As spring creeps up on us, baby rabbits appear by the roadside munching on or diving for cover in the spring herbage. Associated in the British mind with the “Easter bunny” it is, along with the Easter egg, a pagan token of spring fertility. The rabbit is famously fertile. Rabbits breed like rabbits and a pair are theoretically able to produce over a thousand offspring in a year. That they don’t totally overrun the planet is because they are food for absolutely anything that eats meat.
The bunny is not nearly as cute as it looks. For example it is coprophageous – meaning that it eats its own droppings. Actually there are two types of droppings – the hard little ones you see all over the campo and different soft droppings produced during the night which the rabbit re ingests. By eating its food twice it can make use of very tough foodstuffs like grasses, leaves, buds, tree bark, and roots and thistles. Back yard and commercial rabbit keepers will tell you that rabbits will turn a wide range of green stuff and table scraps into meat, and it’s the double digestive process that makes this possible.
Life in the rabbit warren is not a barrel of laughs either. The rabbit is native to Spain and is distributed world-wide only through the activity of man. However it cannot stand the Spanish climate in summer. It cannot breed when the temperature reaches 35 and it drops dead at forty degrees centigrade. This is because it cannot sweat and has poorly developed means of losing body heat. So although it is part of the family of hares that includes the brown and mountain hares of the UK and the jack rabbits and cottontails of the USA , all of whom live in scrapes or nests above ground, the European wild rabbit, because it evolved in Spain, has had to develop a life below ground in the cool earth if it is to survive . It’s Latin name, Oryctolagus cuniculus means ‘a hare-like digger of underground passages’. And it is “crepuscular”, which means that it only lives on the surface of the earth in the half light of dawn or the dusk of the evening.
It is in these warrens, housing colonies of rabbits guarded by very territorial bucks, that young rabbits or kits are born in underground nests lined by fur that the doe plucks from her breast. The sexual act between rabbits is less than romantic and not very cute. The buck urinates on the doe and then mates with her. The act takes a few seconds and there is no bonding between the male and the female.
The breeding season for rabbits lasts three-quarters of the year (not the hot months) and the does don’t have an estrous or “heat” cycle, so are ready to mate at any time. They don’t have a menstrual cycle either because they are induced ovulators, which means that sexual intercourse stimulates them to ovulate. Immediately after the sex act, another egg is released for fertilization and this accounts for the massive breeding rate in rabbits. Rabbits gestate for only 30 days, and usually have litters of between 4 and 12 babies (kits). Once the babies are born, the doe can mate and get pregnant again the following day.
In a balanced ecology the rabbit population would remain stable because there would be enough of the right kind of predators to wipe out almost all of the offspring during their first few weeks of life, but where the rabbit has been injudiciously introduced as in Australia, or the ecology has been otherwise unbalanced for example by the killing of top predators by farmers, a plague of rabbits can result.
Perhaps it was the sight of teeming rabbits shaping the coast with their burrowing, that induced the Phoenicians when they first encountered Iberia around 500 BC to name the country i-shepan-im, which means the land of rabbits. The Roman name Hispania comes from this Phoenician name, and Espana, or Spain mutates from this name. So the humble rabbit has given Spain its name, shaped its landscape and is the key predated mammal, supporting at least forty of the higher carnivores of Spain.
It is astonishing then to find that populations of Spanish rabbit within the natural range have declined an estimated 95% since 1950, and 80% in Spain since 1975. This is due to disease, habitat loss, and human killing. These numbers are based on estimates from a protected area in Spain, Donana National Park, and the relative decline elsewhere in the range. The rabbit now almost meets the Red List Criteria for “Vulnerable”.
Rabbits were domesticated for food. The Romans simply put a fence around the warren housing a wild colony and periodically flushed them out with dogs and ferrets. Rabbits were brought to the UK by the Romans and then by the Normans who set up artificial warrens for a reliable meat supply through the winter months. Domestication, which alters the physical conformity of the animal is relatively recent, and today the domesticated or farmed rabbit is very different animal from the wild rabbit, at least when it comes to eating one. Most butchers’ rabbits are farmed. The meat is white and delicate, similar to chicken. The wild rabbit is of unknown age and is almost certain to be tougher with a stronger “gamey” flavour.
With all rabbit and especially with the wild ones, treat the legs differently from the saddle or body of the beast. Cut off the head and the front and back legs and simmer in a litre of water or half and half water and wine with three crushed cloves of garlic, a chopped up unskinned onion, a rough chopped carrot and a stick of celery. Colour with a little soaked saffron and simmer for about 20 minutes. Then strain, throw away the veg and rabbit head, and shred the flesh from the legs when cool. Keep the stock. Season it carefully with salt and pepper and a little hot paprika if you like. You now have an excellent base for a paella – an authentic one, not that coastal muck that’s full of seafood! Fry your rice and mix with the shredded meat. Pour on the boiling stock, stir once, then simmer without stirring. When the rice begins to absorb, push in slices of the rabbit saddle and some chopped asparagus – wild if you can get it. Let the paella cook till the rice is just al dente remembering it continues to cook when you take it off the heat. Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and finish with a handful of chopped roast almonds. Flash fry the rabbit’s liver and put it on the top. The delicious flavour of spring!