Saving England's most threatened species from extinction

Introducing Shifting Sands

In the last few weeks we’ve been getting ready to survey rabbits on five grass heath SSSIs in the Brecks, and had our very first rabbit census outing this week! This process involves counting and mapping the number of active rabbit warrens on each of our nature reserves.

While rabbits may be treated as a pest on nearby farms and golf courses - on the remaining heaths in the Brecks rabbits play a central role in maintaining the open conditions required by so many rare and declining heathland species, including birds like the Stone Curlew, and plants like Spring Speedwell.

These surveys are providing us with important baseline measures for our rabbit enhancement experiments. Data shows that rabbits have been declining rapidly since the 1990s and we want to help reverse this trend, for the benefit of the heathland habitat and its wildlife.

We’re designing a range of experimental treatments to aid rabbit colonisation and breeding, such as providing brash piles for cover, and sand banks for burrowing. Without good quality habitat, dominant female rabbits will purposely limit the breeding activities of younger females, which likely lowers the number of young they can produce.

We’re also installing motion sensor cameras at some sites – look out for a few shots of the furry critters coming soon!

2 thoughts on “Introducing Shifting Sands

  1. Surely non-native rabbits have changed the natural balance , with their diet not studied in the wild and now they fare in relation to other herbivores at various densities when predated by native and non-native predators and Virological threats.
    Scientists never ask the public and like to guide their minors. While studying and assessing they have given themselves the right to change and alter .
    How can the facts be real when evidence is cherrypicked.
    No animal is totally alone , we have allowed pet owners to medicate their animals and wonder outside,, we never ask vets for quantities given to livestock, let alone dates and places.
    The EA, Natural England, Country Councils all licence various projects as do the charities commission with funds and a complete disregard for the future .
    Not only is the rabbit non-native but it’s many foes have done so much to our natives due to uncontrollable meddling by professionals.

    1. Hi Ian,

      You are quite right in that non-native species can and do upset the balance to the ecosystems they find themselves in. Whether and how they do so depends on a complex set of inter-relating biological, temporal and spatial factors.

      The European rabbit was introduced to the UK, likely by the Normans, into an already man-modified ecosystem and landscape. Once can choose their baseline date of ‘natural state’ at will, but ecological ‘balance’ was already much altered by the eleventh century, with many predators and prey locally extirpated. Large areas were already ancient heath and downland by virtue of our Neolithic ancestors’ early pastoral activity. And what we are interested in, is looking after for our rarest, and most threatened species, many of which exist in these human-modified systems.

      John Sheail’s book Rabbits and their History is a great compendium of information on rabbits’ history in the UK – well worth a read. As Sheail explains, although the European rabbit is not-native to the UK, “it has few rivals for its food and breeding grounds”, other than humans!
      The UK doesn’t have marmots and ground squirrels which rabbits have upset in Eastern Europe. The rabbit has many predators, but has not upset the prey chain in that no one animal has come to depend on it solely to survive.

      Rabbits do have a profound impact on the areas they inhabit – chiefly, grazing, bare ground creation and topographic change through fossorial activity, and they are an additional source of prey. But, unlike some other non-native species (e.g., grey squirrel, signal crayfish) this impact has been largely benign, or indeed, helpful, especially in open and semi-natural habitats (e.g., heathland, grassland, dune, downland). Rabbits have, serendipitously, filled the grazing-ground disturbance function which used to be carried out by larger mammals (e.g., boar and wild ponies) and by traditional land management practices (e.g., rotational cultivation, stock grazing of commons and heaths, sheep droving, small-scale mineral extraction…).

      You highlight a very real paradox – this ‘pest’ species, which can eat into crops and reduce the quality of horse pasture or golf greens, is also an ever-more important key-stone species or habitat engineer in open, anthropogenic habitats, especially given the added threat of increased aerial nitrogen deposition, which speeds up succession. Rabbits may even be helpful to nutrient cycling, as this paper highlights. On the Brecks heaths where we are working, short swards and open, bare ground must be maintained for the globally rare habitat, and much-loved cultural landscape, to survive. This paper discusses the paradox in more detail. We have a rich tradition of studying this species in the UK to draw in in our work, particularly in the Brecks. Do look up papers by Alex Watt, Farrow, Dolman & Sutherland and Olofsson if interested.

      Kind regards,

      Shifting Sands team, BftB

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