Island rabbits living on burrowed time

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A bunny boom on the westside of Lewis has sent the rabbit population rocketing and locals are worried about damage due to the ‘infestation’.

Earlier this year three men were hired by a collective group of Grazing Committees to try and alleviate the troublesome numbers of rabbits in Uig .

With the largest population increase seen in over seven years and numbers reaching well into the thousands, local councillor Norman MacDonald said: “We are just over run with them, it’s like an infestation.”

The fluffy creatures’ escapades in the countryside and their ‘cute’ exterior hides more sinister repercussions many people aren’t aware of.

The damages caused when rabbits dig the foundations to their burrows in the same area are irreparable - extreme erosion and corrosion, as well as some inevitable collapses in hillsides, due to excessive burrowing.

Pets and livestock don’t escape the effects, it’s not uncommon to hear of people who have lost cats, dogs and quite often lambs down rabbit holes, never to be seen again.

The sheer number of rabbits mean that they have exhausted grass resources on fields usually reserved for livestock, also damaging the plots and crofts.

A rather unusual problem had arisen with the animals managing to infiltrate some island graveyards.

While attempts to ‘rabbit proof’ cemeteries have been made, rabbits while digging their tunnels, sometimes pop up inside the walls causing damage to plants and landscaping. Many locals feel the rabbits ‘are more of a nuisance than a problem’ but it was deemed necessary that steps be taken to prevent any more long term damage.

A trio - Alan Constable, leading two colleagues - were hired by a collection of Grazing Committees, including Kneep, Reef, Ardroil, Carnish and Crowlista, to tackle the issue.

The aim of bringing in outside help was not to eradicate the rabbits, but to simply better control their population.

Staying on the island for two weeks the men were paid over £2,000, however they ran into difficulties using the ferrets they had brought due to the depth and intricacies of the rabbit warrens.

“They would put one down a hole and ten minutes later the ferret would pop up from a hole a foot away from them,” said John (Scottie) MacIver, Uig.

Shooting proved to be more a more promising control method, yet as they arrived in the middle of a “large birthing season and in unfavourable shooting weather,” which meant that they were not as successful as had been hoped.

It has been suggested that the Uig rabbit population has actually increased since the last count as, while the trio managed to shoot over 1,000 animals, the unusually large birthing season had more than covered the numbers lost.

While nature eventually takes care of overpopulation problems, it cannot deal with the damages left behind.

Culling may be considered a ‘necessary evil’, with few natural predators the rabbit population, if left unchecked, could leave the animals more susceptible to genetic defects and disease.

While the official exterminators left the island overt two months ago some local crofters and farmers are still freely enforcing the culling – already surpassing Alan’s team’s total cull.

It will be hard to know if the efforts have proved successful until next year.