Saving England's most threatened species from extinction

The Rabbit and the Hare – their unique place in the UK

 

Common Name

European Rabbit

Brown Hare

Picture (WildlifeTrusts.org)

 Scientific Name

Oryctolagus cuniculus

Lepus europaeus

Habitat

Arable land, heathland, grassland, woodland and urban space

Arable, grassland

Description

Grey-brown or sandy coloration with a red/ginger patch on the back of the neck. They have brown tipped ears and a tail which is black on top and white underneath.

Red/brown coloration with yellow flecking. They have very long black tipped ears, a black topped tail and very long and powerful hind legs.

Size

Up to 40cm

52-59cm; tail: 8-12cm

Weight

1.2-2kg

3-4kg

Lifespan

Up to 3 years, although only 10% live past a year.

Usually between 3 and 4 years, although can survive significantly longer.

Conservation status Rabbits have no legal protection in England. Instead they have pest species status.

Hares lack legal protection despite numbers declining substantially.

Public perception

Brown hares and rabbits both have an unusual relationship with legislation, they are considered a pest species in some areas, and are species of conservation concern in others. In the UK hares have a species action plan to increase their populations, despite being a game species, and fair game year-round. Although both species occur in densities great enough to impact on crop yield, public perception tends to view hares more favourably than rabbits. This may be due to their higher impact on agricultural yields, as rabbits occur in larger social groups in comparison to the more solitary life of a hare. In spaces such as the Brecks in Norfolk/Suffolk, where this ability to graze vegetation is valued, this abundance benefits the rabbit’s role as a keystone species.

   

Non-native VS Invasive

Neither the hare nor the rabbit are truly native to the UK, it was likely to have been Iron Age settlers and Romans which introduced them respectively. Rabbits are not, however, invasive species like the Grey Squirrel or the Harlequin Ladybird. Rather than competing with native species for resources they filled the ecological niche left from the human exploitation of herbivores. These may have included wild boar and bison. Rabbit grazing has since contributed to the management of grassland, fen and health habitats, fulfilling a role as a keystone species and supporting desirable floristic diversity in these ecosystems. They have also formed a prey species for many of our native fauna such as red kites and buzzards. Consequently, from an ecological point of view rabbits have more positive the negative effects on British biodiversity, a paradox to their pest species status.

Ecological niche

The rabbit and the hare’s last common ancestor occurred more than 50 million years ago, and niche separation over this time allows them to coexist. Rabbits find safety in underground warrens whereas hares form a small depression in long grass and rely on acute senses and speeds of up to 70kmph to escape predation. Rabbits occur in social groups of up to 30 and travel short distances, hares are more solitary animals, but have much greater home ranges. They both influence the ecosystem by feeding selectively, for example they favour perennial tufted grasses, but avoid meadow grasses.

It is the formation of populous social warrens that allows rabbits to disturb the physical landscape of the Brecks’ in a way that benefits local priority species. Much of the unique flora and fauna evolved alongside heavy rabbit grazing and relies on the heterogeneous grassland, caused by randomised disturbance and systematic recovery of the sward.

Disease and population  

The diseases Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease have contributed to a decline in rabbit and brown hare populations throughout Europe. Myxomatosis is a natural disease, benign in the American Leporid rabbit, but lethal to the European rabbit. The disease was intentionally released in New South Wales, and reached the UK in 1953. Rabbit haemorrhagic disease was first recorded in China in 1984 before rapidly spreading around the world, assisted by purposeful introductions to Australia and New Zealand.

Myxomatosis is estimated to have reduced the rabbit population by 99%, although the effects of this disease are still causing mortality today. By the time the population recovered to an estimated third of that pre-myxomatosis the UK population encountered Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHDV1). This infectious viral disease emerged in 1988 and can reduce populations by up to 95%, killing rabbits from five weeks of age. More recently a variant of this disease RHDV2 emerged, affecting rabbits from 2010 and resulting in a re-emergence of the disease.

Hares were long thought immune to these epidemics, but recent evidence has shown that they too suffer from both diseases.

A toolkit describing the techniques to encourage European rabbit recovery will soon be published through the Back from the Brink, Shifting Sands project.

 

Jay Endean

Keystone Species Officer for Shifting Sands

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