Arabbit at night. Rabbits live for about 1.5years in the wild. (Photo: Mike Rendle)
Rabbits were intro-duced to Ireland by theNormans in the 12thcentury and are nowcommon throughoutthe island. They werekept in enclosed war-rens and exploited as afood supply.Its Latin name,cuniculus, meansunderground passageand these adaptableanimals may be foundanywhere they canmake burrows,although they avoidwet areas.The general popula-tion of rabbits remainsrelatively stablealthough numbers fluc-tuate locally as a resultof two virulent dis-eases, myxomatosisand viral haemorrhagicdisease (VHD). Thesewere introduced intowild rabbit populationsto control their num-bers.Domestic rabbitsare also vulnerable toboth of these highlyinfectious diseasesand owners canarrange effective vacci-nation for their pets attheir local veterinarypractice.When numbers arehigh, they are oftenregarded as pests butthey have a veryimportant place in thefood chain and make amajor contribution tothe diet of otherspecies such as buz-zards and stoats.Well known for theirability to reproduce,they can have severallitters each year fromthe age of around threemonths. With an aver-age litter size of six,these high numbersare balanced by a 95%mortality rate in theirfirst year and a lifespan of only 1.5 years(domestic rabbits maylive 10 years or more).Babies are bornnaked and blind in aspecial burrow, or stop,made by the doe.Weaned at four weeks,they leave this burrowto take their place inthe rabbit community.Their ability to breedhas encouraged theiruse as a laboratoryanimal for testing prod-ucts such as cosmet-ics, although animaltesting is becomingincreasingly redundantin favour of morehumane methods.Although they havebeen domesticated forcenturies, rabbits stillretain many qualities oftheir wild ancestorsand it is possible for adoe of any breed togive birth to a babywith the natural agoutifur colour.Contrary to popularbelief, rabbits do notmake good children'spets. As prey animals,most do not like to bepicked up and cuddled.They need plenty ofspace and a suitableenvironment.The traditional rabbithutch is outdated anddoes not allow a rabbitto exhibit naturalbehaviour. Often keptin isolation, thesesocial animals preferthe company of theirown kind. Young rab-bits are very difficult tosex accurately, whichmeans that buying apair of 'females' maylead to an unexpected(and unwanted) popu-lation explosion.Juveniles are docileand submissive, but ataround 3-6 months ofage many becomeaggressive.In the wild, rabbitsbecome naturally com-petitive and aggressiveas they mature -domestic rabbits areno different. Neuteringwill resolve manybehavioural and breed-ing issues.Diet is important toavoid common healthproblems. This meansproviding a constantsupply of high fibrematerial such as hay orgrass (not grass clip-pings from mowing thelawn). Rabbits are vul-nerable animals andrequire a great deal ofcare and attention.They will require asmuch, if not more,commitment and workas any other family pet.With a lifespan incaptivity of more thanten years, rabbitsshould never bebought on impulse -there are plenty of rab-bits in animal sanctuar-ies in need of goodhomes.