Forget the urban fox - rabbits are now moving into the city

THE Twentieth Century fox moved to the city and is prospering. Now the 21st Century rabbit is following suit. 

As its rural populations decline, new urban ones are growing, at least in German cities such as Berlin and Hamburg. There is talk of ‘rabbit infestations’.

To live, cheek by jowl in towns, humans and foxes had to change their ways. So must rabbits.

According to a paper in the Journal of Zoology, urban bunnies are abandoning some of their rural traditions.

That the European rabbit should become a city slicker is no surprise; this is an adaptable creature. Native to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, the furry little vegetarian attracted the attention of the Romans two thousand years ago.

Soon, rabbits were being raised for the pot in Rome. The legions took them north to Britain following Claudius’ invasion there in 43AD.

A thousand years later, the Normans brought rabbits to Ireland, where warrens were established mainly on islands; there was one on Lambay by 1191.

Rabbits can alter a landscape; coastal dune systems, for example, may be so undermined by burrowing that they collapse. Introductions had catastrophic effects elsewhere in the world.

In 1859, 24 rabbits were released on a farm in Victoria, Australia. Their offspring spread uncontrollably throughout the country, until biological warfare, in the form of myxomatosis, put a stop to their gallop.

It proved to be an excessive measure; the European rabbit is now listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN.

Rabbits have few natural enemies in Australia. In Europe, however, they run the gauntlet of foxes, badgers and birds of prey.

Burrows offer security when danger threatens but grassland soils are hard to dig and locations suitable for burrowing are few and far between.

Ancestral bunnies, therefore, had to share the limited space available and close-knit rabbit communities developed.

There was a security bonus; mature bucks and does can be very aggressive. Able to deliver powerful kicks with their hind legs and bite with their sharp teeth, they defend their colonies from predators. Hind-leg thumps to the ground are the rabbit equivalent of air-raid sirens; ‘proceed immediately to the underground shelter’ they seem to say.

Frankfurt has a thriving rabbit population. Madlen Ziege, and a team from the city’s university, compared warrens in the centre with those in the suburbs and outskirts of Europe’s financial capital.

She found that rabbit social groups are smallest in the heart of the metropolis and become progressively larger with distance from it.

Warrens in rural areas have an average of 32 entrances. City centre ones only have seven.

Cities offer rabbits abundant nooks and crannies for shelter, sleeping and raising families. Some bunnies live under buildings.

Gardens and parks are the residential areas of choice, offering year-round supplies of food and people feed rabbits.

Urban temperatures are higher than rural ones; there is less need to huddle together for warmth during winter nights.

Dogs, cats and foxes roam but, with security burrows close to hand, predation is less of a threat and rabbits don’t need so many entrances to their warrens.

“Urban and suburban habitats satisfy the needs of wild rabbits far better,” says Ziege.

The parallels with the human population are interesting; urban dwellers are now the majority worldwide.

Before we moved to the cities, our rural-based families were large and extended. Typical city ones nowadays have just parents and a few children.

Some urban bunnies live alone in private burrows. According to Euromonitor, the number of people on their own has risen by 80%, globally, in the last 15 years.

Rabbits and humans, it seems, are subject to similar environmental pressures.

The bunny, one of the world’s great mammalian pests, is both a major food source and every child’s favourite pet. Now it has secured yet another string to its bow.

  • European wild rabbits in the inner city of Frankfurt. Madlen Ziege. Goethe Universität, 2015.

MORE RICHARD COLLINS: Mountain birds on higher alert

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