Rabbits are sociable animals and live in colonies in burrow systems known as warrens.

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Rabbits and humans

Humans have been the rabbit's main enemy since it has been regarded as a major pest for the last 200 years. Rabbits cause a lot of damage to crops, gardens and the countryside. Earlier last century, when the rabbit population was much larger, they caused such extensive damage to crops and trees that they were included in the Pests Act 1954.

In 1954, a flea-carried virus called myxomatosis was introduced to the wild rabbit population and this killed more than 95% of Britain's rabbits. Myxomatosis is a distressing disease, affecting the eyes and brain. The drastic reduction in rabbit numbers also caused a decline in the number of foxes, buzzards and other predators as well as affecting the growth of vegetation; unwanted plants such as gorse, bramble and coarse grasses were encouraged to grow. However, rabbits started to become more common again, having developed a resistance to the virus. Populations in some areas are occasionally affected by new strains of the virus.

Another rabbit virus, known as VHD (Viral Haemorrhagic Disease) and RCV (Rabbit Calicivirus) has also broken out in many countries. This is a highly infectious and lethal form of viral hepatitis that affects European rabbits. Some viral strains also affect hares and cottontail rabbits. Mortality rates generally range from 70 to 100 percent. The disease can live on the ground for many days and can be passed to other rabbits who pass by. First reported in China in 1984, the RNA virus then spread to 40 countries and is now endemic in most parts of the world.

Even though rabbits are once again causing damage to crops and forest plantations, they are providing their predators with much needed food. Also, without rabbits, much of our downland and cliff tops would be overgrown with gorse, bramble and hawthorn scrub. Rabbits suppress the growth of shrubs by nibbling the growing shoots; the resulting turf encourages the growth of low-growing plants such as vetches and trefoils. In turn, these small flowering plants attract many butterflies and the short grass is suitable for other insects such as ants. The insects in turn attract many species of birds.

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