I worry about our wild rabbits. Although not native to Britain they have been here for so long that they have become hugely significant ecologically speaking, as well as being serious pests of agriculture and horticulture. Their ecological value lies mainly in their role as food for predators, including some of our birds of prey, such as buzzards, and for our beleaguered rarer carnivores (rabbits comprise about 85% of the diet of our polecats), some of which are still struggling to recover from the effects of persecution by our ancestors; also rabbits are valued on some nature reserves as habitat managers, helping to maintain herb-rich grassland by their nibbling and browsing.
A talk by Brian Boag at The Mammal Society’s 2016 Spring Conference in Staffordshire revealed worrying evidence of the potentially devastating impact of a new and virulent strain of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV): Brian reported on huge declines from about 2008 onwards in rabbit abundance in parts of Scotland and Northern England, with an associated 17% decline in buzzard numbers in Scotland. The trouble with RHDV (unlike Myxomatosis) is that it kills rabbits relatively quickly and they tend to die out of sight, so the effects of an outbreak can be easy to miss if we are not keeping an eye on local rabbit numbers. My worry is that we could easily lose our wild rabbit populations without even noticing. So I decided to start my own very simple monitoring, and anyone can join me if they wish!
For me, as I go about my work and play mainly in Worcestershire and Herefordshire (but also when I go further afield by car or train), at the end of each day I designate it as either a ‘rabbit day’ or a ‘no rabbit day’ based upon whether I saw a wild rabbit; and accordingly I put an ‘R’ in my diary to identify each ‘rabbit day’. Currently most days have an ‘R’ in the diary because live rabbits have been pretty easy to see, either grazing on roadside verges as I drive past, running across roads at night as I drive home from a survey, or sun-bathing outside their burrows as I walk on the Malvern Hills first thing in the morning. So if I keep my eyes open and keep up my simple recording I should be able easily to spot a sudden disappearance of rabbits from my ‘home range’.
If you want to do something similar it would help to spread our effort across a wider area. You don’t have to restrict yourself to just spotting live rabbits; you could include fresh road casualties and fresh field signs (droppings, scrapes, fur, fresh burrows etc); but I like the simplicity and immediacy of recording live bunnies!