Seasonal and spatial variation in the diet of the wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus L.) in Portugal

Authors

  • H. Martins,

    Corresponding author
    1. Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, Craigiebuckler, Aberdeen AB15 8QH, U.K.
    2. Applied Ecology Centre Professor Baeta Neves, Tapada da Ajuda, 1349-018 Lisbon Codex, Portugal
      *All correspondence to: H. Martins, Applied Ecology Centre Professor Baeta Neves, Agronomy Institute of Lisbon, Tapada da Ajuda, 1349-018 Lisboa Codex, Portugal. E-mail: ceabn@ip.pt
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  • J. A. Milne,

    1. Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, Craigiebuckler, Aberdeen AB15 8QH, U.K.
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  • F. Rego

    1. Applied Ecology Centre Professor Baeta Neves, Tapada da Ajuda, 1349-018 Lisbon Codex, Portugal
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*All correspondence to: H. Martins, Applied Ecology Centre Professor Baeta Neves, Agronomy Institute of Lisbon, Tapada da Ajuda, 1349-018 Lisboa Codex, Portugal. E-mail: ceabn@ip.pt

Abstract

The seasonal and spatial pattern of diet composition of a population of wild rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus L. occupying a southern Portuguese montado was estimated using the n-alkane technique. The diet was analysed in terms of components that are relevant to habitat management. The dietary categories considered were gum cistus leaves and flowers, cork oak and holm oak seedlings and acorns, cereals, olive tree regrowth and grass-forb species. The objectives were to assess the changes in diet across seasons in relation to the reproductive cycle of the rabbits, and to relate these changes to herbaceous biomass availability and to habitat structure, in terms of density of scrub cover and accessibility to arable crops. The results demonstrated that the diet was dominated by grass-forbs, and cereals when they were available. Browse was an important component of the diet and became more important in a year of low herbaceous biomass availability and in areas dominated by dense scrub. A similar phenomenon was observed in relation to consumption of acorns in winter. Seasonal and spatial variation in diet composition suggested a strategy aimed at maintaining a high quality diet. This was supported by the observed high dry matter digestibility of the diet during most of the year. The relevance of growing arable crops and providing fodder, as a means of increasing the carrying capacity of montados for rabbits and protecting the natural regeneration of trees, is discussed.

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