European rabbit

Origin: Southern France and Spain

Animal status

This species is an established pest animal (feral or wild populations only) in the state of Victoria.

Read more about the classification of invasive animals in Victoria.

Populations

History of spread

Early introductions of European rabbits into Australia were domestic breeds that were unable to survive in the wild. 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)
  • Woody Island (Queensland).

In 1859, approximately 7 rabbits were released at Barwon Park near Geelong. Just 7 years later, 14,253 rabbits were shot on Barwon Park.

By 1875, rabbits were 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 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

European rabbits occur throughout Victoria except in alpine and closed forest environments.

Animal biology

Appearance

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 2 pairs of upper incisors that 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 are found only in rabbits and hares and cause a very distinctive 45 degree angle cut on browsed vegetation.

The male rabbit is called a 'buck', the female rabbit is called a 'doe' and her young 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 2.3kg, while at birth the young weigh just 35g each. 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. Typically emerging about 1 to 3 hours before sunset, rabbits graze and socialise on or near the warren until dusk where 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 300m 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 to 2ha 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 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 European rabbits in order to gain the maximum amount of nutrients from their food as possible.

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, 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.

Predators

In Australia, the most significant predators of European rabbits are the:

  • 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 they now occur naturally throughout much of the rabbits range. Variable virulence of the different virus strains and increased genetic resistance by rabbits to the diseases over time has lessened their effectiveness and it is why efforts continue to be made to identify more virulent strains of RHD in particular. Notwithstanding, MV and RHDV still limit rabbit numbers to about 15% of what they could be, and 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.

Rabbits require protein-rich, fresh growth to stimulate breeding. Rabbits can breed at at time of year provided good quality feed is available, though a majority of breeding in Victoria tends to commence at the autumn break and will continue until vegetation dries off which generally occurs in 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, which are born blind, deaf and almost naked in short nesting burrows or elaborate above ground nests. Mating can recur immediately after giving birth.

Dispersal

Rabbits have high rates of dispersal that is generally broken down into 2 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.

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 20km 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.

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 and currently there are at least 304 Australian threatened 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. Rabbits 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.

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 and it's possible there may be no safe rabbit density for some tree and shrub seedlings.

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 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.

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 5kg.

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 2013/14 the national impact of rabbits through lost agricultural production was estimated at $216 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 6 years after they were declared pest animals in South Australia.

In 1935, it was estimated that if rabbits were eradicated the State of New South Wales alone could immediately carry another 12,000,000 sheep.

In 1952, the production increase following the spread of myxomatosis was worth an additional $68 million 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 to the ground 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.

In only 3 years of high rabbit densities, the cover of subterranean clover has been shown to reduce from 75 per cent to 20%.

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.

Effective rabbit management on a property near Colac has allowed an increase from 1.75 DSE (dry sheep equivalent) to 7.75 DSE over a 5-year period.

A dairy farmer in the same Colac area has increased his milk production by 300 per cent and doubled his fodder harvest over 5 years simply by tackling his rabbit problem.

In a trial in south-western Victoria, 2 areas each a hectare in size, 1 protected against rabbits, the other unprotected were studied over a 2-month period. In the first month, the protected area supported 38 sheep each day, compared to 12 on the unprotected area. In the second month the protected area supported 45 sheep whereas the unprotected area could support only 7.

Management

Recommended control measures include:

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

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 pest management using all available control measures implemented in a coordinated manner at a landscape scale.

References

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Page last updated: 30 Jul 2020