rabbit’ originally referred only to the young animals. Rabbits are incapable of vomiting, maybe as a consequence of the refection process described above. Believed to have been introduced into the UK by the Normans, they were originally bred for meat and fur, but escaped and set up wild colonies. They have become a pest species only in the last 200 years, and had reached an estimated population of 100 million before the outbreak of myxomatosis in the 1950s.
© Dave Thomas
In Victorian England rabbits had become a serious agricultural pest, but landowners
jealously guarded their game rights. In 1874 Colonel Deakin, the owner of Werrington estate in North Cornwall, was standing for election to Parliament and was accused by his opponents of protecting rabbits on his land. He promptly allowed his tenants to kill as many as they wished. Having won the election and becoming an MP, he was accused of bribing the electorate with the rabbit concession, found guilty and lost his seat.
Road casualty records
Cornwall’s most recorded terrestrial mammal, the rabbit is common and widespread across the county and the Isles of Scilly. Originally from the western Mediterranean, rabbits are found throughout western Europe.
Introduced to Australia and New Zealand, rabbits have caused major environmental damage wherever they are found and have resisted all efforts at control.
Rabbits are common throughout their ranges and regarded as a pest species in