This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
The Rabbit (Lepus cuniculus), Fig. 64, is not a native of Britain but was introduced into this country from Spain. It differs from the hare by its generally smaller size, by its shorter ears, of uniform brown colour, and by the shorter limbs, consequently lesser speed. The rabbit is social and burrowing in its habits, numbers of individuals congregating together and forming colonies, which, reared and preserved, are called "warrens." Rabbits always select the situations best suitable for burrowing, such as sandy pastures and hill-slopes, knolls on commons, outskirts of woods, and hedge banks. The burrows which the rabbits excavate are irregularly disposed, and communicate freely with each other. Rabbits are extremely prolific, and begin to breed when about six months old. They may breed six or seven times a year, producing from five to seven or eight at a birth.
The parturient rabbit excavates a special burrow for herself in which to give birth to and shelter her progeny. The "nest" is lined with down plucked from her own body. The young are hairless when born and have their eyes closed. The eyes open about the tenth or twelfth day. When about half grown the young rabbits are highly esteemed as food, and the flesh of the full-grown rabbit is greatly appreciated. Besides, the skin is of value, being largely employed in the manufacture of felt hats, muffs, furs, and boas. The refuse-skin, ears and feet - are also used as articles of manure in fruit-growing and hop-producing districts.
Rabbits are less given to roaming over wide areas than hares. From the burrows outwards the rabbits clear almost everything edible before them, thus making sure of a full "look out," a velvety lawn, and supply of tender herbage. Nevertheless, rabbits will go a long distance for feeding on any special food-crop they delight in, such as a field of carrots, parsnips, parsley, turnips, swedes, winter tares, clovers, etc. Indeed, they devour almost every description of agricultural crop, including, besides those named under hares, beans, peas, and potatoes, the injury inflicted being most marked in dry seasons, the stunting of the plants favouring their depredations. Though having less aversion to wild grasses than hares, the rabbits so foul pastures that neither cattle nor sheep eat herbage on land tainted excessively by them. This chiefly occurs near the burrows, on borders of woods and plantations, from whence the rabbits come out to browse on meadows and pastures, eating off the herbage and also closely cropping cereal and other crops for a considerable distance from the boundaries.
Fig. 64. - The Rabbit.
Rabbits injure young plantations by nibbling the shoots and gnawing the stems of the trees and shrubs, always interfering with the growth and often destroying the plants: thorn, acacia, ash, broom, gorse, hazel, and hornbeam, with larch, Austrian pine, Scots pine, and Norway spruce being generally preferred. Even in wooded districts few species of conifers or broad-leaved plants escape nibbling and gnawing by rabbits in severe winters, while young plantations are soon ruined where rabbits are numerous and with snow on the ground for several weeks. On sandy land in moors and hilly districts where woods occur here and there, rabbits overrun recently formed plantations, nibble the young shoots and girdle the stems of nearly all trees, burrowing in certain places and damaging the roots.
In parks, ornamental coverts, and pleasure grounds, also in orchards, rabbits have "tastes," as the following record of their doings, aided by hares, during a severe winter, testify:
Destroyed by eating or peeling at or down to snow-line. Apple-trees (some of thirty years' growth), Colchic and common laurels, hemlock spruces, hollies, Irish heather (Dabaecia, syn. Menziesia polifolia and varieties - excellent fodder), Japan cedars, laurus-tinuses, roses, skimmias, sweet bays, and yuccas.
Shoots eaten and stems seriously injured. American oaks, ashes (often barked), Austrian pine (badly), brooms (excellent fodder), common silver fir (also Balm of Gilead and Frazer's), elms, evergreen oaks, furze (capital food), heaths, holly-leaved berberry (good fodder), horse-chestnut, junipers (much relished), laburnums (commonly barked), larches, limes, mountain ash, Norway maple, Norway spruce, oaks, ornamental crabs and pears, poplars, Scots pine, Spanish chestnut, sycamore, white and red cedars, and willows (except bitter).
Young growths nibbled or gnawed off. Araucaria imbricata, arbor vitae (Thuia sp.), arbutus, Atlas cedar, aucubas, beeches (sometimes barked), berberises (deciduous and evergreen), Bhotan pine, briars or wild roses (hips excellent food for birds), cotoneasters, deciduous cypress, Deodar cedar, deutzias, diervillas (weigelias), Douglas fir, English yews, euonymuses, flowering currants, for-sythias, guelder roses, hypericums, ivies, Japan quinces, Lebanon cedar, lilacs, mock oranges, Nordmann's silver fir, Portugal laurels, Sequoia (Wellingtonia, gigantea), sweet briars (hips capital food for birds), Swiss pine, whitethorn (Crataegus species and varieties sometimes barked), wild service and Pyrus species and varieties generally.
Lightly nibbled or gnawed. Cherries, medlars, pears, and plums (standard trees of a dozen years' growth), younger ones more or less seriously injured. Abies (Picea) cephalonica, A. concolor, A. grandis, A. nobilis, A. Pinsapo, blackthorn, Chamaecyparis (Cupressus Lawsoniana and varieties), C. nutkaensis (Thuyopsis borealis), C. (Retinospora) pisifera, dogwood, Picea (Abies), alba (white spruce), and P. Menziesii (Menzies' spruce).
Not injured. Alders, andromedas, birches, bitter willow, box, Corsican pine, Irish yews, kalmias, periwinkles (greater and lesser), excellent cover in deep shade, rhododendrons, azaleas and spurge laurels.
The observations refer to shrubs and trees of ordinary planting size up to those of thirteen years' growth from planting. Recently planted suffered most from the hares and rabbits, the degree of damage being proportionate to the age of the plants, presence, depth and continuance of the snow. Where the snow ranged from 1 to 3 ft. or more in depth, as resulted from drifting, hares had access to the tops of trees 6 to 8 ft. on the snow-drifts, they suffering almost as much damage as trees of 3 to 4 ft. height did where only a few inches of snow was on the ground. Hares always nibble, gnaw, and peel above the snow-line. Rabbits, on the other hand, take up their abode in the "caves" formed by snow overlying evergreens, where they feed on the stems, and on the weather breaking up, acres of cover, such as common laurel, soon become an eyesore. Rabbits, unlike hares, nibbling here and there, clear all their food-plants before them in successional order from their burrows, though travelling considerable distances to secure special food, especially in hard winters and in deep snows continuing more or less, where cover offers, till the snow departs.