Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
|French:||Lapin de garenne|
|Size||Head and body length: 38 - 55 cm (2)|
Tail length: 4.5 - 7 cm (2)
|Weight||1.3 - 2.5 kg (2)|
The rabbit is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).
One of our best-known wild mammals, the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) was introduced to Great Britain during the Twelfth century AD by the Normans (3). Its hopping gait (2), long mobile ears and short 'bob-tail' have endeared this species to children and adults alike, and domesticated rabbits are popular pets (3). The coat is normally greyish-brown, but can range from sandy yellow to totally black. The belly and underside of the tail are white (3). Rabbits are smaller than hares, and have comparatively shorter legs (3). Males (bucks) and females (does) are similar in appearance, but bucks tend to weigh more and have slightly broader heads (3).
Rabbits originate from southwest Europe and north-west Africa, but they have been introduced to many countries including South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America, for a range of reasons, not least the need for a ready supply of meat (3). Rabbits are at present widespread and common throughout Britain and Ireland (5).
A highly adaptable species, rabbits tend to prefer areas where the soil is loose and free draining, with cover such as scrub or rocks. Favoured habitats include small fields of arable or pasture with hedgerows, as well as sand dunes. They tend to avoid coniferous woodlands, damp areas, and very rarely occur above the tree line (3).
Rabbits tend to be active during the evening and night, but in areas where they are undisturbed by humans they become more active during the day (5). They feed on a wide range of vegetation, including grasses, tree bark, crops, and herbs (5). They live in groups numbering between a single pair and up to 30 individuals, inside burrow systems known as 'warrens' (4). Burrowing is carried out solely by females (3). Within a warren, two distinct hierarchies operate, one amongst bucks, the other amongst does; an individual's status is set during play-fighting as a young rabbit (3). Fighting may occur between two males over a receptive doe (3). Scent marking known as 'chinning', because the scent glands are located underneath the chin, is exhibited by both sexes but is more frequent in males than females. This behaviour reinforces the social ranking of an individual (3).
Sexual maturity is reached at 3.5 months in does and four months of age in bucks, and breeding tends to occur between January and August. Courtship involves males chasing females, and spraying them with urine (3). Mating is a brief affair, lasting just a few seconds, but is repeated frequently while the female is receptive. Gestation takes about 30 days, and one litter is usually produced each month, each litter consisting of two to seven blind, helpless and naked young (kittens), which are born in a nest lined with fur from the mother's belly (3).
Foxes, mink, stoats, polecats, and wildcats prey upon all ages of rabbit; badgers, weasels, buzzards and domestic cats prey on juveniles (5). Rabbits are very alert mammals, with a keen sense of smell. When feeding, they periodically rear up on their back legs to look for danger; they warn other rabbits of danger by thumping their back legs on the ground and raising the white tail, signals that cause other rabbits to bolt back to the safety of the warren (3).
In 1953 the Myxoma virus killed a massive 99% of the British rabbit population (5). A level of resistance is now apparent (4), and although the virus is still present in the population, the mortality caused has fallen substantially (5). Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) was first identified in British rabbits in 1994, and the combined effect of myxomatosis (the disease caused by the Myxoma virus) and RHD is as yet unknown (5). Rabbits are serious agricultural pests and their populations are controlled by shooting, trapping and exclusion in many areas. They can pose serious threats to sensitive habitats, yet conversely, rabbit grazing is essential for the maintenance of other threatened habitats such as calcareous grasslands (5).
Rabbits are not legally protected in Great Britain (4). Following the crash in rabbit numbers caused by myxomatosis, many species dependent on rabbit grazing for the maintenance of their habitats, such as the large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) suffered greatly (4).
For more information on the rabbit:
BBC Wildlife Finder:
For more on the conservation of Britain's mammals:
Macdonald, D.W. and Tattershall, F.T. (2001). Britain's mammals- the challenge for conservation. The Wildlife Conservation research unit, Oxford University. Available from:
This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
- Myxamatosis: a contagious viral disease in rabbits.
IUCN Red List (February, 2011)
- Burton, J. A. (1991) Field guide to the mammals of Britain and Europe. Kingfisher Books, London.
The Mammal Society. Mammal Factsheets (August 2002):
- Leach, M. (1989) The rabbit. Shire Natural History, Shire Publications, Aylesbury.
Macdonald, D.W. and Tattershall, F.T. (2001) Britain's mammals- the challenge for conservation. The Wildlife Conservation research unit, Oxford. Available from: