"Were rabbits really as numerous in Britain as is sometimes said?" So asks a reader who is in his 40s and likes to watch them near his home in Cornwall.
They certainly were numerous and at one time an important source of food for us. It seems they came to us with the Normans, certainly not the Romans though they kept them in other countries such as Spain and Italy. There are no reference to warrens in the Domesday Book (1086) for example. There is a record of 2,000 rabbit skins being taken from Lundy in 1274. In the 14th century rabbit meat was an important part of great feasts including the Coronation of Henry IV (1399) and in the installing of George Nevill, Chancellor of England (1465) when the bill of fare included 4,000 rabbits! In 1948 over 7,500 tons of rabbits were sent by rail for food and fur, the equivalent to over 7 million rabbits. West Wales produced the highest, with Cornwall, Devon and Somerset next.
Myxomatosis decimated the rabbit population in the 1950s, the disease now being enzootic in Britain, cropping up from time to time locally. However the rabbit survives, is still sold in butcher's shops as food and, thankfully, the buzzard and other predators on the animal have recovered their numbers following a drastic decline due to the loss of their food supply. Though myxomatosis is a rabbit disease it had a far reaching adverse effect on other wildlife including wild flower rich grasslands.