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History and biology

When did Rabbits arrive in Australia?

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European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) first arrived in Australia with the First Fleet. Originally from Spain and northern France, the rabbit in Australia is well isolated from its natural range. The first populations of wild rabbits in Australia established in south-eastern Tasmania in the early 1800s. Shortly after, the release of about a dozen domestic rabbits by Thomas Austin for sport hunting on his property near Geelong, Victoria in 1859, and several similar introductions, resulted in their liberation on mainland Australia. From that date, rabbits spread across mainland Australia faster than any other introduced animal, and in some cases may have been human assisted. Despite all attempts to prevent their colonisation (after it was realised what a devastating pest it would become), rabbits spread rapidly from Victoria to the New South Wales–Queensland border by 1886, and almost to their current limits by the early 1900s. The European rabbit is now widely distributed across mainland Australia and Tasmania, and also occurs on many offshore islands. They have expanded their range as far north as the Tropic of Capricorn and their range is also closely matched to that of its main predator, the European red fox.

What we know about Rabbit biology

Image source NSW DPI
Rabbits have a very high reproductive potential. Females can mate at 3-4 months of age and can breed at any time of the year if conditions are favourable. Females produce between 4-7 kittens in a litter, and can produce between 30-40 offspring in just 1 year, allowing populations to increase very quickly. The key to the success of the rabbit is the warren. Rabbits excavate warrens for protection from the weather and predators, as well as for breeding. Warrens can be as small as 2-3 burrow entrances or depending on age can be as large as 160 burrow entrances across 1-2 hectares. Large warrens can even consist of hundreds of metres of interconnected tunnels and may be easily seen from the air. However, the average warren consists of between 3 and 15 entrances, often hidden by vegetation and may be less easily identified.

Rabbits don’t always need to excavate warrens and can shelter among surface cover such as blackberry thickets or dense vegetation. This can make it difficult to control rabbits as they become even more difficult to find. Rabbits inhabit a wide range of environments, from stony deserts to coastal dune systems. They can even survive in the snow covered alpine range of Australia during winter. Rabbits can live almost anywhere where they can dig warrens or shelter, but they are less abundant where soil is clay dominated or in deep sandy soils where warrens are difficult to excavate. They also avoid water-logged soils or soils regularly inundated by floodwater. In areas where warrens are used by rabbits, the warren is the weak link in the rabbits armour – and destroying warrens can drastically reduce rabbit numbers. Take note of where warrens are in your area. While rabbits can be seen at any time of the day, they mainly forage at night, in search of green grass, herbs, seeds and roots. They emerge from the protection of their warren shortly after sunset and can graze for many hours unless disturbed. In arid areas rabbits need regular access to water, but throughout most of the range they can survive simply on the moisture and dew they obtain from the plants they eat. Rabbits also have high rates of dispersal, most commonly in search of food or at the commencement of breeding seasons. This high rate of dispersal and movement can mean that rabbits are able to quickly recolonise areas after a control program. Prevent re-colonisation by undertaking follow-up control and remaining vigilant for re-invading rabbits.

For more information on Rabbits, go to:

Rabbit profile: http://www.feral.org.au/feral-species/rabbit/
Rabbit-Free Australia: http://www.rabbitfreeaustralia.org.au/rabbit_problem.html
Rabbit fact sheet: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive/publications/pubs/rabbit.pdf
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