Rabbits have been scarce in many areas due to disease, so it is nice to see the first hints of a comeback happening with juveniles scampering around again, at least in my neck of the woods. Many rabbit population have suffered hits from three or more sources in recent years.
While the rabbit is a long established feature of our countryside, it is not native to Ireland. The species was introduced here by the Normans who farmed them for both their meat and their fur. Some of the farmed stock escaped or were released, and their descendants spread nationwide over the past 800 years or so.
The first recent, significant hit suffered by the rabbit population was in 1954 when myxomatosis was introduced to control their numbers. Like COVID-19, myxomatosis is a viral disease. The virus causes only mild disease in its native hosts in the Americas where its hosts have evolved to cope with it. However, when the virus was intentionally encouraged by farmers in Australia and Europe to jump both continent and host, the disease proved fatal to the European species of rabbit.
Some rabbits exhibited some resistance to the myxoma virus, managed to survive, breed and pass on their good genes allowing some resistant populations to bounce back.
The second hit suffered by the rabbit population was caused by the increase in the Buzzard population since the first birds from Britain started to naturally re-colonise Ireland as early as the 1930s. As the population of these fairly large raptors grew and as the birds spread out across Ireland, predation on rabbits increased.
The third hit suffered by the rabbit population was in 2019 when rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) struck. A form of viral hepatitis, the disease is highly contagious, highly infectious and nearly always lethal. It was first identified in China in 1984 and is now believed to be endemic in most parts of the world.
rabbits are capable of reproducing year-round but peak breeding is in springtime as the first flush of new grass begins to grow. The young, called kittens, are born after a gestation lasting one month. While their mother has eight or ten nipples, the average litter size is five or six kittens. The kittens are nursed once a day and after another month they are weaned onto solid food and fend for themselves.