Rabbit history is important to pet owners because of how strongly our pets’ behaviour, diet, and health is influenced by their wild ancestry. Rabbits seem to have evolved in Northern Spain and were not found in Britain until after 43AD. Our native lagomorphs are hares – the Brown Hare and the Mountain Hare, which have lived in Britain since the last Ice Age. Rabbit history in the UK begins when rabbits were introduced from Europe.
Rabbit History of Roman Rabbits
Rabbits were introduced to Britain by the Romans after they invaded Britain in 43AD; Romans who settled in the province of Britannia brought rabbits to rear as livestock for eating. As far as we know, Roman rabbits were the same as wild Spanish rabbits, not domesticated. Roman settlers adopted the enclosures which native British Celts had built to rear hares (an important creature in Celtic religion, sacred to the goddess Andraste) to house rabbits brought from Spain and it’s believed that the Romans then used nets and ferrets (domesticated polecats) to capture the rabbits when they were wanted as food.
The Roman rabbits seem to have died out in Britain after the Romans left in the 5th Century AD, although there has been some speculation that the rabbits found on Lundy Island, in the Bristol Channel, may be descended from the Roman-introduced rabbits.
Apart from these meat rabbits, it’s believed that the Romans also kept Angora rabbits for their fine silky wool, but I’m not aware of any evidence of Angoras in Britain until much more recently.
Rabbit History of Norman Rabbits
The next introduction of rabbits in Britain took place in the 11th Century when Norman settlers brought rabbits from Normandy to establish them as semi-domestic livestock. All our modern wild rabbits are descended from Norman rabbits who escaped and survived in the wild. Like the Romans, the Normans kept their rabbits in enclosures and allowed them to breed freely, then culled the younger rabbits (called ‘coneys’) as food. These enclosures were called ‘warrens’, they were usually surrounded by a stone wall and often had an artificial mound in the middle for the rabbits to burrow in. Again, the Normans used ferrets and nets to capture the coneys when they wanted them, and a Norman lord would employ Warreners whose job it was to ensure the health and size of the rabbit warren, and to provide the required amount of rabbit meat on demand. Many people in Britain still have the surname Warren or Warrener, in many spelling variations, showing that their ancestors were employed in this way.
Of course, since rabbits can dig far and fast (and deep), a certain number of rabbits escaped over the centuries!
All of these Roman and early Norman rabbits would have been brown agoutis, just like the vast majority of modern wild British rabbits and like their wild Spanish ancestors.
Rabbit History Medieval Rabbits
In the Medieval period, many monasteries kept rabbits for food, fur and as pets, and again there were escapes into the wild. It was during this period of rabbit history, however, that selective breeding began and by the 1600s there were records of variations in size and colour. By the 1800s, rabbits were becoming much more popular as household pets and much more varieties and breeds were developed and recognised, giving us the huge choice of size, shape, colour and coat length and type that we can now choose from.
Wild Rabbit Behaviour
Wild rabbits share many traits with our domestic pets, ways of thinking and behaving that haven’t changed substantially despite domestication. Rabbits are prey animals, on the menu for practically every predator in the UK, and as a result, wild rabbits are very alert, high-strung and ready to run for cover at the drop of a fox’s whisker. They always keep an eye out for danger, even when eating – if you watch your pet, you’ll see that a rabbit will often take a mouthful of food and then lift his head and look around while chewing, ears moving around – looking for potential trouble. Rabbits need places to hide from predators, too, and your pet will still feel unhappy, nervous and stressed if there’s nowhere for her to hide. My rabbit Biscuit adores his old cardboard box, in which he’s made lots of entrances so he can’t be cornered but can still hide from view. My other rabbit Bigwig prefers to nest under an old sleeping bag left hanging from the end of my bed and trailing on the floor. It’s very important to make sure your pet has this safe ‘hole’ to hide in – I make sure I don’t disturb them in their holes unless it’s important, so they feel more secure. Sudden movements and unexpected loud noises trigger a rabbit’s well-developed ‘run-for-the-holes!’ reflex in pets as much as wild ones so take care to avoid scaring your bunny with such things.
If you watch your pet investigating a strange new object in his environment, you’ll see how carefully and nervously he approaches it, almost on tip-toe with ears cocked right forward, ready to leap away if it turns out to be dangerous. Rabbits are curious because in the wild they need to know about everything – is it edible, dangerous, safe or just to be ignored? – and your pet is curious too. Just like a wild rabbit, he wants to know if he can eat it, play with it, ignore it or should run away before it bites!
Wild rabbits also live communally, in groups, and they communicate with other when danger’s around. A rabbit who sees trouble coming will stamp on the ground to warn others, then run off with their tail held up and the white underside flashing to tell other bunnies to run too. Your pet will stamp in fear or anger, just like her wild cousins, and while a relaxed bunny lies down with tail held flat behind her, a tense bunny’s tail is held up against her rump, the pale underside visible as a warning. If your rabbit is stamping, don’t tell him off – try and find out what’s frightened him and then make sure it can’t carry on doing so. In my house, it’s often big seagulls flying past – they could kill and eat a rabbit if they wanted, so I make sure the bunnies have somewhere they can hide out of sight of the windows.
