The humble rabbit – worthy game for young and old

Peter d’Plesse

The humble rabbit and its close relation the hare have introduced generations of youngsters to hunting. They have provided the basis of countless meals shared for centuries. The rabbit can be a pest but also a useful food resource. This is one game animal that deserves appreciation as well as active control.

The common rabbit originated from Spain and south-west France. They were brought to England in the 12th century by the Normans and kept in captivity as a source of meat and fur. Some escaped and became so common that farming them was no longer economic. They bred rapidly with little persecution from predators. Although favouring a warmer, drier climate, they quickly established themselves in the wilds of Britain.

Following colonisation in 1788, rabbits became rife in Australia. What started as an opportunity for sport and a source of food soon became a scourge. Their rate of spread in Australia is believed to be the fastest of any colonising mammal in the world. They were in Western Australia and the Northern Territory by 1900. Expansion was aided by existing native animal burrows and habitat modification for farming, as well as further deliberate introductions for meat and hunting. In the 1950s myxomatosis was instituted to curb their numbers. Other infectious controls have been used but rabbits managed to survive and are once again a reasonably common feral game animal.

There are seven different genera in the family classified as rabbits. These include the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), Cottontail rabbit (genus Sylvilagus; 13 species) and the Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi), an endangered species in Japan. There are many other species and along with pikas and hares, make up the order Lagomorpha. All breeds of domestic rabbit originate from the European version.

The male is called a buck and the female a doe. Rabbits generally measure 400-450mm in length with ears about 85mm long. They have compact bodies with long, powerful hind legs. Rabbit fur is usually long and soft, grey/brown in colour with white underparts and a short tail. Long ears are an adaptation for detecting predators. The smallest is the pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis), 200mm in length and 0.4kg in weight. The largest rabbits grow to 500mm and more than 2kg. Wild rabbits are fairly uniform in body proportion and size. In Australia, adults are usually 1-2.25kg in weight and 350 to 450mm in length.

Rabbits live in environments covering desert, tropical forest and wetland, including urban and coastal areas. They are abundant in grassland zones where the soil allows them to make extensive, well-drained burrows. They also like hedges or patches of woodland that offer shelter and cover. As herbivores they feed on grass and leafy weeds. They prefer low vegetation, deep sandy soils and refuge such as scrub, blackberries or fallen logs. Large warrens are constructed up to 3m deep and 45m long. These complexes are generally larger in more open country. Warrens provide cover and protection from predators and extreme temperatures. They allow rabbits to live in open grasslands, grazed pasture and arid land.

Where there is abundant surface cover, rabbits may live above ground. They eat all vegetable matter and will gnaw tree bark in winter months. A secret to survival is that they re-swallow up to 80 per cent of their faeces to use food more efficiently in a procedure known as refection.

As part of their digestive process rabbits drop two types of faecal pellets, soft and hard. The soft pellets, produced mainly during the day, are eaten directly from the anus. This is called coprophagy. It allows the extraction of remaining protein and moisture from food and more efficient digestion of fibrous plant material. It assists survival with minimal free water. Hard pellets seen on the ground are the end result of this digestion practice and are usually dropped during late afternoon and night.

As herbivores, rabbits eat a wide variety of plants including crops, roots, pastures and young trees and vines, preferring short, succulent plants. Nine rabbits equate to about one sheep. They feed rapidly for the first half-hour of grazing, usually late afternoon, followed by about half an hour of more selective feeding. During this period they will excrete many hard faecal pellets that won’t be re-ingested. In a low threat environment they may stay outdoors for hours to continue grazing.

They use regular trails, which are scent marked with faecal pellets. Most rabbits are solitary and sometimes territorial, coming together only to breed or forage in small groups. They are active throughout the year with no species known to hibernate. They are generally nocturnal and relatively silent. Other than loud screams when frightened or caught by a predator, the only sound signal is a loud foot thump made to indicate alarm or aggression.

Scent plays an important role in contact. They possess well-developed glands throughout their body and rub them on fixed objects to indicate group identity, sex, age, social and reproductive status and territorial ownership. Urine is also used in chemical communication. When danger threatens, they generally freeze and hide under cover. If chased by a predator, they engage in quick, irregular movement intended for evasion and confusion rather than to outdistance a pursuer. This behaviour often makes a shotgun more effective than a rifle.

Rabbits have a visual field of almost 360 degrees. They are blind in a 10-degree arc directly in front and have a binocular overlap of about 20 degrees. They are good at spotting foxes and hunters sneaking up on them but not so good at judging how far away the danger is. Humans see objects across an arc of about 180 degrees directly in front without moving our eyes or head. About 140 degrees of this field is binocular overlap, allowing us to judge distance quite well.

Rabbits generally breed at a young age with litters of up to seven. They breed four or five times a year as the gestation period is only 28 to 31 days. Newborn rabbits are naked, blind and helpless. Mothers are almost absentee parents, being remarkably inattentive. They commonly nurse their young only once a day for just a few minutes. This lack of attention is balanced by the fact that rabbit milk is highly nutritious and among the richest of all mammals’. The young grow rapidly and are weaned in about a month. They emerge from the warren at about 18 days and leave the nest after 23-25 days.

