Wildlife Gardening in May – Rabbits!

N.B. If your new to David’s monthly column then please be sure to read the ‘setting-the-scene’ opening piece first.

Rabbits!

Now you all probably remember Robert Browning’s poem ……..

The Pied Piper Of Hamelin

Hamelin Town’s in Brunswick,
By famous Hanover city;
The river Weser, deep and wide,
Washes its wall on the southern side;
A pleasanter spot you never spied;
But, when begins my ditty,
Almost five hundred years ago,
To see the townsfolk suffer so
From vermin, was a pity.

Rats!
They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

Etc

Robert Browning

© David Beeson: Wild Rabbit

© David Beeson: Wild Rabbit

Well our rats seem to be relatively few and far between (compared to the situation above), but if one were to substitute rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) for rats then I can quite understand the problems experienced by the dear folks of Hamelin.

Now do not get me wrong I actually adore our furry friends … but preferably one at a time. When our two boys were young we had a sequence of Dutch dwarf-rabbits that latterly generally lived in the house and even opened their own dried mango slice tub to access their most desired food. Evening cuddles with a comatose, and dreaming, lagomorph on one’s lap was the norm. But too many Easter bunnies in the garden, even one designed for wildlife, does tax one’s patience.

Happily the days of twenty or more rabbits eating down the wild orchids has been reduced by some rabbit fencing, but we still do have a few that live in the garden, or move in, from time to time. The few are fine enough, but keeping the numbers at a modest level is always interesting.

Our last pet rabbit was called Charkie. He narrowly missed being both buzzard and stoat food during his free wanders around the garden, but finally was killed by a stoat in his semi-enclosed run by our back door. He’d reached over eight years of age and had slowed down a bit, even surviving being deliberately shot by our next-door neighbours’ child, but his demise was still a sadness. But the tale gives some insight into the population dynamics of wild rabbits.

Of course rabbits are not naturally found here. Introductions by the Romans and Normans carried the southern Spanish beast to our shore. But there is now little chance, and little overall desire, to see its total extermination. Today many UK predators rely on rabbits for food: stoats and buzzards amongst them. The increasing populations of native polecats, that have spread from their Welsh stronghold, will happily take rabbits whilst badgers, foxes, otters and wildcats will not pass up on a rabbit meal.

The live weight of rabbit meat in the UK is considerable and now is precisely the time when that is rapidly increasing. In fact rabbits breed for much of the year, with high summer being the low spot in my experience. I guess this summer slow down is related to their Spanish origin, for hot dry southern European summers generate too little fresh and nutritious herbage for effective breeding.

© David Beeson: Putorius

© David Beeson: Putorius

Female rabbits often have their young in a breeding ‘stop’ dug someway from the home warren****. These breeding tunnels have been dug, at Forest Edge, directly alongside our front door, beneath sheds, in the open meadow and amongst plant roots. The stops are surprisingly well camouflaged and even a determined gardener can miss the ominous signs until the babies are off and running around the garden. We have even had mothers suckling babies on our patio, whilst we watched with the normal mixture of horror and delight for the breeding location was immediately in front of our patio windows!

Female rabbits are tolerant of disturbance, and one story from a while ago illustrates this point. We lived, at that time, alongside the famous working water meadows in Salisbury. Our pet polecat (used as an otter look-alike for lectures I gave at the time) was taken to the meadows to run loose, so obtain some exercise and stimulation. Putorius, the polecat, would climb up inside the hollow pollarded willows that dot the site and flush out the rabbits that lived inside them. Leaping rabbits, from sometimes two meters up the tree, was certainly not unknown. On one other occasion we saw Putorius attempting to kill a grass snake, itself engaged in swallowing a toad (all survived). But the polecat loved finding and digging into rabbit breeding stops. He would grab a young rabbit behind its neck and pull it to the surface – where we removed it. When all the babies had been removed we put them back unharmed, only for them to be extracted the following day! Presumably the aroma of both polecat and human did not overly stress the mother, for the babies survived to maturity.
Never did our polecat kill one of the babies, but it could have been very different had he not been quite so well fed. Mind you, he was very reluctant to let go of the last baby from each hole.

Within our garden, young rabbits have been spotted being carried by a female stoat back to a nearby den in a disused warren. She caught, on that occasion, about five babies and carried them in her mouth up and over fences with seeming ease despite the weight of the animals and the obstacles to be negotiated.

Buzzards regularly soar, or hover, over the garden looking for rabbits, whilst red kites are becoming commoner too. Hopefully our nesting tawnies have a liking for rabbit meat too.

© David Beeson: Tawny Owl chick emerging from new nest box.

© David Beeson: Tawny Owl chick emerging from new nest box.

Foxes do not feature in the local food chain much, for our local gamekeeper claims to kill approaching a hundred each year. But he doesn’t get them all and I’ve occasionally seen adults and young. On one occasion a female fox was spotted cashing rabbit carcases amongst fallen leaves. But foxes are not common here and cannot be relied on to control garden lagomorphs.

Cats! This is yet another ‘hot topic’ for the wildlife gardener. Yesterday a chunky, wildcat look-alike, trotted across the garden with a dead young rabbit fixed between its jaws. Good news or bad news*? Well one less cute baby rabbit, but how many birds to follow? Some figures on bird kills from domestic cats seem to point to cats being the most important control point in gardens, but the RSPB is less concerned**. Without the cats the bird population could increase considerably, but conversely it is sometimes claimed that the cats merely take the ‘excess’ population. But here, at Forest Edge, there are a wealth of nesting locations that are cat safe, and many wide-open spots to search for food – so birds appear to have the upper hand.

But, in a garden situation, one less rabbit is not a bad thing.

Cats indoors campaign: http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/
* http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/gardening/unwantedvisitors/cats/index.asp

** http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/gardening/unwantedvisitors/cats/birddeclines.asp

Should rabbit numbers rise too steeply I do own a live trap which, when baited during the winter with apple peel, will usually allow some to be caught and translocated elsewhere. Over fifty have found new homes***.

Myxamatosis occurs here at regular intervals, usually in summer when the mosquito carrier is common. The characteristic swollen eyes and odd behaviour make the disease instantly recognisable.

In Australia & New Zealand they have greatly reduced rabbit numbers with an ‘accidental’ release of a haemorrhagic disease.

(http://www.animalhealthaustralia.com.au/programs/adsp/nahis/diseases/rhd.cfm.)
(http://epicentre.massey.ac.nz/Portals/0/EpiCentre/Downloads/Publications/Thesis/JoergHenningPhD.pdf.)

So love ‘em or hate ‘em, rabbits are here to stay and form a critically important food supply for many wild creatures.

****Our garden rabbits live on the surface and do not warren.

*** It is technically illegal, I think, to release a rabbit into the wild. Mine just always seem to escape when I’m about to kill them!

On a very different topic …. Did you know that rabbits really do dream?
Our last pet rabbit, Charkie, would happily sleep on his back cradled in one’s arm on the lap. In fact it was highly popular with the cute pet. But he certainly had his sexy dreams – for he would often sleep-run and ejaculate in his sleep. A paper tissue strategically located was always needed!

Add that to your animal behaviour catalogue.

David is an ex-lecturer in Environmental / Biological Sciences.
He has written for most of the UK gardening magazines, including the RHS.
Forest Edge’s garden has been widely covered in magazines and has been featured in a BBC’s Gardeners’ World special.
He also maintains a blog at https://nwhwildlife.org/