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European Rabbit

Latin Name:  Oryctolagus cuniculus

Is a species of rabbit native to south west Europe, (Spain and Portugal) and was introduced into the UK by the Normans in the 12th century to provide meat and fur. The only rabbit to be domesticated for food or as a pet, it was first widely kept in ancient Rome and was refined into a wider variety of breeds during the middle ages. It is the ancestor of all domestic rabbits within the UK. In fact it has become so successful, in Nov 2004 there was thought to be around 40million in Britain, and it is considered a pest in many areas.

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The European rabbit is a small, grey-brown mammal and are smaller and less gangly than hares, and have shorter ears. The tips of the ears are brown, and the upper surface of the tail is dark brown. They have four sharp incisor teeth, two on top and two on bottom, that continuously grow throughout their life. They also have two peg teeth behind each set of incisors. They have long ears. large hind legs and short fluffy tails, with a characteristic white flash on the underside of the tail can be seen when the animal is fleeing. They move about by hopping, using their long powerful hinds legs, and to facilitate quick movement their hind feet have a thick padding of fur to dampen the shock of rapid hopping. Their toes are long, and are webbed to keep from spreading apart as they jump.

Animal Facts

In Britain: All year round

Life Span:  Up to 9 years

Statistics: Head-body length: 30-40cm, Weight: 1.2-2kg.

Habitat: Can be found on heathland, open meadow, grassland, woodland, the fringes of agricultural land and dry sandy soil, including sand dunes, but they avoid coniferous forests.

Food: Grass is their primary food source although they will eat the leaves of a wide range of vegetation including agricultural crops, cereals, young trees and cabbages. In winter, they will eat grasses, bulbs and bark. They are also known to re-ingest their faeces for nutritional benefit.

Conservation Status

Least Concern

Breeding: Mating occurs throughout the year with most litters born between February and August. Mating amongst the wild population is rather complicated where you have dominant males exhibiting polygamy, whereas lower status individuals often form monogamous breeding partnerships. Litters can range in size between 3 and 12, after a gestation period of 28-33 days, and the kittens are weaned after 28 days. Young are born blind and furless and are totally dependent on their mother, who returns to the warren once a day for 4 weeks in order for them to suckle.

Distribution: They are widespread in western Europe, including the UK, Balearic Islands, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and can also be found in North Africa. They have also been introduced to Australia, New Zealand and North and South America.

Behaviour: They use a burrow system known as a warren, primarily excavated by the female, and tunnels can be 1-2m long. The nest at the end of the tunnel is lined with grass, moss and belly fur. They use regular trails, which they scent mark with faecal pellets. In the wild they are social animals living in medium sized colonies. They are largely active around dawn and dusk, although they will be seen around during the day.

It is the most social rabbit, sometimes forming groups in warrens of up to 20 individuals. However, even in European rabbits, social behaviour can be quite flexible, depending on habitat and other local conditions, so that at times the primary social unit is a territorial breeding pair. Most rabbits are relatively solitary and sometimes territorial, coming together only to breed or occasionally to forage in small groups. During territorial disputes rabbits will sometimes “box,” using their front limbs.

They are active throughout the year and are generally nocturnal, and they are also relatively silent. Other than loud screams when frightened or caught by a predator, the only auditory signal known for most species is a loud foot thump made to indicate alarm or aggression. Wild rabbits can be extremely aggressive and competition between males can often lead to severed injury and death. Although hostile displays are used, and males often squirt urine on challengers as a form of territorial marking, the most common response to a challenge is immediate attack. They use their powerful back legs as weapons, kicking at an opponent's underside, as well as biting and scratching with the front paws.

When not feeding or fighting they spend most of their time in their warrens.

See Larger Image European Rabbit

See Larger Image European Rabbit

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Instead of sound, scent seems to play a predominant role in their communication systems. They possess glands throughout their body and rub them on fixed objects to convey group identity, sex, age, social and reproductive status, and territory ownership. Urine is also used in chemical communication. When danger is perceived, the general tendency of the rabbit is to freeze and hide under cover. If chased by a predator, they engage in quick, irregular movements, designed more to evade and confuse than to outdistance a pursuer. They have been down to get up to speeds of  80 km [50 miles] per hour.


Conservation Status:  Populations are increasing, as they are becoming immune to the myxomatosis virus. Rabbits become sexually mature after just four months and breed rapidly, so they can readily replace themselves.


Other points to note:

The European rabbit in the wild occupies open landscapes such as fields, parks, and gardens. Drive anywhere in the UK countryside and you are likely to see a rabbit, feeding on the side of the road and playing dodgems with the traffic or feeding peacefully in the open fields. You will come across rabbits of all ages and it is not uncommon to see a number of young rabbits together feeding or chasing each other. They are inquisitive creatures and when approached will stay completely still. But don't be fooled they may look like they are unaware of what is going on around them, but that is not they case, if something should occur like a bird of prey fly over, they will scatter and fast.

They are considered a pest by many and can do a lot of damage in fields and on railway embankments where they decide to build their warrens. And for this reason various methods have been used to destroy local populations such as gassing, barriers (fences), shooting, snaring and ferreting have been used to try to control populations.

Rabbits are known by many names. Young rabbits are known by the names bunny, kit, or kitten. A male rabbit is called a buck, and a female rabbit is called a doe. A group of rabbits is known as a colony or a nest. They are affectionately know by the pet name 'bunny', 'bunnies' or 'bunny rabbit'.

Their reproductive abilities led to the phrase 'breeding like rabbits'.

There are many fictional rabbits including Peter Rabbit, the mischievous young rabbit in the Beatrix Potter stories and the White Rabbit in Alice and Wonderland by Lewis Carroll as well as the well known cartoon character Bugs Bunny.

European Rabbit

One final point:

If you are lucky you will get them in your back garden and at a previous house we lived at we had wild rabbits routinely visit our garden where much of it was grass. Mums would bring their offspring into the garden to feed and frolic in the summer sunshine. Living on the side of a steam railway line, where there were many holes in the embankment, and fields on the other side, they would come across the railway into the garden where they knew it was safe, and our borders with shrubs and honeysuckle along the fences would provide shelter if a predator should approach. We would leave out water and they would come and drink, and come quite close to the house so we were able to get many photographs of them, both close up portrait shots and action shots of the young ones chasing each other around the garden, or just trying to keep up with mum as she foraged on the grass. They would also at times hide under our cars out of harms way. Generally they would appear late afternoon and into the early evening during the summer months, when most of the garden was in shade from the hot sun, but we did see them at other times.  All the pictures on this page were taken in our garden.


By: Tracey Park Section: Wildlife Key:
Page Ref: european_rabbit Topic: Wildlife & Animals  Last Updated: 03/2010

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