Survival of young rabbits varies with seasonal conditions and the incidence of disease. The average lifespan of wild rabbits is about six to nine years. Females can become pregnant four days after the birth of kittens, hence the saying ‘breeding like rabbits’. If sufficient feed is available females breed at any time of the year. Breeding is determined by rainfall and the early growth of high-protein plants. During this time, territorial groups are formed, containing one to three males and seven to 10 females, led by a dominant pair. In less favourable conditions they still produce one or two litters each year.

Warrens or other shelter are essential for survival so destruction of these may reduce the local rabbit population. Rabbits are susceptible to predators and disease. In Australia, the most significant predators include feral cats, foxes and dingoes. Two of the most deadly diseases to rabbits are myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease known as calicivirus. However, the variable virulence of different virus strains and increased genetic resistance reduced their effectiveness as biological controls. When each virus was first released rabbit populations were reduced by up to 98 per cent in some areas. Both diseases are transmitted by insect vectors such as flies, mosquitoes and fleas.

The only animal in Australia that could be confused with the rabbit is the hare (Lepus capensis). It has longer, black-tipped ears, longer legs and a loping gait. Hares are surface dwellers and don’t construct warrens. Rabbit droppings can be similar to the hare, depending on the food eaten. Scrapes, dung heaps, burrows and warrens are evident when rabbits are present. Very young rabbits, 20 to 60 days old, are more likely to disperse than older rabbits. Adult rabbits rarely disperse. Most dispersal is from warrens with a high rabbit density to warrens with a low density or to adjacent social groups. Rabbits don’t usually travel vast distances, but movements in excess of 20km have been recorded.

Apart from human control strategies, natural mortality does not suppress a rabbit population. Kitten mortality in the wild is extremely high, with up to 80 per cent dying before they reach three months of age. However, in a favourable year 85 per cent mortality is needed to suppress a tenfold population increase. Predation can account for substantial losses of both healthy and starving rabbits. Besides the fox, dingo, cat and dog there are a number of avian species that prey on the rabbit in Australia. Wedge-tailed eagles are probably the most effective, followed by goshawks, falcons and barn owls. Ravens, goannas and snakes can also prey on kittens.

Rabbits inhabit 70 per cent of Australia and are widespread throughout most locations where they are found. They affect 75 Commonwealth listed threatened plant species and five endangered ecological communities. In spite of their small size, rabbits are Australia’s most costly pest vertebrate animal. Australian native vegetation is highly sensitive to rabbit damage. Forestry and tree plantations also suffer extensive losses due to grazing rabbits.

Erosion caused by denuded vegetation from rabbit grazing has a significant impact on dam catchments, water supplies and topsoil. Burrowing can undermine roads, culverts, buildings and sites of cultural significance. Rabbits compete with native wildlife for food and shelter. They also affect native plants by ring barking, grazing and by preventing regeneration of seedlings. Digging and browsing leads to a loss of vegetation cover, which in turn results in slope instability and erosion.

Rabbits compete with livestock for pasture. This may result in running fewer livestock, lower wool clips, breaks in the wool, lower reproduction rates, lower weight gains and perhaps early deaths during drought. Reduced lambing rates may occur due to higher fox numbers encouraged by an elevated rabbit population. Rabbits may have played a role in the extinction of native species. There have been no known native mammal extinctions north of the range of the rabbit since European settlement. Most of the extinctions within the rabbits’ range occurred after the bunnies arrived but before the onset of the fox. Rabbits may not have been the main cause of extinction for these species but are strongly implicated.

Recreational hunters can play a useful role in rabbit control over local areas. Spotlighting, walking up over a shotgun, sniping at short or long range with an airgun, rimfire or centrefire, trapping, ferreting or incidental shooting while seeking other game are rewarded by gaining the basis of a good meal. Given the importance of scent to the rabbit in detecting threats, working the wind greatly assists the hunter. Vision is also important to the rabbit. Slow movement by a hunter with pauses to study the landscape can reduce detection. With its weakness in judging distance, careful stalking can put a hunter into .22 rimfire or .410 shotgun range. Other calibres and gauges are even more effective but the main two have delivered many meals to landowner families.

The rabbit even played a small part in the development of the breechloading rifle by Captain Patrick Ferguson. The design incorporated a flintlock rifle using an interrupted screw thread operated by a rotating triggerguard. One turn lowered a breech plug to allow loading of ball and powder. Compared with the famous Kentucky rifle, his version could deliver six times the volume of fire every minute with accuracy out to 200 yards.

This was at a time when the Brown Bess musket might hit a man-sized target with one of every three shots at 50 yards. To test his design Ferguson recruited 10 militiamen, mostly his father’s employees, and trained them in handling his new rifle to hunt rabbits. The squad could deliver more than 70 shots a minute. Following that field test Ferguson’s last doubts were cast aside. He took the rifle to the American War of Independence ‑ but that’s another story.

In a different era, hunting small game such as the rabbit encouraged manufacturers to market reduced scale firearms referred to as Boys’ rifles. Children were taught safe firearm handling to help feed the families of people on the land. It also instilled in them responsibility and self-discipline.

Times change but the rabbit is still a worthy target for older hunters aiming to stay active after years of chasing bigger game. The rabbit appeals to all age groups and should be valued while being controlled. Stalking the humble rabbit teaches and sharpens hunting skills, keeps us active, results in a fine meal and controls a feral animal in a way that is environmentally sensitive.

Enjoy the hunt.

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