Rabbits invades gardens and allotments in search of fresh vegetation

The rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) belongs to the order Lagomorpha. The only other species of this order is the brown hare. A fully-grown rabbit is up to 40cm long. Colours range from light sandy to dark grey and even black. They weight 800-900g. The gestation period is 28-30 days, with an average of five young per litter and females may produce up to four or five litters per year. The male is known as a buck and the female a doe.

Rabbits are generally nocturnal but diurnal in undisturbed habitats. They dislike long grass because they get wet bellies. They live communally in an underground system called a warren. The utilise communal alarm systems by thumping with their hind feet or assume an erect posture to warn against impending threats. Ranges tend to be 150m-200m radius. Small grass fields surrounded by hedge banks and cover are ideal habitats.


Rabbits eat a wide range of vegetation but are greatly attracted to agricultural crops, however depending on food availability they will switch to eating bark from trees – so gardeners be warned! Rabbit lawns are heavily grazed lawns resulting in habitatchanges and in some areas only moss remains. Burrowing encourages weeds and plants that rabbits avoid e.g. elder. Rabbits leave signs of their presence in an area e.g. burrows, droppings 7-10mm in diameter, latrines, scrapes, runs and fur.


Damage can result from both digging e.g. holes in paddocks or field edges posing risks to livestock or horses and feeding activities e.g. gnawing or bark stripping, cereal crop or damage to vegetables. Complete eradication of any but small populations is rarely practicable. Myxomatosis is caused by a virus which is spread from rabbit to rabbit by the rabbit flea, killing about 20% of the rabbit population each year. It is illegal to deliberately spread myxomatosis.


The most effective time for control is from November to March. Very often it will be appropriate to select a combination of techniques that reduces numbers by culling together with proofing and exclusion techniques that prevent rabbits invading an area after control has been achieved. Permanent fencing, temporary electric fencing and tree guardsare more cost effective where rabbits are difficult to access for control or where immigration is a problem within an area. Habitat modification e.g. scrub or ground cover clearing may be needed to access burrow’s, but measures must be taken to avoid damage to other wildlife and habitats. Scrub clearance should not be undertaken during the bird-nesting season.

Mervyn WalshBA(Hons), HDip.EnvMgt, MRSPH

Field Conservation Biologist