The domestic rabbit is a descendant of the wild European rabbit. Rabbits were introduced to Britain by the Romans, who kept them in fenced-off warrens and used them for meat and fur. The earliest known records of rabbits in Britain are from the 12th Century. They were described as conies, after the last part of their scientific name (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Rabbits are very adaptable and have become so successful in some areas of this country that they are considered to be a major pest.
Distribution and Habitat in the wild
The European rabbit naturally is found all over Europe, except for the far north and east, and also inhabits North West Africa. The rabbit has been introduced to many other countries, including New Zealand, Australia and Chile. It lives in grassland, cultivated land, grassy coastal cliffs woodland and farm land - anywhere it can populate and has food.
Behaviour in the wild
Wild rabbits are gregarious and up to 200 individuals may be found in one warren, which is a network of underground burrows. They are most active during dusk and dawn but will also come out during the day if undisturbed. Rabbits primarily feed on grass and leafy plants such as farm crops, but they will feed on bulbs in gardens and woodland, stripping the bark off young trees when food is scarce.
Rabbits generally live for approximately 18 months in the wild. However, mating occurs throughout the year, producing several litters of between 3 and 12 kittens each time, every 6 weeks or so. The kittens are weaned after 28 days and become sexually mature after just 4 months. This means that the original male & female become parents, grand-parents & great grand-parents, all within the space of one year. The phrase 'breeding like rabbits' really does mean what it says! The experts tend to agree that one pair of rabbits can be responsible for up to 1000 new rabbits within a 12 month period.
Rabbit populations are increasing (not surprising given the statistics above) and they are becoming immune to the myxomatosis virus. This is becoming a costly problem for many farmers, landowners, stately homes and golf courses, where plants are destroyed, holes are dug and the acidic droppings kill off grass.
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