So guess what the most common question is that I am asked by visitors ? Is it “where can I see puffins ?”, or “do you get bored ?” or “do you have a TV?” ? Nope, none of those, it is “why are all there all these rabbits here?” and quickly followed by “are they a problem?”. It has to be said that the rabbits are a very obvious island inhabitant at the moment but it hasn’t always been so. The rabbits have been on the island for a long time, the first mention of them came in 1329, nearly 700 years ago, when apparently the King’s Chamberlain paid out 8 shillings to four men to go and catch some. The rabbits had been introduced to the island when the Priory was built and would have been an important source of food and revenue. There would have been specially employed “warreners” to look after and harvest them but by 1549 when the island ownership passed from the Priory of Pittenweem, the island was said to have been “spoiled of rabbits” after apparently the English destroyed the warrens. By 1884 the island was grazed by 6 milk cows, 1 horse, 3 donkeys and up to 60 sheep which suggests that the rabbit population was still pretty low however now the rabbits grazed the whole island so tight there would be very little grazing for 1 sheep. It was only a few winters ago that the rabbit community crashed due to over-population and disease and the consequence was the the island took on a very shaggy appearance with flowers appearing where there never used to be flowers. But the rabbits have done what they do best and with 3 summers there are rabbits where ever you look. Apart from disease and lack of food the other control factor is the Greater Blacked Backed Gulls which munch young rabbits at a terrific rate.
At the moment on an evening walk it is common to hear the squealing of a young rabbit being snatched by a GBB Gull and take for a flight. But there are only 40 pairs of gulls and probably thousands of rabbits.
Another common question is “are the rabbits a problem ?” and the answer to that is no as it is actually the rabbits that give the Isle of May its attractive appearance of a carpet of sea pink and sea campion. If rabbits were removed as grazers then the grasses that they mow down would swamp out these beautiful flowers and within a few years these wild flowers would be greatly reduced.
The short turf that the rabbits produce is also good for the puffins as a short turf is easier to dig a burrow in rather that thick matted vegetation. So the rabbit even though introduced has become a vital part of the island ecosystem and we actually have a lot to thank them for.