In the eleventh century, what we now know as a ‘rabbit’ was called a ‘coney’. The word ‘rabbit’ was the original name for a ‘baby coney’, but the name became used for the adult rabbit quite recently. This is why we do not have one defined name for a baby rabbit, but must use ‘Kitten’ or some similar baby animal name.
Rabbits were brought to Great Britain from France 900 years ago and they were seen as a major economic asset.
Rabbits bred rapidly so they were convenient for fur aswell as eating. In the days before the fridge, rabbits were considered just the right size for a meal without any waste.
The rabbits were kept in special walled enclosures called ‘warrens’, a term which now refers to all rabbit colonies and their burrows. Rabbits were carefully looked after by a ‘warrener’ who fed them and provided them with protection from predators.
Occasionally the rabbits had access to surrounding fields to scamper around in. They would eventually return to the warren for shelter. This practice cost their owner nothing, as the rabbits would feed on natural vegetation, or raid the crops of local peasants. Some rabbits would often escaped from their warrens and became established in places where the soil was easy to dig such as on sandy heaths and clifftops. The rabbits were not exterminated so their numbers rapidly increased, especially in the South of England.
In the 1700’s, the rabbit population greatly increased in number. Farmland management changed all over England and extensive hedgerows were created enclosing the fields. Hedges provided an ideal habitat for the rabbits. They could dig burrows and have a field full of food close to their homes. It is not surprising the rabbit population increased rapidly.
A Cruel Fate of the Rabbit – Myxomatosis
By the 1950’s, rabbits had become one of Britains most serious mammalian pests. It was estimated that the damage they caused cost over 50 million pounds per year. In 1953, the ‘Myxoma’ virus was deliberately introduced to the rabbit population and it spread very quickly.
The virus was transmitted in rabbit fleas, spreading to other rabbits in the underground burrows and nests. The resulting disease, ‘Myxomatosis’ (pronounced mixa-ma-TOE-sis), was very painful and almost always fatal within 10 days. It killed more than 99% of the rabbit population in two years.
The decrease in rabbit numbers had major consequences, depriving predators of an important source of food and also allowing scrub to grow back onto grassland. Myxomatosis is still present in rabbits today, particularly in crowded populations, but it is much weaker and more rabbits are immune. Less than 60% of infected animals die and their rapid breeding makes up for any losses within a short period of time.