Although the rabbit has many enemies in the British Isles, nevertheless it manages to persist; in fact, its range is spreading, for within the last thirty years or so it has become common in parts of Scotland where at one time it was not to be found. Man, dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, owls and hawks all help to reduce its numbers, and yet it sucoeeds in spite of this persecution but myxomatosis has greatly reduced them in recent years. Its sucoess is not due to its brain, nor is it due to the possession of defensive teeth or claws. Its sucoess is due to the following combination of features :—
The rabbit usually commences to breed at about six months old, and may have as many as five or six litters of young between February and September. Each litter consists of three to eight young rabbits. Owing to this rapid rate of breeding, a rabbit population increases greatly in size unless there are natural enemies to keep the numbers down. In Australia the absence of natural enemies has permitted the rabbits to increase in numbers to such an extent that they have become a serious pest.
Care of the Young
The mother takes great care of the young rabbits during the first ten days of their life, when they are blind and helpless. The nursery is made in a burrow 2 to 3 ft. deep, and consists of deadand grass, lined with hair from the mother ’s own fur. During the daytime the mother leaves the nest, and carefully closes the entrance to the hole with earth. The mother looks after the young until they are about a month old, and will even defend them against such enemies as the stoat and weasel. The young rapidly become self-reliant, and when they can fend for themselves the mother no longer concerns herself with them.
The rabbit has long ears which catch the slightest sound, and large prominent eyes set at the sides of the head so that they have a wide range of vision. Its senses are very acute, and at the least sign of danger it runs for its burrow.
The rabbit progresses in a series of leaps, carried out by the hind legs which are adapted for this method of movement. They are strong and muscular, and have a much elongated foot region which gives the necessary push from the ground when the animal is running. Owing to its speed, the rabbit is likely to reach its burrow before it is caught by a pursuing enemy. However, sometimes when it is being hunted by a stoat, the rabbit becomes so paralysed with fright that it is easily caught.
This provides the rabbit with a life-saving retreat down which most of its enemies are unable to follow it. When burrowing, the rabbit digs with its front feet and kicks the earth backwards with its powerful hind legs.
The greyish-brown colour of the rabbit harmonizes well with a background of earth, or with the dead leaves and undergrowth that are found in a wood, and consequently it is difficult to see a rabbit among such surroundings.
The usual food of the rabbit is grass, but if this is scarce it can thrive on many other plants, such as garden vegetables, tree bark, turnips and young bracken and gorse shoots.
Rabbits are gregarious animals, andand play together. If danger is perceived by one rabbit, generally an old buck, he thumps the ground with his hind legs, and this noise is the signal for a general scamper to safety. It has been suggested that the white tail of the rabbit, which is shown when it is running, is for the purpose of guiding the young to the burrows, but if this colour of the tail has a use it is more probably that of a warning signal. Thus, if a rabbit while at dusk notices the white tail of another rabbit that is running away, it immediately takes to flight too.