About this pest
Distinctive features: Grey-brown, furry, small mammal. Long ears (60-70 mm) with narrow black rims, large hind feet, white belly and short white fluffy tail. Hopping gait with tail up when not alarmed, scuttling rush with tail down when worried.
Size: Body length is around 450 mm, weight is around 1.5 kg.
Droppings: Small dark pellets about 5mm in diameter (up to 10mm diameter in large males). Generally slightly oval and pointed.
Footprints: Four toes show on front and rear feet. Rear feet are much longer than front feet.
Kill signs: Not applicable (herbivore).
Vegetation damage: Pasture grazed right to the ground, ring-barking the base of saplings and small trees, eating the growing tips of short saplings.
Eye shine: Pink/red.
Distribution: Found throughout most of New Zealand in varying densities. Highest densities in areas of Central Otago, the McKenzie Basin, North Canterbury and Marlborough.
WHY ARE RABBITS PESTS?
The direct ecological impacts of rabbits are related to their feeding and burrowing behaviour. The impacts of rabbit feeding behaviour are very similar to those of other grazing animals such as sheep, deer and goats. Varying combinations of these animals have been present in many areas where impact studies have taken place, making it difficult to distinguish the effects of one species from another. As might be expected from a herbivorous species, rabbits can have significant negative impacts on native plant species. Grazing can lead to favoured plant species becoming restricted to areas where rabbits can’t access. Rabbits can cause changes in vegetation composition, as the species that rabbits don’t like to eat are left behind while the tasty ones are removed. Weeds can also become more common as rabbits open up gaps in pasture or native vegetation. Rabbit burrowing behaviour speeds soil erosion, which further damages habitat for native flora and can affect water quality.
Secondary impacts of rabbits are related to their role as a favoured food source for feral cats and ferrets. As rabbit populations decline, predator populations also decline, but some predators disperse to new areas and survivors may switch to feeding on native prey instead of rabbits.
Rabbits can be confused with hares. The most telling differences are; hares are much bigger and heavier, have longer ears with a black tip, tawny fur, and yellow eyes, and lope with their tail down.
Rabbits are a significant agricultural pest throughout their introduced range and New Zealand is no exception. They compete with livestock for food and it has been estimated that the economic loss caused by rabbits in productive agricultural areas is around $1.10 to $2.10 per rabbit per stock unit carried. The overall economic impact of rabbits is difficult to quantify, but estimates are in the range of tens of millions of dollars per annum upwards. Rabbit burrows can injure livestock if their legs become trapped. Ferrets are one of the main vectors of bovine Tb and their populations are sustained through feeding on rabbits - this leads to an increased level of disease risk at that location. Rabbits will damage trees and shrubs by feeding on shoots or on the bark of larger trees. Rabbits eat seedlings and strip tender leaves from established vegetable crops.
Rabbits produce small pellet-like droppings that are dark in colour and quite compacted. The pellets are generally around 5 mm in diameter but those of large adult males (bucks) can be up to 10 mm wide. An average sized rabbit can produce 200-300 pellets a day, which are generally deposited whilst feeding. Adult male rabbits concentrate their droppings in areas known as 'buck heaps'. A buck heap may contain thousands of indivudal pellets.
Can be confused with:
Rabbit droppings are most likely to be confused with those of hares. Hare droppings are generally larger, more friable (less compacted), more spherical (rounder) and lighter in colour. Groupings of hare droppings tend to occur around prominent structures within their range whereas rabbit buck heaps may be in more open areas. Deer, goat and pig droppings are black and shiny when fresh, not brown and dull looking.
Listen to Jack Powell, long-time rabbiter and animal pest control officer, describe rabbit droppings in wetter North Island and drier South Island areas. Audio clip courtesy New Zealand Biosecurity Institute Oral History Project.
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Footprints and Tracks
Paws and feet
Rabbit footprints can be found on soft surfaces such as sand, snow and mud. Rabbit footprints are quite distinctive because the hind foot is much larger than the front. The dimensions of a rabbit’s hindfoot prints usually are 75–95 mm long and 25 mm wide, while forefoot prints are 40 mm long by 25 mm wide. Often however, rabbits do not place all of the hindfoot on the ground when they run or the fur on their feet may disguise the footprint. In these instances, the length of the hind print could be 50 mm or less. Examining the tracks can show whether the animal is hopping slowly or running. When rabbits move around unhurriedly they bob (short hops) with the tail up, showing the white underside. When they are alarmed rabbits will scuttle in a rush with their tail down.
