Thursday, January 3, 2013

The European wild rabbit

European wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

The European wild rabbit is a native of Spain and Portugal but is now found throughout most of Europe and other continents including Australia

The Romans were probably the first to introduce it outside its native region about 2,000 years ago whilst the Normans released it in Britain sometime after the year 1,000AD.

 It is estimated that in Britain there are nowadays more than 40 million wild rabbits. More recently it was been introduced in other parts of the world including Australia, where it has become extremely common and is classified as a pest.

Wild rabbits are usually very shy creatures. They spend the day hiding and come out of their burrows and hiding places at dusk and dawn sprinting back to safety at the slightest sign of danger especially from predators and humans. Tame individuals are usually captured when young and only the shyest survive to reproduce. 

On the other hand if these rabbits are not hunted the tame specimens would have an equal chance to reach maturity and breed. Over several generations this could result in a tame rabbit population; which is exactly what has happened at the Għadira Nature Reserve, where rabbits have been protected for nearly thirty years. Within the perimeter of the reserve one can see wild rabbits during daytime feeding on the vegetation and allowing one to approach relatively close to them. In the Nature Reserve there is now a young rabbit which is so tame that it walks up the warden without any fear at all and can be photographed without the need of a long lens.

Other species of animals show varying degrees of tameness and shyness. On the island of Oland, off the Swedish coast, one finds a large area which was declared as a nature reserve more than two hundred years ago. Here one finds several mammals including deer and hare, which have lost their shyness thanks to the protection they had for the past two centuries. 

In Malta, the blue rock thrush (Malta’s national bird) is very shy. It is restricted to cliff faces where it breeds in inaccessible crevices. In some parts of the Mediterranean, where it is not persecuted, it is a tame bird and regularly visits gardens. The yellow-legged gull is another shy local species. It also breeds on remote cliff faces as well as on Filfla whilst in other countries this same species is much tamer and approachable. These and other local bird species would be much easier to get close to in Malta if they are no longer shot at. 

This article was published in The Times on 14.01.09.

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