Rabbits are not rodents as many believe, they belong to the order Lagomorpha. They live in a system of burrows, known as a warren, but will also live under sheds, in rubble and in piles of dead tree roots and branches.
They eat a wide range of herbage and are attracted to agricultural crops that are nutritious and plentiful.
The main breeding season is January to August but autumnal breeding is becoming more common with the arrival of warmer winters. Females start to breed at three to four months. Gestation is 28-30 days and females produce four to five litters a year. Breeding success is lower in high density populations and higher in low density, so a reproductive explosion can be expected following a period of control.
Myxomatosis - a virus spread by the rabbit flea, and peculiar only to rabbits. Symptoms are swollen eyelids and ear bases. When it first reached Britain in 1953 it was fatal, spread rapidly and killed 99% of the wild rabbit population. Now weaker strains predominate and rabbits have developed some genetic resistance. Survivors acquire immunity which they have for life, so by 1980 it was only killing about 20% of rabbits each year. It plays a part in naturally keeping rabbit numbers down, but it is illegal to deliberately spread myxomatosis.
The legal position. Before taking action, assess whether the seriousness of the damage justifies it. Remember, occupiers of land have a legal obligation to control rabbits or prevent them doing damage on neighbouring land.
Under the Wild Mammals Act 1996, it is an offence to intentionlly inflict unnecessary suffering on any wild animal.
Under Section 12 of the Pests Act 1954, it is an offence to intentionally spread myxomatosis or VHD to uninfected rabbits as a means of control
Rabbit Clearance Orders (Section1) - Rabbit Clearance order No 148 issued in 1972 made the whole of England and Wales a rabbit clearance area (excluding the City of London, the Isles of Scilly and Stockholm Island)
This means that all occupiers have an obligation to control rabbits on their land, unless they can establish it is not practical for them to do so. In this case they must prevent rabbits from doing damage by the use of rabbit-proof fencing. An occupier within a rabbit clearance area has the right to kill rabbits by any lawful means except shooting.
For small numbers, cage traps are an effective method of control.
Gassing - very effective when correctly administered and can reduce the rabbit population by 80%.
- look for the possible presence of badger setts and fox earths. It is illegal to gas badgers and fumigant is not approved for use against foxes. IF IN DOUBT DO NOT GAS !
- aluminium phosphide fumigants are the only ones approved for the control of rabbits ( and moles and rats)
- it is a requirement to hold an approved certificate of competence before using aluminium phosphide for vertebrate control in the United Kingdom.
Shooting - daytime shooting is rarely effective. Night shooting with spotlights can be but it is a specialised technique and is subject to certain legal restrictions (Ground Game Act 1880 and Firearms Act 1968).
Snaring - intended to tether animals prior to humane despatch. Only free running snares may be used, self-locking snares are illegal. There is much public opposition to snaring and there is risk of catching non-target species and
Spring Traps - only approved traps such as Fenn Mark IV and the BMI Magnum 116 can be used to catch and kill rabbits. The rules of placement are specific in order to protect non-target species.
Live Cage Traps - can be used all year round but is most effective in winter. Bait traps with carrot or apple
How to catch that rabbit:
In an urban garden or domestic situation there is only one safe and reliable way to control rabbits and that is with a Rabbit Cage Trap.
The advantage of using a cage trap is that it is quiet, discreet, effective, humane and any non-target animal caught can easily be released unharmed.
Where cage traps are effective:
- Where burrows are difficult or impossible to access.
- On sensitive areas such as golf courses, amenity land and in gardens.
- Where pets and other animals may be at risk from other methods of control.
- Cage trapping is particularly appropriate where a small number of rabbits are causing damage to high value crops.
Limits of effectiveness:
- Large farms with high numbers of rabbits are not suitable for cage trapping alone.
- In most cases control levels of 80% to 90% should be achievable.
- Cage traps must be checked twice daily requiring a degree of commitment from the trapper.
- The rabbit is trapped alive, as so must be humanely dispatched - not released onto a neighbour's land.
Where to place and how to set traps:
- First estimate the number of traps required. For reasonable rapid and effective control, you should have 3 to 5 traps set at any one time for every 10 rabbits you estimate are using the area. The best way to estimate numbers is to count grazing rabbits at dusk or dawn.
- In a garden situation where 5 to 10 rabbits are causing a problem, set a minimum of four traps.
- Traps should be about 10 paces apart and parallel to the harbourage from which the rabbits are coming.
- Make sure each trap is firmly sitting on level ground by grinding it back and forth to bed it in. You could spread a little soil on the floor of the trap. The trap must not rock when the rabbit enters.
- If the ground is sloping, face the trap door downhill.
- Do not cover the traps, but if you wish you may spray paint them green to make them more discreet. Allow time for the paint to dry and air outside before use.
Setting and Baiting the Traps:
- Carrots are the best bait but apple and turnip are also effective if you need an alternative.
- Slice the carrots longitudinally and then section into 10cm lengths.
- Having placed the traps in a suitable position, you can set the trap mechanism. Make sure that the trap plate is set so that any animal stepping on the plate will easily trigger the mechanism to drop the door. Make sure that the door drops easily and closes cleanly. Make any adjustments necessary to the trap mechanism to ensure everything works smoothly and reliably. Baiting can now start.
- In order to monitor the bait take, it is advisable to be specific about how many baits are placed in and around each trap.
- Bait each trap with 10 carrot pieces (6 beyond the treadle, 2 just in front of the treadle and 2 just in the entrance. bait outside the trap with a further 5 carrot pieces ( 2 just outside the trap entrance and the remaining 3 at one pace intervals directly away from the trap entrance and parallel to the harbourage). Try and ensure that the trail of carrots passes over any rabbit tracks leaving the harbourage, or ensure that the carrot pieces are on or near obvious rabbit resting and grooming places or latrines.