Can be confused with:
Distinguishing between hare and rabbit footprints is difficult, but hare footprints will be larger (the length of hare hindfeet are 130-155 mm). Looking out for other clues such as droppings or burrows is the only reliable way to determine which species made the tracks. Hares have a loping gait and always have their tails down.
Trails and Runs
Rabbit trails are also called runs. They can be little more than a narrow path of flattened grass across open areas and will often lead to places where there is cover, such as tall grass or scrub, where an animal can hide. Low tunnels may be formed through vegetation, such as tall grass.
Dens and nests
Rabbit warrens are very distinctive. There will normally be several burrow entrances with varying amounts of bare earth around them. Rabbit droppings will almost certainly be present and you may see rabbits nearby. Areas of bare earth may show signs of rabbit digging, so any bare earth within an area should be checked for signs of rabbit presence. Each warren contains a complicated network of tunnels leading to several burrow entrances at ground level. Separate blind-ended burrows can also be used as a quick way to escape predators.
Can be confused with:
Hares do not create burrows; instead, they make small scrapes in long grass where they rest during the day. Sometimes, Norway rats create burrows but these will be smaller than rabbit burrows. Some burrowing seabirds create burrows that could be confused for a rabbit warren but there is usually little overlap in distribution between burrowing seabirds and rabbits.
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Understorey (less than 3m)
Rabbits will graze favoured vegetation to the point that there is nothing left but bare earth. They also suppress the growth and regeneration of favoured species, leading to changes in vegetation composition.
Can be confused with:
Sheep can graze pasture to very low levels, but not to quite the same extent as rabbits and often without much bare earth.
Rabbits will gnaw on bark, weakening the tree and leaving it vulnerable to infection. They target trees of all ages and if the bark is removed all the way round the trunk (ring barking), the tree will die above that point. Rabbits (and hares) have a groove down the centre of the upper incisor teeth. The grooves in these teeth can show up in bitemarks as a distinctive scalloped outline, which helps to distinguish them from marks of other species such as possums. (See more on the Landcare Research chewcard guide.)
Rabbits will also eat the growing tips of seedlings and saplings, which can prevent regeneration of tree species.
Can be confused with:
Possums, hares, goats and deer will also eat tree bark. Looking for other pest sign (such as droppings and footprints) will enable you to correctly identify the culprit responsible.
Rabbits like to eat leafy vegetation and will nibble tender leaves away from stems. This is often seen in gardens, but also in vegetable crops.
Can be confused with:
Other larger herbivorous (plant eating) animals like deer and goats may leave more ragged plants. Slugs and snails also eat the tender part of leaves, but they leave a distinctive slime trail as evidence. Caterpillars can also completely strip a plant, but any remaining leaves will have holes rather than chew marks.
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Kill sign is not applicable because rabbits are herbivores (eat plants only).
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Rabbits have four large incisor teeth at the front of the top jaw (two large ones with two smaller ones tucked directly behind them) and two incisors on the bottom jaw. The top front incisors have a groove down the middle of them that can produce a scalloped bite mark. The premolars and molars at the back are designed for chewing and grinding the rabbit plant diet. Rabbits teeth grow continuously. Like all rodents they have no canine teeth.
Can be confused with
Hare and rabbit bite marks are very similar, as their teeth are arranged in a similar way and are of similar size. Can also be mistaken for possum incisor teeth marks but those of rabbits/hares have four curved arcs rather than two for possum. The lower incisor marks of rabbits/hares are very straight but are strongly curved in possums.
Rabbits live throughout New Zealand from the coast up to about 1,000 m above sea level in the South Island and 1,200 m in the North Island, with the exception of Ruapehu where they can occur as high as 1,800 m above sea level. They are most common in dry areas which more closely resemble the Mediterranean habitat they originated from. Densities are low to moderate where rainfall is high. Densities are also lower in urban areas, where land is being developed or scrub cleared, and where the grassland comprises tall dense swards (e.g. tussocklands). Recently they have started to become highly problematic in areas that have been developed for small lifestyle blocks in Central Otago. Highest densities occur in parts of central Otago, McKenzie Basin, North Canterbury and Marlborough. Rabbits have been eradicated from 18 offshore islands and have died out on a further 10 but are still present on another 25 islands.
