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Development of a decision support system for ecologically sound rabbit management - VC0232

The wild rabbit is the major economic wildlife pest species in the UK. A range of studies have been carried out in the VC02 and VC04 assessment units to assist DEFRA in ensuring that suitable methods of managing problem rabbit populations are available for occupiers of agricultural premises. The key focus of this research is the development of a decision support system. This will provide DEFRA advisors with a reliable tool for predicting the costs of rabbit damage in key agricultural settings during statutory work under the1954 Pest Act and enhancing the robustness of the advice they give on management strategies. At the core of this system is a rabbit population model that provides, in most cases, good predictions of rabbit numbers in particular settings, given different levels of control. However, there are four areas where further information is required to realise a decision-support system based on this model. Firstly, completing ongoing studies of rabbit damage to winter wheat to enable a model of rabbit damage, based on a dynamic system of naturally fluctuating rabbit numbers, to be linked to the population model. Secondly, current research suggests that there may be critical densities below which rabbit population growth is impaired. This concept may explain why local rabbit populations often appear to irrupt suddenly from low levels, where limited problems are caused, to those which lead to severe agricultural losses. Furthermore, a greater understanding of this concept also has relevence to the population dynamics of rare species. Thirdly, the current rabbit population model is based on a closed system and thus does not allow for movement of rabbits between populations. Thus there may be discrepancies between the model’s predictions and the real world that stem from variation in rates of immigration from unmanaged populations into areas from which rabbits have been removed. Fourthly, in order to set the population models running it is essential that an estimate of initial rabbit population size be obtained for the particular problem. A census technique is thus required by which advisors could asses the scale of a given rabbit problem, based on signs of rabbit activity observed during a daytime visit. This project seeks to address these gaps in our knowledge and integrate them into a fully functional decision-support system that will inform statutory and advisory decisions while resolving real rabbit management issues. The availability of the full decision-support system will enable informed and robust advice to be given that will lead to:
- full utilisation, integration and exploitation of the data generated by DEFRA’s considerable investment in rabbit research
- informing DEFRA’s decision making on whether to take enforcement action against occupiers under the Pests Act 1954
- more cost-effective use of resources by growers and others when deciding upon rabbit management methods
- long-term reductions in rabbit numbers as a result of improved choice of control operations enabling farmers to deal better with critical problems
- improved ability to advise farmers and others on how to resolve rabbit problems in a cost-effective, long-term manner.
- reduced reliance on traditional methods of rabbit management involving culling with associated animal welfare concerns
1. To validate our ability to predict the amount of damage which rabbits can cause by comparing models of population yield losses with models of individual yield losses to winter wheat (31/3/03).
2. To characterise the relationships between crop damage and the foraging behaviours of individual rabbits (31/3/03).
3. Establish whether there are critical threshold rabbit densities below which recruitment is impaired (30/09/03)
4. Measure the effects of immigration on the rates of recovery of rabbit populations after control (30/09/03).
5. To develop a method, for use during single day-time site visits, that determines the likely extent of a given rabbit problem (31/01/04)
6. Complete development of fully functional and user tested rabbit management decision-support system (31/3/04).
Project Documents
• Final Report : Development of a decision support system for ecologically sound rabbit management   (1594k)
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2002

To: 2004

Cost: £365,067
Contractor / Funded Organisations
Central Science Laboratory
Pest and Weed Control              
Pest Control              
Plants and Animals              
Wildlife Management              
Fields of Study
Wildlife Management