Report on Lemnos Wild Rabbit Population
By Agricultural University of Athens
The European wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) has been described as a successful colonizer and is widely spread in a diverse range of environments around the globe (Myers et al., 1994). Moreover, in some regions where the species was introduced, exceptional ecological conditions favored its rapid colonization turning it into a pest (e.g. Australia). However, in some regions wild-rabbit populations are facing a significant decline in recent years and for this reason the species is characterized by the IUCN as ‘Near Threatened Species’ (IUCN, 2008). Nonetheless, outside its natural habitat, where it is considered an agricultural pest, rabbits’ removal is a priority for conservation purposes (Lees and Bell, 2008).
Indeed, a high wild-rabbit population could cause a wide range of ecological disturbances and produces a significant negative economic impact on local communities, with several examples being recorded through history in various regions around the world (Ferreira & Alves, 2009). Lemnos island covers an area of 477 km2 and land is dominated by lowland areas, mainly in the East and Central part, while hills up to 430 m exist in the Western part of the island.
The main habitat types are scrublands, found in the Western and Southern parts of the island, composed of Sarcopoterium spinosum, Thymus capitatus, Genista acanthoclada, Centaurea spinosa etc. and dry grasslands, whereas cultivated fields prevail in the Central and Eastern part of Lemnos, used for growing cereal crops and vineyards. These different habitat types are associated with differences in soil-type and soil-depth which are important factors in flourishing the wild-rabbits populations, since they rely in digging burrows where they are protected from predators during daytime and they can grow their offspring. The effects of environmental features on distribution and abundance of wild-rabbits is well documented in literature (Rodgers et al., 1994; Ferreira & Alves, 2009) and indeed the presence and density of wild-rabbits differ largely between areas in Lemnos.
In Lemnos Island, during the last decades, a large increase of wild-rabbits has become a plague on the island’s biodiversity, ecosystems and crops (Kontsiotis et al., 2013a). This disturbance has been enhanced by the abandonment of cultivated land in many rural areas of the northeastern part of the island, due to economic and social changes occurring during the same period. These multilevel changes in the local socio-economic systems, have affected severely parts of the island’s natural and agricultural ecosystems as well as its local agro-economy.
According to testimonies by locals, the first measurable damage from wildrabbits, recorded on cereal crops in Lemnos, was produced in the early 1980s. At the end of that decade, the population of rabbits declined, probably plagued by an epidemic (myxomatosis) and they left “clean” large areas of the island. However, during the 1990s their population recovered and grew impressively, first in the north-northeast Lemnos areas and gradually throughout the island. As a result, the Hellenic State approved that rabbit damages on Lemnos crops could be compensated by the “Agricultural Insurance Organisation”.
During the 2000s an attempt was made by the Hellenic State to control the population by subsidizing hunting, but the project was foreseen for a relatively small number of animals (40-50 k of rabbits) and with a loose timetable, therefore no positive effects were obtained and actually further negative consequences for the island’s agricultural economy were observed