About European rabbit
This species is an established pest animal (feral or wild populations only) in the state of Victoria.
Southern France and Spain
History of spread
Early introductions of European rabbits into Australia were domestic breeds unfit for feral existence. Wild rabbits were introduced to Australia in the mid to late 1800s at places such as Canning River (Western Australia), Kapunda (South Australia), Geelong (Victoria), Shoalhaven River (New South Wales) and Woody Island (Queensland).
In 1859, approximately seven rabbits were released at 'Barwon Park' near Geelong. Just seven years later, 14,253 rabbits were shot on Barwon Park.
By 1875, the rabbit was well established in the western districts of Victoria, in South Australia at the southern end of the Flinders Ranges and around Sydney.
By 1879, the South Australian and Victorian infestations had merged covering the area from Spencer Gulf to north-eastern Victoria.
By the 1920s, rabbits had colonised most of the southern half of Australia and were present in extremely high numbers. The rate of rabbit invasion varied from 10-15 kilometres per year in wet forested country to over 100 kilometres per year in the range lands. The invasion of the rabbit was the fastest of any colonising mammal anywhere in the world.
Distribution in Victoria
European rabbits occur throughout Victoria except in alpine and closed forest environments.
The European rabbit is a small mammal that belongs to the family Leporidae, which also includes hares. Rabbits have long hind legs and short front legs. They have long ears and large slightly protruding eyes placed to the sides of the head that gives them panoramic vision. Rabbits have 16 teeth in the upper jaw and 12 in the lower, including two pairs of upper incisors which grow continuously. Rabbits have unique upper teeth consisting of a pair of gnawing hypsodont teeth (which grow continuously) and a pair of peg teeth hidden behind. This double pair of upper teeth is found only in rabbits and hares and cause a very distinctive 45 degree angle cut on browsed vegetation.
An adult rabbit usually weighs 0.8-2.3 kg, while at birth the young weigh just 35 g each. Juvenile rabbits moult at three months of age and frequently have a white star on their forehead which they loose when they moult.
Rabbits and other leproids share a trait with marsupials where the scrotum is located in front of the penis.
Rabbits are mostly active from late afternoon to the early morning. Typically emerging about one to three hours before sunset, rabbits graze then socialise on or near the warren until dusk when they move further away. Rabbits typically stay above ground during the night unless disturbed.
Rabbits are wary of new food items and changes to their environment. When threatened rabbits will crouch down and freeze or try to sneak away. If this fails rabbits will sprint for the warren or cover with the white underside of the tail showing as a visual warning to other rabbits. When close to cover rabbits will respond to threats by thumping the ground with their back legs and vocalising to warn other rabbits.
Rabbits mostly feed in areas of short vegetation within 300 m of the warren but will travel further when food or water is scarce.
Rabbits form social groups that have a complicated social structure with dominant males typically defending a territory to gain mating rights to the females. Dominant females defend access to nesting sites. At large warrens or where there are dense populations, different social groups may share a common warren or feeding area.
The territory or home range of rabbits varies from approximately 0.2-2 ha depending on rabbit density, food availability, sex, age and surface cover.
Rabbits require a high quality diet of less than 40 per cent fibre with 10-12 per cent protein for maintenance and 14 per cent protein for reproduction.
Rabbits are highly selective grazers, with a preference for plants or parts of plants with the highest nutritional content.
Rabbits generally obtain water from green vegetation but will travel to drink if they can't obtain enough water from their diet.
Like hares, caecotrophy (the re-ingestion of faecal material from the caecum) is a behaviour that is used by European rabbits in order to gain the maximum amount of nutrients from their food as possible.
Soils have a strong influence on rabbit density. Rabbits prefer deep, well-drained soils (sands and light loams) which are often found on the most productive agricultural land. Rabbit warrens are typically larger, more complex and dense on deeper soils.
Rabbits form extensive burrows or warrens for shelter. The warren is the key to the success of rabbits in Australia. It not only provides protection from predators but also protection from environmental extremes. Without protection from the elements, rabbits are not able to breed successfully, as newborns are very susceptible to temperature extremes.
In the absence of warrens rabbits can also exist above ground where there is abundant surface harbour. Fallen timber or logs, rocks, dense thickets of native scrub or woody weeds and heaps of debris create ideal shelter for rabbits. Human activity does not deter rabbits and they may also become a problem around houses, farm buildings and other man-made structures such as water tanks.
In Australia rabbits inhabit a wide range of vegetation types. In temperate regions rabbits can occur almost anywhere except in dense forests, on black soil plains or above 1500m. In tropical regions rabbit distribution is fragmented.
Due to the rabbits' requirement for a high quality diet they are absent from the Pilbara and Ashburton districts of Western Australia due to shallow soils and poor pasture.
In Australia the red fox, feral cat, wild dogs and dingoes, goannas and large birds of prey such as wedge-tailed eagle are the most significant predators of European rabbits.
Diseases and parasites
In Australia rabbits are affected by internal parasites such as coccidia, intestinal and stomach worms, dog tapeworms and species of liver fluke.
Important external parasites on rabbits in Australia include the introduced European and Spanish rabbit fleas, which are important vectors in the spread of myxomatosis.
Rabbits have extremely high reproductive capacity. A single pair of rabbits can increase to 184 individuals within 18 months.
Rabbits become sexually mature at three to four months. Their gestation period is 28-30 days and they have litters of between four and six kittens, which are born blind, deaf and almost naked in short nesting burrows or elaborate above ground nests. Mating can recur immediately after giving birth.
Rabbits have high rates of dispersal generally broken down into two dispersal events. During and immediately after the breeding season 60 per cent of young male and female rabbits disperse from the breeding warren seeking unused burrows and safe above ground harbour.
Just before the breeding season in late Autumn and early Winter a second dispersal occurs with sub-adult males moving to new areas.
Most dispersal is relatively short distance with rabbits joining adjacent social groups however movements of up to 20 km have been recorded. Rabbits move from areas of high rabbit density to areas of lower density.
Rabbits are always searching for new areas to establish. During dispersal rabbits are vulnerable to many hazards such as predation and environmental extremes. Despite common opinion rabbits do not readily dig new warrens preferring to find an unused warren to excavate.
Rabbits require protein rich, fresh growth to stimulate breeding.
Breeding commences at the Autumn break and will continue until vegetation dries off which generally occurs in early Summer.
Rabbits are vulnerable to flooded warrens and exposure during wet and cold seasons.
Breeding stops and rabbit mortality is particularly high during summer months due to diseases, lack of food and water, and high temperatures. Late Summer and early Autumn is therefore the best time to control rabbits as populations are naturally low.
Mortality particularly in the young is high. More than 80 per cent of rabbits die before reaching three months of age.
Sub-adult males disperse as territories become more defined at the beginning of the breeding season.
Rabbits can live for 1.5-2 years in the wild.
The European hare is the only animal in Australia that looks similar to the rabbit. The hare is larger, has longer black-tipped ears, longer hind legs, move differently and can run faster.
Impact on ecosystems and waterways
The impact of rabbits on the Australian environment has been disastrous. Rabbits have significantly altered the botanical composition of extensive areas of natural habitat.
Rabbit damage to native vegetation can seriously disadvantage native animals. In certain areas, rabbits are in direct competition with native wildlife for food and habitat. Ecological changes associated with high rabbit numbers have been blamed for the disappearance of the greater bilby Macrotis lagotis, and the pig-footed bandicoot, Chaeropus ecaudatus, and for putting many other species under stress.
The impact of rabbits (in combination with kangaroos) in rangeland national parks have resulted in native plants and animals being in poor condition with little chance of regeneration.
Rabbit populations may sustain numbers of predators such as cats and foxes subsequently increasing pressure on native animals, particularly those in critical weight ranges below 5 kg.
Excessive grazing pressure by rabbits contributes to loss of land through soil erosion. These erosion effects lead to off-site problems, such as reduced water quality, increased soil movement which may incur expensive repair measures.
Agricultural and economic impacts
In 2009 the national impact of rabbits through lost agricultural production was estimated at $206 million per annum. In combined data for Tasmania and Victoria rabbits are estimated to have cost approximately $30 million in lost production for the beef, lamb and wool industries per year.
Farmers in South Australia were reported to have begun walking off their land because of rabbits as early as 1881. This was only 22 years after their introduction to Australia and only six years after they were declared pest animals in South Australia.
In 1952, the production increase followig the spread of myxomatosis was worth an additional $68M and in 1953 the increase in Australia's wool clip was estimated at 30 million kgs. By 1960, sheep numbers had risen from 88 million to over 152 million.
A rabbit grazes more closely than domestic stock weakening perennial grasses during summer, potentially eliminating them from established pastures. The pasture is then likely to be invaded by broadleaf weeds and annual grasses.
Rabbits also affect revegetation and soil erosion reclamation projects by feeding on newly planted vegetation or burrowing. Even low numbers of rabbits can have a devastating effect on tree-planting programs or intensive horticultural operations. Rabbits also cause damage to grain crops and have significantly reduced crop yields in some areas.
In a trial in south-western Victoria, two areas each a hectare in size, one protected against rabbits, the other unprotected were studied over a two month period. In the first month, the protected area supported 38 sheep each day, compared to twelve on the unprotected area. In the second month the protected area supported 45 sheep whereas the unprotected area could support only seven.
Recommended control measures
Where a land owner is served with a control notice, such as a Directions Notice or Land Management Notice, in accordance with the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994, the land owner must comply with the specific requirements of that notice including undertaking the required measures listed in that notice during the stipulated time frame.
The Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR) recommends integrated pest management using all available control measures implemented in a coordinated manner at a landscape scale.
Read more about European rabbit management
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