Wild rabbits also share their diet with our pets. Rabbits eat mostly grass in the wild, together with some herbs and sometimes bark chewed from bushes and trees. This is a very high-fibre low-calorie diet that keeps them from getting fat and makes sure their teeth are worn down evenly. Your pet also needs a low-calorie diet with plenty of hard fibre – unless you have lots of spare time, gathering enough greens to feed a rabbit is difficult but make sure they have lots of dried grass (hay) and limit their intake of concentrated food carefully so they don’t get fat. Never feed your rabbit sugary biscuits or chocolate treats! These are far too high in sugar to be good for bunnies and rot their teeth. Try raisins instead, or a bit of dried bread crust they can enjoy crunching up. Check out the Diet page for more tips on feeding your pet as well as you can.
There are some good things derived from rabbit history that our pets share with their wild cousins, too – wild rabbits mark their territory by depositing their droppings in special latrine places – so pet rabbits readily learn to use a litter tray. From our point of view, it’s much cleaner and easier to live with – from theirs, it’s a lovely territory marker! Wild rabbits have a full and complex social life and enjoy grooming their friends or playing with them, or just sitting near each other, and your pet will enjoy having his nose stroked and ear-bases gently scratched, just as if you were another rabbit paying some friendly attention. With care and observation, humans can learn to understand a little bit of rabbit body-language, and this can make your relationship with your pet much more interesting and rewarding for both of you. Domestic and Wild Rabbit Interbreeding
Rabbits continue to escape into the wild to this day just as they have throughout the last two thousand years of rabbit history and occasionally you can see the results of this in the wild rabbit population. I’ve seen baby rabbits as well as adults with black and Dutch-type colouring amongst my local wild rabbits, and my wild rabbit house-companion Coineanach, who lived as part of my household for 11 years, was one of many wild rabbits in the Huntly, Aberdeenshire region who have beautiful golden agouti coats, perhaps the result of a domestic rabbit escaping and bringing a ‘dilution’ gene (which makes the brown agouti coat come through blond) into the wild population. It seems to have done well in the area, perhaps because the soil is often a sandy-yellow there so the rabbits are still well camouflaged from predators. Keep an eye on your local wild rabbit population (and even in the heart of a city, you may well have bunnies living along railway lines or on the airport or playing field grassland) to see if there any interesting colours amongst them!
The History of Rabbit Diseases
Rabbit history shows that rabbits are generally very healthy creatures, particularly in the wild where the slightest impairment means the rabbit will be much easier to catch for foxes, cats, dogs or hawks, but they are subject to two terrible diseases in Britain, both of which can be prevented by annual vaccinations from your vet; Viral Haemorrhagic Disease and Myxomatosis.
‘Myxy’ is the older and better known of these; it is carried by the bite of infected fleas and other insects (another good reason to make sure you keep your rabbits flea-free!) and causes the unfortunate rabbit to develop swollen eyes, ear-bases, nose, mouth, and anus, all of which ooze pus. A ‘myxy’ rabbit will sit, blind, deaf and in miserable agony, while you walk right up to him. In the wild, myxy outbreaks happen every few years and kill many rabbits – or make them extremely easy for the predators to catch! – and in any year, you may well find an odd myxy bunny around. Traditionally, country people who find a myxy rabbit kill it quickly, just to put the poor creature out of its misery and I have done so many times myself – allegedly the disease doesn’t affect humans and you could eat a myxy bunny safely but I’ve never met anyone who wanted to. Myxy is native to South America but was deliberately introduced to Europe in an attempt to reduce wild rabbit numbers in the 1950s in the rabbit history. The death rate for unvaccinated rabbits is nearly 100% and it can take 14 days to kill – most domestic rabbits who catch myxy and haven’t been vaccinated are put down immediately to save them the suffering. Vaccinated rabbits can still catch myxy but it’s almost always survivable with careful nursing and is much milder.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease does exactly what it says – the virus which causes it makes your rabbit bleed internally. It kills very quickly, within 48 hours, sometimes with a little bleeding from nose, mouth or anus and sometimes with no sign at all, and the death rate is somewhere between 50% and 100%. It can be passed from one rabbit to another or the virus can linger for several months in droppings, shed fur, or anything the infected rabbit has touched. It can also be carried on your hands from one place to another, so if you’ve been in contact with rabbits who may have been exposed, make very sure you don’t carry it home to your pets! VHD was first reported in China in 1984 but has now spread pretty much everywhere – it only affects wild and domestic rabbits descended from the Spanish Oryctolagus cunicula, our familiar European rabbit.
Most domestic rabbits who catch these diseases do so because they or some member of their household has had contact with a wild rabbit – the family dog or cat who picks up rabbit fleas is a classic and very common example! – so take care to exercise good preventative medicine for your pet bunnies – keep them and all other pets treated against fleas with a spot-on and make sure your bunnies get their jabs every year. Your local vet will be able to advise on the timing of the injections but it’s advised that you leave at least 2 weeks between the vaccinations for myxy and VHD to allow full immunity to each to develop properly.