Who, what, why: What is the UK's rabbit population?

Plastic rabbits in rows Image copyright Alamy

Author Jeanette Winterson has defended killing a rabbit in her garden by saying she was doing her bit to keep numbers down. But how many are there in the UK, asks Justin Parkinson.

Winterson tweeted her justification, saying: "At pest level they must be culled. This year is pest level in the countryside."

But the last few decades have in fact seen the rabbit population of the UK almost destroyed, only to make a partial recovery.

It is thought to have reached anything up to 100 million by the start of the 1950s. The introduction of deadly myxomatosis in 1953 is estimated to have killed more than 99% of the UK's rabbits, but numbers increased over the next four decades, according to the Rabbit - Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

In 1995, a government survey put the population in the UK at 37.5 million. But at about this time rabbit haemorrhagic disease, which causes fever, lethargy and then death, hit. This caused another fall-off in numbers, particularly in Scotland.

"It's fair to say the population has recovered to the mid-1990s sort of level, give or take a couple of million either way," says Phil Wheeler, an environmental scientist at Hull University. "But numbers are patchy and the level in Scotland still hasn't recovered."

Rabbits are considered a pest because they eat root and arable crops and damage grassland used to feed cattle and sheep. Recent figures are based on surveys by officials, farmers and hunters, but the UK population was once much easier to calculate. The animals were introduced in the 12th Century and were initially kept in warrens by the aristocracy, who bred them for meat and fur.

They soon gained a reputation for prodigious procreation. "The records of Henry III show he had 10 one year, 30 to 40 the next and 450 or so a year after that," says Hannah Velten, author of Beastly London.

Some escaped into the wild, but it was not until the late 19th Century that they were considered numerous enough to be a genuine threat to farmers' livelihoods and included in laws on vermin control.

In Spain, where they are a native species, there is concern that in some areas there are not enough rabbits, as they are among the prey of the critically endangered Iberian lynx. But they are less welcome in other parts, as they are known to damage vineyards.

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