Hope ‘rabbit hotels’ can help Britain’s decimated population bounce back

Hope ‘rabbit hotels’ can help Britain’s decimated population bounce back

11/28/2021 10:15:00 AM

Hope ‘rabbit hotels’ can help Britain’s decimated population bounce back

Brash piles provide safety from predators and place to breed for animal now hailed as ‘ecosystem engineer’

, which lays its flint-coloured eggs on the ground.Myxomatosis introduced into Britain in the 1950s was allowed to spread and reduce rabbit populations by 99%. While many crop-growers were pleased, the rapid loss of wild rabbits and their grazing contributed to

in 1979 (since reintroduced) and near-loss of other species that require warm, closely cropped grassland.Rabbit populations revived when individuals developed resistance to myxomatosis but a new virus, rabbit(RHDV2), has caused a second crash in Britain’s rabbit population since it emerged in commercial rabbit farms in northern France in 2010.

Diana Bell,professor of conservation biologyat the University of East Anglia, a partner in the Shifting Sands project, has studied the impact of RHDV2 on the large rabbit warrens on her university campus.“This virus has decimated rabbit populations – they’ve just crashed everywhere, and the virus keeps coming back,” she said. “It’s become endemic like myxomatosis. Even now we still don’t see baby rabbits by the side of the road as we used to.” headtopics.com

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The virus can kill rabbits at a young age, and a typical sight are baby rabbits, or kits, sat motionless at the entrance to a hole. The earlier variant, RHD1, caused bleeding from the nose but this virus often has no visible signs. When dead animals are subject to postmortem, major haemorrhaging has been found in their livers and organs. Myxomatosis still kills rabbits as well.

“When you’ve got two completely different viruses attacking them at different stages in different ways I don’t think we will ever see rabbits back in the numbers they once were,” said Bell.Under her guidance, the Shifting Sands project has trialled techniques to boost rabbit populations where family groups are clinging on. “Rabbit habitat enhancement plots” – or rabbit hotels – are built to provide refuges for rabbits to hide from aerial predators such as buzzards and create “stepping stones” to help them hop through the landscape.

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

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The hotels provide space where subordinate females can safely have babies, so helping rabbits breed like rabbits again.Monthly monitoring by volunteers from Natural England and Suffolk and Norfolk wildlife trusts found 41% of the brash piles contained rabbit burrows – which usually leads to breeding – and 91% contained scrapes – evidence of use by rabbits. headtopics.com

The Shifting Sands project also used diggers to create artificial banks for rabbits to burrow and breed, as originally deployed by the warreners who bred rabbits in the Brecks. But researchers found the brash piles were more effective and cheaper to construct.

The findings have gone into a toolkit, which is now being given to other landowners to boost rabbit populations.“We’re hoping this toolkit can be used across the UK because it’s a national problem,” said Mountjoy.

Read more: The Guardian »

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