Rabbits are so much a part of the countryside that we take them for granted, but while the are now a vital part of the foodchain, they have only been here for less than a milennia . . .
It is just over a century since Peter Rabbit ventured into Mr MacGregor’s garden. Until then we regarded him in the same light as Mrs MacGregor – fit only for a pie – but then Beatrix Potter inadvertently lit a slow-burning public opinion fuse. Thanks to Peter, most people now smile at the sight of a bunny.
Things seem very different to any gardener who has emerged in a glorious early summer morning to witness the devastation that just one or two can wreak in a vegetable patch or flower border. It is almost as if the more tender and more valuable the seedling, the greater its magnetic attraction to these long-eared hopping strimmers.
The gardener’s sense of outrage is only exacerbated by the knowledge that however familiar they may seem, rabbits are aliens, originating in Spain, but introduced to Britain by the Normans as a luxury food. At first they struggled with the climate, but by the middle of last century were costing millions of pounds in damage to agriculture. In 1954 the farmers’ prayers seemed answered when a deadly rabbit plague, myxomatosis, arrived, killing 99%.
One might have thought this hammer blow to a major pest would have been welcome, but in practice it turned out to be a mixed blessing. Certainly crop yields might have suddenly soared, but they were important parts of the food chain and specialist predators such as buzzards and stoats became virtually extinct in Kent and Sussex.
Fortunately the rabbit’s fantastic reproductive abilities meant it soon developed resistance and we now have a near full recovery. This is great for many eco-systems, but at the same time farmers soon began to recall why their fathers loathed them. Every rabbit eats half a kilo of greenstuff a day. A recent study put damage to spring barley at £1.40 per rabbit per hectare, to grassland at £3.40 and to winter wheat at £6.50. With a current rabbit population of around 40 million, the annual cost to agriculture now approaches the £200 million mark.
They can also be a menace on nature reserves. They love saplings and shrubs, preventing natural regeneration along woodland edges and just as bad, they seem to have a penchant for rare wild flowers – especially orchids.
The underlying problem, of course is their fantastic reproductive potential. A doe can produce six young every four weeks, around the year. She is a veritable baby machine: effectively permanently pregnant from the age of three months. These can breed at just three months and this means in three years, one pair could theoretically become a million. So for the time being the answer appears to be control. Foxes, polecats and buzzards will do this unpaid, but there is still scope for the enterprising human – particularly when food prices are soaring. Perhaps it is time to dust down Mrs MacGregor’s recipe book?