The European rabbit is a keystone species of Mediterranean forests; it is the main prey of some of the most endangered Iberian top predators (the Iberian lynx and the Spanish imperial eagle), models the landscape, increases soil fertility and creates habitat for other species.
Over the past 70 years Iberian populations of the European rabbit have declined by 90% as a result of changes in land use and diseases (myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease – RHD). In 2019 the IUCN listed the species as Endangered, reflecting recent population declines mainly due to a new variant of the RHD virus. The European rabbit is listed as Vulnerable in Spain and Near Threatened in Portugal.
Currently, diseases cause the species’ distribution and abundance to be quite heterogeneous in space and time. European rabbit population declines have caused conservation problems when occurring within the distribution range of its top predators, jeopardising their conservation by seriously affecting their reproductive success. They have also caused socio-economic problems in rural areas where hunting is an important economic force. But there are occasional local demographic explosions that damage crops or agricultural infrastructure, affecting almost 42,000 hectares/year on average during 2012-2017 in Spain (accounting for about half of all agricultural insurance compensation for wildlife-related damage).
There is currently a complete lack of governance, both at the national and Iberian level; species management occurs at the local level, different stakeholders apply measures with opposing objectives, there is no sharing of experiences or knowledge, and there are no standard protocols or monitoring methodologies (so comparable data are not available). It is not even possible to define the European rabbit’s population status in most peninsular areas on which to establish wide-range conservation goals.
The LIFE Iberconejo project’s objective is to set up a governance structure to coordinate the monitoring and management of the European rabbit in the Iberian Peninsula. This is essential for optimised long-term coordination between all current and future European rabbit-related conservation efforts. Through the monitoring and management measures implemented within the project, the plan is to reverse the decreasing population trend and improve the European rabbit’s numbers in Iberia, thus meeting the IUCN’s criteria for listing the species as Vulnerable and helping to improve the population status of its two top predators.
This will be achieved through the following specific objectives:
- The germ of a European Rabbit Iberian Coordination Committee (ERICC), made up of LIFE Iberconejo’s beneficiaries, to be operational in 2022;
- The ERICC to be a fully operational Iberian governance structure coordinating monitoring and management of the European rabbit at the project’s end;
- The development of protocols allowing the population and health status of Iberian European rabbit populations to be monitored in a standardised way;
- An IT tool facilitating data collection and people trained in the use of this tool;
- The European rabbit population in the project areas and its health status to be well defined;
- A protocol to be agreed for best practice in European rabbit population management;
- The next programming period of the EU‘s common agricultural policy (CAP) to take into account the project´s know-how on European rabbit population management and the damage to agriculture; and
- The design of the governance structure and monitoring protocols to be prepared for adaptation to other species.
The project will contribute to implementation of the Habitats and Birds directives, as the European rabbit is the main prey of more than 40 Mediterranean species, most of which are listed as priority species in the annexes of these directives. It is also in line with the EU’s biodiversity strategy to 2020.
The planned measures to prevent damage to agriculture and promote rabbit populations will serve as a basis for proposing improvements during the next programming period of the CAP, both in the drafting of European regulations and in the design, implementation and monitoring of national strategic plans and their regional implementation, as they aim to make the existence of a healthy rabbit population compatible with competitive and quality agricultural production.
LIFE Iberconejo will also contribute to the objectives of the European Innovation Partnership, which seeks to promote competitive and sustainable agriculture and forestry. In addition, the project is in line with the EU green infrastructure strategy, as it will contribute to the development of a trans-European green infrastructure network.
- A governance structure, the ERICC, for the Iberian Peninsula coordinating the implementation of European rabbit monitoring and management protocols;
- Management protocols implemented in the project areas from 2024;
- ERICC leading rabbit management in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) from 2025;
- Quality information about the European rabbit population and its health status, thanks to ERICC monitoring protocols;
- App developed for data collection - at least 100 forest agents, 100 volunteers and 100 people from the agro-hunting sector trained to implement the health and population monitoring protocols making use of the app;
- Reversal of the decline of European rabbit populations begins; improvement in populations of its top predators;
- Reduction of European rabbit-related conflicts and a solid basis formed for long-term efficient advances in rabbit conservation;
- European rabbit conservation status upgraded by IUCN by 2035;
- Evaluation and assessment protocol for prevention of damage to agriculture by the European rabbit;
- Protocol for best practice in European rabbit population management, and a CAP-focused version highlighting issues closely related to agrarian policies;
- Model of governance structures for terrestrial mammals; and
- Model of terrestrial mammals monitoring protocols.