• Wed. Aug 10th, 2022

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Rabbits face a fresh onslaught akin to myxomatosis – can they survive?

After bouncing back from one viral threat, rabbits are being sucker-punched by a second killer disease – and these unsung eco-warriors need our help

Life 16 March 2022

European rabbits (Oryctolagus ciniculus) juveniles emerging from burrow, Cheshire, UK May

Ben Hall/naturepl

MR MCGREGOR’s only desire was to keep Peter and his pesky playmates off his vegetable patch – and, if he got lucky, to make a pie out of them, according to Beatrix Potter. Meanwhile Elmer Fudd’s fervent wish was to put a bullet through his arch-nemesis, Bugs.

Popular culture depicts a certain antagonism between human and rabbit, while often emphasising the bunnies’ role as sassy survivors. But having already seen off one huge existential threat in the past century, the viral disease myxomatosis, rabbits now face another horrendous adversary, rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus, or RHDV. At the same time, we have come to realise that rabbits aren’t just fast-breeding agricultural pests, but key to many healthy, functioning ecosystems worldwide. “Rabbits are in a lot of trouble,” says Pip Mountjoy at UK government agency Natural England. “They need our help.”

The European rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, evolved around half a million years ago. It was once widespread across Europe, including the British Isles, before being penned into Iberia by the last ice age. Their global expansion began in the 1st century BC with the Romans, who domesticated rabbits for food and fur and spread them back across their former range.

Some say the Romans reintroduced the rabbit to Britain, others point to the Normans. It was definitely the British who brought them to Australia in 1859 and New Zealand in the 1860s. A small colony established in the US in 1875 to control weeds quickly expanded across North America. The European rabbit is now one of the most widespread species on Earth, living on every continent except Antarctica.

That is partly because …