Rabbits rarely make a sound, but may squeal if attacked by a predator. Occasionally they thump their hind feet on the ground as an alarm warning.
Rabbit fur is grey-brown in colour, with white fur on the underside of the body and on the tail. The fur is very soft to the touch.
Female (doe) rabbits pluck their fur to line their nests. Traces of rabbit fur may, therefore, lead to burrows containing young ones.
Listen to Jack Powell, long-time rabbiter and animal pest control officer, describe the way female rabbits leave tell-tale traces of fur. Audio clip courtesy New Zealand Biosecurity Institute Oral History Project.
Can be confused with:
Rabbit eye shine can be confused with eye shine from a possum on the ground or a large rat.
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The European rabbit originated on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Initially it was spread around the Mediterranean by traders and gradually spread to France (where they were first domesticated) and the British Isles. Rabbits were kept on board ocean-going ships and were slowly spread throughout the world. The first rabbits to arrive in New Zealand were a domestic breed released by Captain James Cook onto an island in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1777. Later, domesticated rabbits were released in various parts of the country, and in the 1850s, wild rabbits were released. Rabbits quickly reached plague proportions and many farmers had to abandon their land since farming sheep in the presence of high rabbit numbers proved to be unprofitable. Rabbits now have a worldwide distribution but, interestingly, populations in Spain, Portugal, and northwestern Africa (Morocco and Algeria) are listed as Near Threatened in the IUCN Red List due to disease, habitat loss, and human induced mortality.
Rabbits are small herbivores that are brown to grey-brown in colour. They have long ears and large hind feet. They move with a distinctive hopping gait when foraging, but can also run rapidly if threatened.
Size and weight
Body length is around 500 mm, weight is 1.3 to 1.5 kg.
Rabbits start to become active towards evening and will continue to be active all night except during strong winds and heavy rain. Home ranges vary considerably (0.36–4.5 ha), with the size being dependent on population size. High density population have smaller individual home ranges when compared to lower density populations. Rabbits live in small groups and construct complexes of interconnecting burrows called warrens, although this is less common in New Zealand than in many other parts of their native and introduced ranges. Indeed some rabbit populations in New Zealand live entirely above ground, e.g. Orongorongo. They have good eyesight and excellent hearing which allows them to detect predators. Rabbits can produce many offspring and in some parts of New Zealand rabbits breed all year round. Young rabbits (kittens or kits) grow rapidly and some early-born does may have a litter before they reach their first birthday.
Rabbits are herbivores and they eat a wide range of plant species. Leaves, shoots and bark are all eaten. To optimise the uptake of nutrients, they produce small mucous-covered 'cecotrope' droppings, which they then re-ingest. These are rarely found as they are usually eaten as soon as produced.
Rabbits prefer open areas with short vegetation and suitable soil to allow burrows to be made. They avoid cold and wet habitats.
Distribution in New Zealand
See distribution clue.
How to get rid of rabbits
Contact your local Department of Conservation or Regional Council office for advice (see Next Steps). Poisoning using pindone, shooting, and fumigation of warrens have all been used. 1080 is widely and more commonly used than pindone to poison rabbits because it is substantially cheaper per hectare. However, it must be carried out by a licensed contractor.
FIND MORE INFORMATION IN:
Allen, J., Buxton, R.P., Hewitt, A.E., Hunter, G.G. (1995). Effects of rabbits and hares on organisms, ecosystems and soils in terms of the Biosecurity Act. Contract Report LC9495/74. Landcare Research, Lincoln, New Zealand.
Barlow, N.D. (1987). Pastures, pests and productivity: simple grazing models with two herbivores. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 10, 43-55.
Norbury, G., McGlinchy. (1996). The impact of rabbit control on predator sightings in the semi-arid high country of the South Island, New Zealand. Wildlife Research, 23, 93-97.
Norbury, G. (2001). Conserving dryland lizards by reducing predator-mediated apparent competition and direct competition with introduced rabbits. Journal of Applied Ecology, 38, 1350-1361.
Norbury, G.I., Reddiex, B. (2005). European Rabbit. In King, C.M., (Ed.), The handbook of New Zealand mammals (2nd, ed., pp. 131-151). Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press.