How Wild Rabbits Help Save Ecosystems

All that scratching and burrowing protects species.

young European wild rabbit in a field (Species Oryctolagus cuniculus)
Young European wild rabbit in a field. Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Getty Images

European rabbits might not be much to look at. They have a nondescript grayish-brown coat, small ears, and relatively short legs. But these unassuming animals are a keystone species that play an essential role in holding many ecosystems together in the United Kingdom, according to new research.

European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) live in grass and heathland habitats. They are somewhat picky eaters. When they graze, they scratch and burrow, disturbing the ground and brush while they look for desirable food. These movements and how they disturb the ground help the ecosystem.

“Their grazing and digging activities create areas of bare soil/short sward [grassy land] which rare plants and invertebrates require,” rabbit expert Diana Bell of the University of East Anglia’s School of Biology tells Treehugger.

Other grazers, like livestock, create a more homogenous effect on the areas they touch, which is less beneficial for the land.

Combined with all their digging, scraping, and burrowing, rabbits also contribute nutrients to the soil when they urinate and defecate. Researchers have found that this activity benefits lowland grassland, heath, and dune habitats which helps maintain beneficial conditions for many mosses, lichen, plant, insect, and bird species.

Without the help of rabbits, many of these species would have to leave the area or might even die out, researchers say.

Fighting a Rabbit Crisis

But European rabbits are facing a crisis. Due to threats such as disease, habitat loss, predators, and hunting, the animals are classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in their native region, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).

One disease called myxomatosis is an insect-spread virus from South America that was intentionally introduced by a farmer in France in the mid-1950s to control the rabbit population. About 90% of European rabbits died during early outbreaks and the disease continues to affect rabbit populations on the Iberian Peninsula.

To help rabbit recovery, Bell and her colleagues have suggestions in their Shifting Sands habitat recovery project, which includes a toolkit for landowners to save the rabbits and help the ecosystem.

Shifting Sands is one of 19 projects across England that hope to save 20 species from extinction while benefiting more than 200 others.

The Shifting Sands project in Breckland—a large, rural district in Norfolk and Suffolk—is saving some of the area’s rarest wildlife, says Bell.

“After several years of hard work by this multi-partner project, the fortunes of species classed as declining, rare, near-threatened or endangered are now improving in the Brecks,” Bell says. “The project has seen species recover in record numbers—including endangered beetles and plants, one of which is found nowhere else in the world.”

Helping Rabbit Recovery

Now that researchers know how critical rabbits are for entire ecosystems, they are encouraging landowners to help protect them.

One of the simplest things people can do is to create piles of branches and make sloping mounds of soil so that the rabbits can burrow into them and find cover, says Bell.

Over the past three years, researchers have monitored interventions like these and found that they are working.

“Our work resulted in evidence of rabbit activity in significantly higher numbers. 91 % of brush piles showed paw scrapes and 41% contained burrows,” Bell says. “Even when burrows did not form, the brush piles helped expand the range of rabbit activity.”

(Although researchers limited their work to European rabbits, Bell says the same tactics could be put to use for wild rabbits in other parts of the world.

"They’d work well for burrowing rabbit species and perhaps worth trying for those whose specialist habitats have been degraded by providing increased cover from predators," she says.

Conservationists have used other tactics to help protect decreasing rabbit populations such as creating wildlife corridors, which are large swaths of unbroken animal habitats that function like animal highways.

“The latter are important as the species doesn’t move very far,” Bell says. “Efforts to reintroduce/translocate them in the Iberian peninsula have been largely unsuccessful but we’ve managed to do this successfully in the U.K.”

Breckland, the focus for this project, covers more than 370 square miles of forest, grassland, and heathland that is home to nearly 13,000 species, says Pip Mountjoy, Shifting Sands project manager at Natural England.

“That wildlife is under threat. Felling trees and encouraging a species that is often considered a pest may seem a strange solution. But in this instance, carefully managed ‘disturbance’ is exactly what this landscape and its biodiversity needs,” Mountjoy says.

“The project’s interventions have provided a lifeline for this unique landscape, and shown how biodiversity can be promoted by ‘disturbing’ places—not just by leaving them alone.”

View Article Sources
  1. Tislerics, Ati. "European Rabbit." Animal Diversity Web.

  2. "How Rabbits Help Restore Unique Habitats for Rare Species." University of East Anglia, 2021.

  3. Villafuerte, R., and M. Delibes-Mateos. "European Rabbit." IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2018, doi:10.2305/