5 January 1996

Boxing clever sorts out Scots rabbit plague…

A simple wooden box has helped one Scottish farmer clear 76,000 rabbits from his land. Claire Powell finds

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RABBIT numbers have been steadily recovering across the UK since myxomatosis wiped out 99% of the population in 1953. Some areas are now back to pre-disease levels, as John Bruce knows.

His land at Balmanno Farms, near Bridge of Earn, Perthshire, runs up the side of a valley, rising from 3m (10ft) above sea level to 213m (700ft) at the highest point. Among this is hill land which, together with scattered woodland, makes ideal rabbit habitat. His 283ha (700 acres) of cereals and 485ha (1200 acres) of grass suffered as a result.

"The most obvious damage was to the winter crops," says Mr Bruce. "I was losing patches and strips along field boundaries." But grass losses, although less visual, were "substantial", running at about 20%, he notes.

Traditional control methods, like gassing, shooting and ferreting, were only having a limited impact, and attempts to control the rabbits with fencing failed, says Mr Bruce. The final straw came five years ago when a 5.3ha (13-acre) field of winter barley was wiped out.

"I had had enough of feeding my profits to rabbits. I decided I had to manage the problem more effectively." He based his new system around a cheap and simple box trap he had heard of some years before.

Each box measures 0.9m x 0.6m x 0.6m (3ft x 2ft x 2ft), and is dug into the ground under a rabbit run. Rabbits are caught as they run across a balanced tilt lid which acts like a trap door – the lid opens and the rabbit falls into the box. The lid then swings back up, preventing escape.

He now has over 100 rabbit boxes, which have cleared more than 76,000 rabbits from his land. In the fence line separating the open hill from the farm, five boxes each caught more than 400 rabbits a year for four years. On one exceptional night 62 rabbits were caught in one box. The warrens on this hill are now virtually empty. One nights catch last autumn produced just one hedgehog, which was set free, and one rabbit.

Mr Bruce reckons the main benefit is the ease with which young rabbits are caught before they can breed. "They are a soft target. Being naive, they have little fear of the traps and readily cross them. Adults are picked off during the rest of the year, so by year 3 there are no young rabbits and few adults left."

Mr Bruce is still paying for the cost of his one-time infestation. While decent-yielding grain crops now grow where rabbit-decimated ones struggled a few years ago, the damage to some of his pastures is more costly to repair.

He is having to consider re-seeding – the rabbits having nibbled out the more succulent herbage shoots, reducing pasture quality long-term.

But woodland is recovering. Previously where all young shoots were eaten off, new trees now naturally regenerate.

But Mr Bruce is not complacent – he remembers how quickly rabbit numbers climbed after myxomatosis. Although pickings are now slim, boxes are still set regularly. "Having fought for five years to reclaim my farm from the rabbits, Im not prepared to hand it back to them now."

Balmanno trapper Ron Alllison with one mornings catch from the boxes in 1992. Previous attempts to control rabbits, using gas, ferrets and guns, met with little success.