Hybrid rabbits threaten agriculture in much of Spain

by Lorraine Williamson
hybrid rabbits

 

The Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Agricultores y Ganaderos (COAG) describes the current crop situation in much of Spain, due to the threat of hybrid rabbits, as ‘Jurassic Park’. 

According to COAG data, 10 autonomous communities and more than 1,400 municipalities are currently affected by hybrid rabbit damage. A million hectares of agricultural land are affected, with the economic loss amounting to €800 million. This prompted a meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture to try to find a solution to an “alarming situation that brings many farms to the brink of collapse”. 

The hybrid rabbits were intensively cross-bred to optimise traits such as fertility, reproduction, growth, coat colour and manageability. Whereas, wild rabbits ate grass and damaged some cereal crops, but to other infrastructure and plantations they did little damage. However, the hybrid is very voracious and has a very high reproductive capacity. We are talking about more births per year and each birth produces 12 to 14 offspring, whereas the norm used to be between three and five. They even climb trees, something unthinkable 20 years ago,’ Javier Fatás, grain producer in Zaragoza and head of Environment and Wildlife on the COAG board, told Spanish news site 20minutos. 

Role of citizens 

‘There is irresponsibility on the part of citizens (who abandon domestic rabbits when they are fed up with their pets and leave them in the wild). But also from the governments themselves, who have tried to artificially shape nature and allowed the uncontrolled spread of rabbits to feed endangered species like the lynx. The situation is out of control,’ Fatás criticised the situation in a COAG statement. 

Economic damage enormous 

According to their calculations, these hybrid rabbits have already caused more than €800 million in losses on one million hectares. For this reason, COAG is pursuing population management ‘as has been done with other species’ and is investigating the most appropriate methodology to achieve this, depending on the predominant crops in each area. This could include ‘traditional practices such as hunting, various mechanical systems, sterilisation or biocides when it is not possible to act by other means’.  

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Drought plays a role  

The situation has also been exacerbated by the drought. Rabbits, like any other living animal, eat the first green thing it sees, which is seeds. But the numbers are so high that hunters cannot keep up with the amount of game. Farmers are therefore calling for an extension of the hunting season, an increase in the number of licences and the speed at which they are issued, and permission to clear roads, ditches and railways. 

And although hunters are “doing what they can”, there is no “effective way” to prevent this damage. The Spanish government will convene the drought committee next Wednesday to assess the impact on the agricultural sector. Grains, vineyards, olive trees, almond trees suffer most from rabbit attacks in areas such as the ‘south of Madrid, La Rioja, Aragon, the two Castilla and and Andalucia’.  

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Tackling control together 

To combat hybrid rabbits, the Operational Group for the Prevention of Agricultural Damage from Rabbits (Preveco) has been set up. It consists of the regional governments of Castilla-La Mancha and Andalucia and organisations such as UPA, WWF and Agroseguro. They have already experimented with different control techniques, such as fences, repellents, ultrasonic repellents, perches for birds of prey or fence bands for different crops, and they hope to receive support to apply them to solve the ‘problem’. 

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