The European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is different from the Cottontail Rabbit, also known as the North American Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). The rabbits that are found in Australia are European Rabbits. Rabbits were originally found in Africa, Spain and southern France and eventually spread to all of Europe, and the ‘New World’ of Asia. It is hard to believe that during the last ice age, such adaptable and abundant animals were a disappearing species, until man intervened.
Domestication of the Rabbit began by French Monks between the fifth and tenth centuries. Rabbits were considered a delicacy by the French, so when the Anglos (the French Tribes) invaded the Normans (the British Tribes) in the eleventh century and they brought with them the rabbit. Rabbits were still rare outside the ‘rabbit farms’, called warrens. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the fates of Rabbits were turned around.
Due to the planting of hedgerows, changes in farming procedures and practices, and the decrease of rabbit predation by its natural enemies, e.g. foxes, due to the recreation of hunting, rabbits thrived. There was more shelter, more food and not as many predators. Perfect for the comeback of a very adaptable animal.
Rabbits were introduced to islands, and took over the ecosystems there, as food for shipwrecked sailors when exploration started. The ecosystems weren’t ready for the takeover. Rabbits like soft sandy soil that they can burrow in, and the soft soil and sands were perfect for the rabbit. The animal didn’t have any natural predators on the islands as it takes thousands of years for as ecosystem to adapt to a small change, so a sudden introduction would, naturally, have a huge effect on the island life. Rabbits were introduced to approximately 800 islands and they are still found on these islands, at the top of the ecosystem, or ‘food chain’.
Humans helped a lot with the establishment of rabbits in Australia, more than they know. With the development of agriculture in Australia, it has provided a similar terrain to the farms in England and Europe, therefore providing food for the animal.
Native animals, such as the Greater Bilby, and the Brush-Tailed Bettong, are burrowing animals. When rabbits arrived in areas that these animals inhabited they started taking over. They ate the food the small marsupials ate, leaving little or none for the other animals, took over their homes, leaving the marsupials with no shelter, vulnerable to their natural predators and the newer introduced species, such as the fox and feral cat.
Rabbits have had to adapt to all kinds of terrain. One thing that has helped is their high reproductive rate. The quicker an animals establishes itself, the quicker it takes over. Although rabbits are seasonal breeders, they can breed at any time of the year. The gestation period is about 30 days and a litter consists of 5-8 young. A female rabbit can breed from 8 months of age.