Iberian rabbit

Decline of the European rabbit

May 12th 2009
It is an ecological irony that the European rabbit, which evolved in Spain and gives the country its name (Hispania, from the Roman period, which derives from i-shepan-im, The Land of Rabbits, the Phoenician name given to the west-lying land the merchant civilization traveled to two and a half thousand years ago) cannot re-establish itself in its ancestral home. Still recovering from out- breaks of myxomatosis in the 1950s and a particularly vicious strain of VHD (Viral Haemorrhagic Disease) that wiped out 70-90 percent of the adult rabbit population in the late 1980s — and in spite of its legendary reputation for breeding — the rabbit remains in decline on the Iberian Peninsula.Myxomatosis was released by a French doctor in 1952 to protect his vegetables.

By 1959 the disease had swept through Spain and reached Gibraltar — killing 95 percent of rabbits in many aeas of the peninsula. The importance of the rabbit as a keystone species Spanish Mediterranean should not be underestimated. Keystone species generally fulfill one of four primary functions: predator, prey, mutualist or habitat modifier. Elephants are largely responsible for shaping the African savannah; rabbits in Spain act as both prey and habitat modifiers. They are responsible for the consumption of vegetation, maintaining the Mediterranean scrubland and preventing the landscape from being altered through excessive plant growth.

They also act as distributors, and can be responsible for the spreading of seeds for up to 58 plant species. Moreover, there are around 30 species of predator that enjoy a spot of rabbit. Seventeen raptor species endemic to the Iberian Peninsula — which accounts for about 60 percent of all bird of prey species in Europe — have a rabbit-centric diet. Wolves, snakes, and other predators prey on rabbits, which means that for an animal like the lynx, which is so reliant on it, there are many competitors for the prey available.

Humans, too, have contributed to the decline. With over 30,000 private hunting estates in Spain, the rabbit lives its life between the crosshairs. An indication of the scarcity of rabbits comes from the National Statistics Institute, which states that from nearly 10million a year in the 1980s, only four million rabbits have been shot annually in recent years. With the eyes of the world focused on the plight of the marquee conservation causes, the rabbit has always been overlooked, and it was largely thanks to the Iberian Lynx LIFE Project that conservation in Spain and Portugal now also takes the rabbit into account. It is a simple equation: no rabbits = no lynx.

R. T. / NICK LLOYD El Pais International edition

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