Dutch island wants its rabbits to breed like …

Biodiversity concerns prompt emergency plan to use ferrets to round up the few rabbits left

It is not a pastime for which rabbits usually require much encouragement. But a mystery depletion in numbers on the Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog has led to an emergency effort to coax the local population into breeding … well, like rabbits.

Ferrets are being deployed to chase the reluctant remaining animals out of their warrens and into the hands of conservationists, who are bringing them together, safe from the stress of predators, in the hope that romance will blossom.

It is believed that the number of rabbits on Schiermonnikoog, or Grey Monk island, has been declining for the last three years, although conservationists are only working from the memory of the 947 people who live there.

The concern is that the unexplained decrease could have a negative effect on the biodiversity of Schiermonnikoog, a 9.9-mile-long nature reserve off the northern coastline, which attracts 300,000 visitors a year.

The rabbits play a vital role in nibbling away at the invasive American black cherry, a variety of the woody plant Prunus serotina that gets in the way of other species. Birds on the island are also known to use the rabbit warrens to lay eggs.

Schiermonnikoog is a 9.9 mile-long nature reserve off the northern coastline that attracts 300,000 visitors a year.
Schiermonnikoog is a 9.9 mile-long nature reserve off the northern coastline that attracts 300,000 visitors a year. Photograph: Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

Jan Willem Zwart, a forester on Schiemonnikoog who is working on the project, said the fall in the rabbit population was already noticeable. “Rabbits eat grasses and saplings that have just come up. That prevents the landscape from becoming closed. We do not know exactly how many rabbits are still here, but we clearly see that the vegetation on the island is increasing,” he said. “It has been very difficult to find the rabbits. And that is what we are doing at the moment. It is just the beginning”.

The rabbit population has traditionally gone up and down, he said, often due to outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as myxomatosis, a virus introduced into Europe in the 1950s as an agent to control numbers. But the consistently low number of baby rabbits in recent years remains a mystery. Those surviving on the island have largely congregated around the village, Zwart added.

“It might be the wild cats in the dunes that are keeping the numbers down,” he said. “We don’t know. But we are going to catch a number of rabbits on the island. In the village there are still enough, they like to dig under the houses. In the long run, we want to expand them elsewhere on the island, where they are needed.

“We want to do that in an animal-friendly way. That is why we are going to use … ferreting. The ferret goes into the rabbit hole and chases them out. We will catch them there and put them in a paddock, a safe place away from predators.”

It is hoped that in a secure area nature will follow its course, albeit with a little human help.

The project, aided by the Dutch national heritage organisation, the Natuurmonumenten, considered importing rabbits but the paperwork was deemed overwhelming because a permit is required for every animal.


Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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