Common mysteries

This species is listed by the IUCN as near threatened globally and in Europe it is a red listed species. In Ireland it is a familiar species which has been here for 900 years but is afforded no legal protection and has received little attention in mammalian research. It is generally treated as an invasive introduced pest species whose only benefit is as prey for other protected species. It is Oryctolagus cuniculus, the digging ( oryctos) hare (lago), the Irish name coinín is probably derived from the old English cony now called the rabbit.

Rabbits were introduced by the Normans in the 12th century for their meat and fur and placenames referring to rabbits are quite common in Britain and Ireland (Coney Island, Co Sligo). The first six inch maps from 1837 marked rabbit warrens where they occurred in the sand dune systems and rabbit warren is clearly marked above Magheramore on the first six inch map.

rabbit warren on 1837

This area has clearly had a rabbit population for almost 200 years, but we know nothing about its ups and downs.  Our knowledge on rabbits in Ireland is based on a few isolated studies, bycatch from bigger studies investigating the protected Irish hare and dietary studies who main focus was on the predator that fed upon the rabbit (Atlas of Mammals in Ireland 2010-2015, NBDC). There has been no national census of the rabbit in Ireland, but the population is considered to be stable, with natural fluctuations ( Ireland Red List No. 3. Terrestrial Mammals, 2009).

At Sheskinmore there has been no census or recording in any way of the population dynamics of the resident rabbit population. The population size has varied over the last decade from  scarce to abundant.  Generally, their population density varies throughout the year and is highest in September and October. Densities may range up to 15 per hectare in winter and up to 40 per hectare in late summer. Adult mortality varies from 30-50% and is caused by predation, viral diseases, food supply in autumn and the weather in winter. Foxes, stoats, badgers and mink prey on rabbits.

Rabbits -

The myxomatosis virus was introduced to Ireland in 1954. ‘The Rabbit Industry in Ireland’ (Michael Conry, 2016) details the introduction of the virus as a deliberate attempt to check rabbits grazing meadows and seedling arable crops. Not all rural dwellers were trying to eradicate the rabbit. The meat and fur were a valuable commodity. In the 1870’s most of the rabbit meat in the Manchester market came from Ireland. Ireland had long been an exporter of rabbits to Britain, which peaked during the two great wars. The myxomatosis virus was harmless to humans but the image of blind blundering rabbits slowly dying out in the open put people off  eating wild rabbit for good. Until the virus was introduced and before turkey became the Christmas dinner centre piece, rabbit would have been a favourite for the Christmas feast ( Michael Viney, Irish Times January 2017).

The virus affected the Sheskinmore population and is said to have been introduced to this population in an attempt to reduce the numbers and the damage they cause. The rabbit and the virus have co-evolved and led to less virulent strains of the virus and more resistant rabbits. The disease is now endemic  in rabbits and outbreaks regularly occur, usually in late summer. Another viral disease, rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease, was first identified in rabbits in Ireland in 1996 and has been adversely affecting the wild population.

The Sheskinmore rabbit population rose sharply from 2007-2017 but has declined somewhat since then. This may be due to deliberate control ( shooting), disease or natural mortality. They have a negative impact on the dune habitats due to grazing and burrowing which causes direct damage and erosion. They are grazing the cows winter fodder and can cause injury to the cows from sprains on uneven eroding ground. Although they are a source of prey for Stoat, Buzzard and Golden Eagle they are also elevating the fox population which are a threat to breeding waders.

They are able to endure all of the above and evade control measures and deserve some focused study even simply to gather some baseline information on this common little resident (pest !).

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