European rabbit

Common name: European rabbit

Scientific name: Oryctolagus cuniculus

Other common name: rabbit

Origin: Southern France and Spain

Rabbit, side profile, sitting in dry, grassy paddock

Animal status

Rabbits are an established pest animal in the state of Victoria.

Read more about the classification of invasive animals in Victoria.

Populations

History of spread

Various domestic breeds of rabbits were brought to Australian during early European settlement. Some were released and some escaped, but none were unable to survive in the wild and establish populations.

That is until 1859, when approximately 7 wild rabbits were released at Barwon Park near Geelong. Just 7 years later after their release, some 14,253 rabbits were shot on Barwon Park.

Black and white photo, 50 rabbits sitting around edge of dam drinking, rabbits scattered around paddock in background

By 1875, rabbits were well established in the western districts of Victoria, around Sydney and at the southern end of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. 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 advance varied from 10 to 15 kilometres per year in wet forested country to over 100 kilometres per year in the rangelands. The invasion of the rabbit was the fastest of any colonising mammal anywhere in the world.

Distribution in Victoria

Rabbit densities are greatest around non-arable rough country. This includes creeks, riverbanks, erosion gullies and rocky outcrops.

Animal biology

Appearance

European rabbits are small mammals that belong 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 give them panoramic vision to help detect predators.

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 are found only in rabbits and hares and cause a very distinctive 45-degree angle cut on browsed vegetation.

Male rabbits are called a 'bucks', female rabbits are called a 'does' and young rabbits are called 'kittens'. A rabbit's fur colour is typically grey-brown with a pale belly. Black or ginger rabbits represent less than 2 per cent of the rabbit population. White rabbits are rarely seen in the wild.

An adult rabbit usually weighs 0.8 to 2.3 kg, while at birth the young weigh just 35 g. Juvenile rabbits moult at 3 months of age and frequently have a white star on their forehead, which they lose when they moult.

Behaviour

Rabbits are mostly active from late afternoon to the early morning. They typically emerge from the warren about 1 to 3 hours before sunset and graze/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.

Rabbit jumping in grass, side profile, fully stretched, white bottom of tail visible

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 with complicated social structures. Dominant males will typically defend a territory to gain mating rights to females, while dominant females will defend access to nesting sites. At large warrens or where populations are dense, different social groups may share a common warren or feeding area.

The territory or home range of rabbits varies from approximately 0.2 to 2 ha depending on:

  • rabbit density
  • food availability
  • sex
  • age
  • surface cover.

Diet

Rabbits require a high-quality diet containing less than 40% fibre with 10 to 12% protein for maintenance and at least 14% 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 rabbits to gain the maximum amount of nutrients from their food.

Preferred habitat

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, denser and more complex in 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.

Dry paddock. Four rabbit burrows in foreground. Green trees in background

In the absence of warrens, rabbits can exist above ground where there is an abundance of surface harbour. Fallen timber and logs, rocks, dense thickets of native scrub and woody weeds along with heaps of debris create ideal shelter for rabbits. Rabbits may also become a problem around houses, farm buildings and other structures such as water tanks as human activity does not deter them.

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 1500 m. In tropical regions rabbit distribution is fragmented.

Predators

In Australia, the most significant predators of rabbits are:

  • red fox
  • feral cat
  • wild dogs and dingoes
  • goannas
  • large birds of prey such as wedge-tailed eagle.

Diseases and parasites

In Australia rabbits are affected by internal parasites such as:

  • coccidia
  • intestinal and stomach worms
  • dog tapeworms
  • species of liver fluke.

There are two types of diseases present in Australia that are deadly to rabbits including Myxoma virus (MV) and rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus RHDV (RHDV, formerly known as calicivirus). These diseases were brought to Australia as biological controls for rabbits and now occur naturally throughout much of the rabbit’s range. Variable virulence and increased genetic resistance to these diseases has lessened their effectiveness on rabbits. This is why efforts continue to be made to identify more virulent strains of RHD and other viruses. Notwithstanding, MV and RHDV still limit rabbit numbers to about 15% of what they could be. Without them, the additional cost to agriculture alone could be in excess of $2 billion a year.

