Back in the late summer we had two very tiny rabbits which regularly emerged from Farnley Hall woods to feed in the garden, apparently completely without maternal support for an adult never accompanied them. One was distinctive being completely black (pictured) even including its tail. Black rabbits occur naturally and seem to be common around Wharfedale.
After a month the black rabbit disappeared but the other one kept coming, gradually increasing in size until now it is fully grown and ready to breed itself. It has been joined by a second but the numbers we see have never attained the plague proportions of which rabbit populations are capable.
It seems likely that the survival of just a small number of rabbits is due to the virus disease myxomatosis which is present in rabbit populations and spreads rapidly, transmitted by blood-sucking insects.
I have vivid memories of a week spent in a cottage in southwest Scotland forty years ago. The surrounding fields were dotted with hundreds of rabbits, all in various stages of the disease but still clinging to life while overhead circled buzzards all no doubt with larger families than normal to feed.
Myxomatosis first reached Britain in 1953, possibly via rabbit fleas attached to migratory birds or, more likely, imported by farmers as a pest control, as happened in many countries, notably Australia. In Britain rabbit numbers plummeted to less than 1% of their previous level although they have slowly recovered.
We have only had one rabbit in our garden afflicted by the disease, a big buck rabbit with sores on its face and virtually blind, which sat under our pear trees eating fallen fruit until it recovered, after which it ranged along our street for several years, immune to the attentions of the local cats which gave it a wide berth. It could well be that the rabbits we now see in our garden are those which have inherited its developed immunity to the disease.
Rabbits are an important prey item for many carnivores, from weasels and stoats to foxes and in Europe for two lynx species, the smaller of which, the Iberian lynx, is still the world’s rarest big cat.
Personally I like to see a few rabbits quietly grazing in our garden and, as I am temporarily unable to wield a lawn mower, I could do with a few more to keep the grass, buttercups and daisies at bay.