Lifestyle

Green Beat - The race is on against rabbits

The expression ‘breed like rabbits’ didn’t come into use for no reason as a TWU researcher on Salt Spring Island found out recently. Jennifer Rumley’s research on how to help native camas plants flourish was put to the test by the island’s hungry — and growing — rabbit population. - submitted photo
The expression ‘breed like rabbits’ didn’t come into use for no reason as a TWU researcher on Salt Spring Island found out recently. Jennifer Rumley’s research on how to help native camas plants flourish was put to the test by the island’s hungry — and growing — rabbit population.
— image credit: submitted photo

They are not hard to spot this year in Langley.

And for the problem they represent, they are remarkably good looking. Even if they had just raided your garden, you would have to admit that rabbits are cute.

For my student researcher, Jennifer Rumley, the first sighting of a rabbit on our Salt Spring Island research site last summer was not welcome. Her research on how to help native camas plants flourish involved plots fenced with two-metre high deer fencing — but the rabbit she saw was right in the plot.

The well-known phrase “breeding like rabbits” is very apropos. Releasing a single pet rabbit into the wild might seem harmless. In fact, if a rabbit was neglected in captivity, it would be seen as a benefit to nature. But that’s where nature gets complicated.

The snowshoe hare, Nuttall’s cottontail and the white-tailed jack rabbit are the only native rabbit species in B.C. These are relatively rare in B.C. — the rabbits you are likely to see are non-native rabbits.

So, what’s the problem? They are big eaters, with each rabbit consuming about 0.1 kg of dry matter per day. They have also been known to spread diseases such as tularaemia (rabbit fever) that can infect humans.

The welfare of the rabbits themselves is also a concern. Although in springtime they may breed “like rabbits,” they are vulnerable to predators, disease and lack of food at other times of the year.

These issues are particularly apparent following a rabbit population explosion, like the one at the University of Victoria in 2010 which resulted in thousands of rabbits having to be either culled or moved to rabbit sanctuaries.

The furor over the rabbit problems at UVic in 2010 inspired the BCSPCA to call upon municipalities to pass bylaws that mandate spay and neuter of rabbits prior to sale or ban rabbit sales altogether.

So far Kelowna, Victoria, Saanich, and North Vancouver have required spay and neutering prior to sale, while Richmond and New Westminster no longer permit rabbit sales at all. To my knowledge, these are the only B.C. municipalities to enact rabbit bylaws.

On our research site on Salt Spring Island this year there were many more rabbits, and we quickly worked to rabbit-proof our deer exclosures by installing rabbit fencing along the bottom of them. This still leaves the rest of the property open to rabbit damage.

Jennifer and her colleagues, Matthew Strelau and Amy Casali, came across a den of five baby rabbits, as cute as ever rabbits could be. And so the human-rabbit race continues, and it seems like the rabbits will always be one hop ahead of us.

David Clements is a professor of biology and environmental studies at Trinity Western University.

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