Important external parasites on rabbits in Australia include the introduced European and Spanish rabbit fleas, which are important vectors in the spread of myxomatosis.

Reproduction

Rabbits have extremely high reproductive capacity. A single pair of rabbits can increase to 184 individuals within 18 months.

That said, rabbits do require protein-rich, fresh growth to successfully reproduce. Therefore, they can breed year round if good quality feed is available, though the majority of breeding in Victoria tends to commence at the autumn break and continues until vegetation dries off by early summer.

Rabbits become sexually mature at 3 to 4 months. Their gestation period is 28 to 30 days and they have litters of between 4 and 6 kittens. Kittens are born blind, deaf and almost naked in either short nesting burrows or elaborate nests above ground. Mating can recur immediately after giving birth.

Dispersal

Rabbits have high rates of dispersal that are generally broken down into two dispersal events. During and immediately after the breeding season, 60% of young male and female rabbits disperse from the breeding warren seeking unused burrows and safe above-ground harbour.

Then, just before the breeding season in late autumn and early winter, a second dispersal events occurs, with sub-adult males moving to new areas.

Most dispersal is of a relatively short distance, with rabbits often joining adjacent social groups. However, movements of up to 20 km have been recorded. Rabbits will 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 and instead prefer to find an unused warren to excavate.

Similar species

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

Impact on ecosystems and waterways

The impact of rabbits on the Australian environment has been disastrous. At present, there are at least 304 Australian threatened fauna and flora species that may be adversely affected by competition and land degradation by rabbits. Consequently, competition and land degradation caused by rabbits has been listed as a key threatening process to threatened species conservation under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

Rabbits selectively feed on certain species of plants at critical stages of development, such as seeding and seedling establishment. This activity can severely affect the regeneration or recruitment of critical vegetation communities. In some instances, the impact created by rabbits on vegetation is often replaced with noxious or unpalatable weed species.

Tree planting, close up, branches cut short on 45 degree angle, green grass behind

Research in semi-arid sites has shown that rabbit densities of 0.5 per hectare (1 rabbit per 2 hectares) can severely damage some plant species.

Rabbit damage to native vegetation can also 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, as well as 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.

Hilly paddock, elevated view, green grass, eroded brown areas, car tracks

Rabbit populations may sustain numbers of predators such as cats and foxes. This will subsequently increase 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 and increased soil movement, which may incur expensive repair measures.

Agricultural and economic impacts

It has been estimated that rabbits cost Australian agriculture in excess of $200 million in lost production every year. In Victoria and Tasmania alone, it’s estimated that rabbits cost $30 million in lost production for the beef, lamb and wool industries per year.

Rabbits graze more closely to the ground than domestic stock, weakening perennial grasses during summer and potentially eliminating them from established pastures. The pasture is then likely to be invaded by broadleaf weeds and annual grasses, making it less suitable for livestock production

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.

Large pasture field, elevated view, green crops on left side, eroded, sandy soil on right side

Management

Recommended control measures include:

  • baiting
  • ripping
  • harbour management where applicable
  • fumigation.

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 recommends integrated approach that includes baiting, ripping/harbour removal and follow up fumigation. This approach is often referred to as the 'Rabbit Recipe'. Landholders should also implement their control program in a coordinated manner at a landscape scale.

Read more about European rabbit management.

Image credits

Figure 1 courtesy of Chris Lane

Figure 2 courtesy of Anne Young

References

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  • Commonwealth of Australia (2016). Background document to the Threat abatement plan for competition and land degradation by rabbits.
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  • Stead, D.G. (1935) The Rabbit in Australia
  • Stodart, E. and Parer, I. (1988). Colonisation of Australia by the rabbit. CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology Project Report No. 6.
  • Wagner, F. H. (1981) ) quoted in Williams K, Parer, Coman B, Burley J & Braysher M (1995), Managing Vertebrate Pests: Rabbits Bureau of Resource Sciences and CSIRO
  • Williams, K., Parer, I., Coman, B., Burley, J., and Braysher, M. (1995). 'Managing vertebrate pests: rabbits'. (Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra).
  • Williams, C.K., (1991). Efficacy, Cost and Benefit of Conventional Rabbit Control. Australian Wool Corporation.
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Page last updated: 14 Apr 2021