Rabbit (Lepus cuniculus), a well-known British rodent, of the same family and genus as the Hare (q.v.), from which it differs in its smaller size, greyer coloration, and smaller black patch at the tips of the ears, and the fact that the hind limbs are not so much longer than the front pair. The condition in which the young are born also forms a sharp distinction between the two. Those of the rabbit come into the world blind, naked, and quite helpless, and are brought forth in a burrow which the mother-digs for that purpose, and lines with fur plucked from her body. Those of the hare are clothed, and can see when born. Hybrids between the hare and the rabbit are "fertile, and are said to be fertile with either of the parent species. The home of the rabbit is generally supposed to be Spain, or at any rate the western part of the Mediterranean basin, whence it has spread northwards through the temperate parts of Western Europe. The cold of Scandinavia and North Russia has prevented these animals finding a home in those regions. In England it is common enough. It was not introduced into Scotland and Ireland till quite recent times, but owing to its fecundity, which is proverbial, it has spread over both the sister kingdoms. Rabbits begin to breed when about six months old, and there may be from four to eight litters in a year, with rarely less than three, and sometimes as many as eight in a litter.
The most notable instances Of the rapid spread oft his animal, and the damage occasioned thereby, are to be found in Australia and New Zealand, where wild rabbits were turned out somewhere about the middle of the nineteenth century. In a short time they multiplied to such an extent as to become veritable pests, eating and spoiling the sheep-feed, and thereby seriously injuring the sheep-farmers. Many expedients have been tried to keep down their numbers. Traps, poison, and the virus of fowl-cholera, have been tried, but these remedies together have done little to mitigate the scourge. New South Wales alone spends about £100,000 a year in endeavouring to cope with the rabbit plague. The turning-out of weasels and stoats has been suggested, but the remedy might be worse than the disease. Local varieties of the rabbit occur in the Falkland Islands and in Jamaica. In Porto Santo, one of the Madeiras, is a, dwarf-race, the limb-bones of which are little more than half the size of those of an English wild rabbit.
Wild rabbits are social animals, and on light sandy soils their burrows are very numerous, and a tract of ground where such burrows exist is called a warren. They feed on grass, herbs, green crops, and the tender bark of young trees, and, where they abound, inflict considerable loss on farmers and market-gardeners. In some cases rabbit-farming seems to have been profitably carried on. The fur is used for hat-making, and the flesh is valued for food. Besides the large quantities sent from the country to London, it is estimated that considerably over 100 tons a week are shipped to England from Ostend during the winter. These last are tame rabbits bred in hutches by the Belgian peasantry. It would seem as if this cottage industry might be advantageously introduced at home.
Domesticated rabbits have run into a great number of varieties, amongst which is an albino race, with red eyes, as firmly established as is its natural enemy, the ferret. Tame rabbits are easily kept, and breed freely in confinement. Cleanliness, dry hutches, and a mixture of hard with green food, are the principal points to be borne in mind in order to ensure success. Opinions differ as to giving water to tame rabbits; the need for it depends greatly on the nature of the food, but does, after bearing young, should have a supply.