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Keywords:

  • Conservation policy;
  • habitat management;
  • keystone species;
  • monitoring programme;
  • Oryctolagus cuniculus;
  • population recovery

ABSTRACT

  • 1
    European rabbits are considered a keystone species in the Iberian Peninsula. Their populations have sharply declined over the past century, mainly due to habitat loss and the arrival of two viral diseases: myxomatosis in the 1950s and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) at the end of the 1980s. For the conservation of the Iberian Mediterranean ecosystem, it is important to determine whether rabbit populations are recovering two decades after the RHD outbreak, and to identify the factors associated with population recovery.
  • 2
    Here, we review the current knowledge on recent rabbit population trends in the Iberian Peninsula and the factors associated with these trends.
  • 3
    Although most rabbit populations are still declining in the Iberian Peninsula, a few seem to have recovered. In general, positive trends have been recorded in species-friendly habitats characterized by non-fragmented landscapes, interspersed patches of Mediterranean scrubland, good pastures and/or crops, soft soils that are suitable for warren construction and a Mediterranean climate with relatively high rainfall. Additionally, rabbits seem to be recovering better in areas where management practices (e.g. low hunting pressure, habitat management and predator control) are applied to increase their numbers.
  • 4
    From these findings, it is possible to identify five broad objectives for rabbit conservation in the Iberian Peninsula. First, it is clearly necessary to establish a long-term programme for monitoring rabbit abundance and trends on a large scale. Second, the conservation and restoration of open Mediterranean scrubland should be a priority for stabilizing and maintaining existing healthy rabbit populations. Third, despite the lack of experimental evidence, management activities aimed at increasing the quantity and quality of both refuge and food should continue to be implemented. Fourth, legislation on the timing of the hunting season should be revisited following recommendations made by scientists. Finally, experimental approaches are required to investigate whether the control of generalist predators is a successful strategy to allow rabbit populations to recover.