- This might sound rather specific and tedious, but this system has been proven to work and you should copy it in order to achieve the best possible success.
- Uneaten bait should be replaced as soon as it starts to deteriorate; the fresher the bait the better.
- Once the outside bait is being regularly eaten, replace only the bait inside the trap.
- You may wish to tie the trap open for a few days whilst the rabbits get used to going inside before setting the trap, but many people find it is not necessary.
Inspecting the Traps:
- Most rabbits will be caught overnight, so inspect the traps first thing in the morning and then again in the early evening.
- You may catch non-target species like hedgehogs, pheasant, small birds or hares, so it is essential to be able to release these as soon as possible and get the trap re-set.
Rabbit removal and dispatch:
- Rabbits may be removed by putting a hessian or fibre bag over the trap entrance and encouraging the rabbit to go into the sack. Once in the sack it is easier to reach in and to get hold of. Rabbits will not bite you.
- Or, reach into the trap and grasp the rabbit by its scruff or its hind legs. Grip securely as it might well struggle.
- In order to quickly and cleanly dispatch the rabbit, hold it up by its rear legs so its head is facing down towards the ground, and using a heavy stick, strike the back if its head with a firm and hard blow. That should kill it instantly, but follow this up with a second blow to make certain. Neck dislocation is the method professionals use to kill rabbits but this method requires some skill and should not be attempted without one to one instruction.
How long to trap for?
- Once you start trapping, try to keep up the effort for a continuous period. Often it will take a month to clear rabbits from an area.
- Where you manage to trap over half the rabbits initially seen over the first 10 days of trapping, you will probably achieve a very good level of control over the next twenty days.
- Where you have caught less than a quarter of the rabbits within the first ten days, consider if you may be able to place the traps in a better position and try again, or change the bait.
Check your traps twice daily, remove non-target species and dispatch target species quickly and humanely.
Rabbits are native to the Mediterranean area, and were only introduced to Britain in the 12th or 13th century.
- Buck rabbits are about 48cm long; does are slightly smaller with a smaller head.
- Greyish brown fur with orange tinge at the nape of the neck.
- Short tail, black on the top, white underneath.
- Long ears but unlike the Hare, no black tips.
- Black and ginger rabbits are common in large well established colonies.
- Rabbits can breed all year round, but the normal breeding season lasts from February to August.
- The doe digs a special burrow away from the main colony and lines it with grass and fur pulled from her own belly.
- The young are born naked and blind.
- They grow quickly and after 3-4 weeks they leave the burrow and fend for themselves.
- Each female can produce 3 to 6 litters per year of about 5 kits in each litter.
- Predation is very high and fewer than 10% reach adulthood.
- Wild adults seldom survive for more than 18 months.
Evidence of infestation:
- Visual - rabbits are most often seen grazing in the early morning or late evening.
- Adult rabbits tend to feed through the night whereas baby rabbits tend to feed in the twilight hours.
- Burrows - are usually in banks or hillsides and rabbits favour light sandy soils, but will tackle making burrows in heavy soils if there is no easy alternative.
- Burrows are usually 10-20cm diameter and there is nearly always a 'back door' bolt hole to enable them to quickly escape if a predator enters the burrow system.
- Latrines - rabbits tend to deposit in regularly used areas.
- Paths - between their burrows and feeding areas tend to be well defined and can be identified as rabbit because their action of hopping along the track leaves alternate flattened and less flattened areas along the route.
- Scrapes - are left throughout their territory as they scratch small scrapes and often deposit a few droppings to mark their territory.
- Feeding - rabbits prefer a tight close grass sward and so tend to favour certain areas which are eaten down very close to the ground compared to adjacent areas.
- Rabbits thrive in conditions where the grass sward is naturally short, such as golf courses, gardens and agricultural land grazed by sheep.
- They prefer dry conditions and light sandy soil is perfect for them to establish extensive colonies called 'warrens'.
- The valuable role rabbits play in the conservation of certain wildflower habitats such as the chalk downlands of southern England and the coastal machair grassland of Scotland was only recognised after the myxomatosis disease outbreak in the 1950 killed 99% of infected rabbits in Britain. The sudden reduction in rabbit numbers resulted in competing vegetation shading out rare wild flowers in these areas.
- Rabbits are grassland feeders and cause considerable damage to farmland arable and grass crops in Britain.
- They graze closer to the ground than sheep and consequently areas subject to intensive cropping by rabbits becomes unavailable for sheep to graze.
- They feed mainly during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk, but adults also feed throughout the night.
- Rabbits live in established underground warrens, in colonies from 2 or 3 individuals up to massive colonies of several hundred individuals.
Rabbits prefer feeding areas in fields, gardens and golf courses.
The most effective long-term method of keeping rabbits off a property is to erect a rabbit netting fence, dug 6 inches into the ground, all around the property.
Correctly positioned and properly maintained, a good quality fence can last for 20 years or more.
When planting trees in rabbit infested areas, always use tree guards of at least 60cm height.
There are products on the market that can deter rabbits from feeding in certain areas for a limited period of time, but they all have a short effective life and need to be renewed regularly, especially after periods of prolonged rain. However, they can be very effective where the requirement is to keep rabbits from grazing on a plant until it has grown beyond rabbit damage, for example newly planted trees.
It should be recognised that in areas of high rabbit grazing pressure and little alternative food, these products will struggle to dissuade hungry rabbits.