Hope ‘Rabbit Hotels’ Can Help Britain’s Decimated Population Bounce Back | Wildlife

Symbol of Easter and bane of Mr. McGregor, the bunny may be the cute hero of children’s books but its rapid reproduction has traditionally made it a pest to farmers and gardeners.

Now, however, as UK rabbit populations are decimated by disease, the humble rabbit is being hailed as an ‘ecosystem engineer’ and landowners are encouraged to create innovative ‘rabbit hotels’ to reignite their numbers.

The hotels – piles of branches artfully arranged near existing rabbit burrows – provide security from burgeoning predators and new places for female rabbits to burrow and give birth to their young.

Brash piles are the key technique in a new “toolbox” successfully tested in five locations as part of Shifting Sands, a four-year project funded by the National Heritage Lottery to restore rare species to the Brecks from East Anglian.

The number of rabbits fell by 88% in the East Midlands and 83% in Scotland between 1996 and 2018. They fell by 43% across the UK in the decade to 2018 , with the latest scientific survey showing no signs of slowing the decline.

“Rabbits have a lot of problems,” said Pip Mountjoy, Shifting Sands project manager at Natural England. “They are actually an endangered species in their native region of the Iberian Peninsula. It is surprising to people that rabbits are important in some ecosystems. We see them as a pest, but in Britain it is a key species – they act as stewards of the landscape and many other species depend on it. “

Shifting Sands is part of the Back from the Brink species rescue effort.

The European rabbit is not originally from the UK but was brought here by the Normans. For almost nine centuries, they were extensively cultivated for meat on the Brecks. In this hotspot of dry, sandy biodiversity, their grazing has helped rare plants and invertebrates thrive.

Rabbits are selective grazers and control vigorous grasses, thus helping more delicate wildflowers. Scraping the soil and burying the animal helps the seeds to germinate and creates what environmentalists call a “mini mosaic habitat”: patches of warm, bare soil that are refuges for flowers and invertebrates. rare, as well as for lizards and common vipers which bask there.

Rare plants aided by rabbit grazing include purple astragalus, rare spring sedge, spring speedwell, and prostrate perennial knawel, which are not found anywhere in the world outside of Breckland.

The caterpillars of the declining lunar yellow moth are found near rabbit burrows and even endangered birds are helped: rabbits find lots of flint in the sandy soil that perfectly camouflages the stone curlew, which lays its flint-colored eggs. On the ground .

Myxomatosis introduced to Britain in the 1950s was allowed to spread and reduce rabbit populations by 99%. While many growers were content, the rapid loss of wild rabbits and their grazing contributed to the extinction of the great blue butterfly in 1979 (since reintroduced) and the near loss of other species that require warm grasslands and tightly cultivated.

Rabbit populations revived when individuals developed resistance to myxomatosis, but a new virus, rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2), caused a second crash in Grande’s rabbit population. -Brittany since its appearance in commercial rabbit farms in northern France in 2010.

Diana Bell, professor of conservation biology at the University of East Anglia, partner of the Shifting Sands project, studied the impact of RHDV2 on large rabbit warrants on her university campus.

“This virus has wiped out rabbit populations – they just crashed all over the place and the virus keeps coming back,” she said. “It has become endemic like myxomatosis. Even now, we still don’t see baby rabbits by the side of the road like before. “

The virus can kill rabbits at a young age, and a typical sight are baby rabbits, or kittens, sitting motionless at the entrance to a hole. The earlier variant, RHD1, caused nosebleeds, but this virus often shows no visible signs. When dead animals are subjected to autopsy, significant hemorrhages have been observed in their livers and organs. Myxomatosis still kills rabbits.

“When you have two completely different viruses attacking them at different stages in different ways, I don’t think we’ll ever see the rabbits go back to the numbers they once were,” Bell said.

Under his leadership, the Shifting Sands project tested techniques to increase rabbit populations where family groups hang out. “Rabbit Home Improvement Plots” – or hotels for rabbits – are built to provide havens for rabbits to hide from aerial predators such as buzzards and create “spans” to help them jump through. the landscape.

But rabbit hotels have another function. Bell’s research found that rabbits live in matriarchal family groups, with a dominant female assisted by daughters, nieces, aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. The dominant female prevents other females from having young – sometimes even by dragging a rival’s babies above the ground to kill them – because too many young around a warren attract predators, especially foxes, badgers, stoats and polecats.

Hotels provide a space where subordinate females can safely have babies, helping rabbits to breed like rabbits again.

Monthly monitoring by volunteers from Natural England and Suffolk and Norfolk Wildlife Trusts found that 41% of buckwheat piles contained rabbit burrows – which usually leads to breeding – and 91% contained scratches – proof of use by rabbits.

The Shifting Sands Project also used diggers to create artificial benches for rabbits to dig and breed, as originally deployed by warrens who raised rabbits in the Brecks. But the researchers found that the impetuous piles were more efficient and cheaper to build.

The results were fed into a toolkit, which is now being given to other landowners to increase rabbit populations.

“We hope this toolkit can be used across the UK as this is a national issue,” Mountjoy said.

Even though the rabbit is still classified as a costly and invasive pest by some studies, Mountjoy said it hasn’t been difficult to persuade landowners to learn to love it, one of the project’s 10 partners. being Elveden Estate, a major producer of vegetables.

“It’s absolutely true that a rabbit on cropland or on a golf putting green is a pest,” said Mountjoy, “but landowners overwhelmingly agree. We have had a very positive response.

Private landowners and conservation charities that own heathlands and lowland grasslands that are designated sites of special scientific interest are often required to maintain “open and disturbed conditions” on the site.

“You can either get a mechanical disturbance with a shovel and pay for it, or you can get it for free with rabbits, so the landowners and the rabbits don’t disagree as you might imagine,” said Mountjoy.

Where Peter Rabbit-style vegetable theft has been found to be problematic, non-lethal deterrents such as rabbit-proof fences can be used, according to Mountjoy, although she said rabbit populations were so weak in many places now that they were just not the problem they once had. were.

She added: “There is not much we can do to combat the virus, but this work will provide a lifeline for people and help them deal with threats that come from all directions. “