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Rabbits

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By Chris Tribble

Here in Cumbria we have an odd relationship with Oryctolagus cuniculus – the burrowing rabbit.

While the Beatrix Potter/Peter Rabbit industry brings in its coachloads of tourists, Lake District bunnies are usually not viewed with much sentimental affection.

Factually speaking, this non-native species breed mainly from January to August, and can produce one litter of 3-7 young each month. They have no legal protection in Britain, and landowners attempt to control their numbers to prevent them damaging land. Even so, rabbit damage is still estimated at over £100 million a year nationally and the UK population is estimated as being between 40 million in winter, with a summer peak of as many as 300 million (the majority of which are taken by predators before they are three months old).

Rabbits may be pests for farmers, allotment holders and gardeners, but they have been a valuable source of food since their introduction by the Normans, with a pair of rabbits being able to produce up to 90kg of meat a year. Originally, rabbits were not well adapted to the English climate, and had to be carefully managed, as they required feeding, protection from predators and shelter from adverse weather. To enable small collections of rabbits to survive, artificial warrens were built by wealthy land owners, and the monks of Furness Abbey and Holme Cultram maintained rabbit warrens up to the 16th century. In the 17th century estates employed 'warriners' to manage their rabbit warrens to supply meat for the table. From these managed warrens the rabbit established itself in the wild and became very common across Cumbria, particularly on the lighter soils of the coastal plain and Eden Valley, although they are rarely found above the tree line and on the higher fells. The remains of earlier warrens are now sometimes referred to as pillow mounds, and have on occasion been assumed to be burial mounds. The so-called giant's graves at Mallerstang are a good example of this.

By the 19th Century, rabbits had become fully established throughout the UK, and before the introduction of the Myxamatosis virus in 1953, at a national level, an estimated 40 million rabbits were sold annually for meat, skins and the fur and felt (hat) trade. In Cumbria, rabbits have played a significant role in shaping the landscape, and recent research has shown that the management of grasslands to provide grazing for sheep has, in fact, encouraged the spread of rabbits, especially when this occurs alongside the suppression of predators. So, while part of the rabbit's success is clearly down to its ability to “breed like rabbits", it is also the case that human activity continues to encourage their proliferation.  

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