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Hybrid Rabbits in Spain: Fact or Fiction?
Not long ago there was a been a buzz about a supposed plague of “hybrid rabbits” decimating Spanish crops. These rabbits, a mix of wild and domestic breeds, are causing extensive damage in various regions of Spain. Their larger size, higher reproductive capacity, increased voracity, and atypical behaviors for the species are blamed for the severe agricultural losses.
However, this narrative does not align with reality. Firstly, it’s important to clarify that the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), a native species to the Iberian Peninsula, serves as the basis for all domestic rabbit varieties. Thus, wild and domestic rabbits belong to the same species.
While it is true that certain wild rabbit populations may exhibit “domestic” traits, potentially due to the release of rabbits with questionable genetics during hunting repopulation efforts, such instances are minimal. The so-called “exceptional capabilities” attributed to hybrid rabbits are actually inherent in wild rabbits.
But if the damaging rabbits are native, how can a native species become a plague?
The imbalance within rabbit populations stems from three key factors: a scarcity of natural food sources, a lack of predation (both natural and through hunting), and a reduction in disease impact.
Linear structures like roads and train tracks, coupled with soft soil facilitating burrowing, further contribute to the situation.
The primary cause of the damage lies in the scarcity of natural food.
A study conducted in vineyards of Córdoba revealed that rabbit damage is influenced by the availability of natural food, specifically the diversity and abundance of herbaceous plants. Damage to crops is significantly higher in areas where natural food is scarce, leading rabbits to resort to feeding on crops. This phenomenon may have been exacerbated this year due to drought conditions.
This interaction between rabbit density and the availability of natural food is far from trivial. Even a small number of rabbits, without alternative food sources, can inflict severe damage to crops. Vineyards, being particularly susceptible to herbivory, suffer substantial losses when rabbits feed on the shoots that give rise to grape clusters.
It is worth noting that the rabbit abundances observed in most affected areas are not as high as in regions without sensitive crops, thereby avoiding conflicts.
Ironically, damage can be mitigated by increasing the availability of natural food. Strategies like allowing vegetation growth between rows of woody crops and maintaining vegetation in uncultivated areas (such as boundaries, slopes, streams, and road edges) prove effective in enhancing food availability.
The absence of predators, such as foxes, and reduced predator diversity and abundance in certain altered landscapes like agricultural areas contribute to the local surge in rabbit populations.
Moreover, the impact of diseases on rabbit populations has diminished over time. Diseases like myxomatosis and viral hemorrhagic fever, which were once rampant, have become endemic, reducing their virulence. Consequently, rabbits have developed some resistance, resulting in a decreased negative effect on their populations. In areas with higher rabbit abundances, there is a higher prevalence of antibodies against these diseases.
In conclusion, it is the ecosystem’s dysfunction, not hybridization, that lies at the root of the damage caused by rabbits.
Spreading baseless information maligns rabbits, creating an atmosphere of tension and confusion, which can lead to false accusations and unwarranted actions against this species, which plays a crucial role in the ecosystem.