Island declares war on its rampaging rabbits

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The fight to protect Scotland's natural assets from the destruction of alien invaders is about to take a new turn with an all-out war on rabbits on one of the country's most important islands.

The fight to protect Scotland's natural assets from the destruction of alien invaders is about to take a new turn with an all-out war on rabbits on one of the country's most important islands.

Following in the footsteps of the hedgehog and mink culls of the Western Isles it is now the turn of Shetland to take a stand against marauding mammals which threaten areas of special scientific interest and local livelihoods.

Community leaders have ordered the destruction of thousands of rabbits after a population explosion in the south end of the island caused by a series of warm summers and mild winters.

As a result of over-breeding by the species, which established a foothold on the islands in the late 1600s, crofters who rely on the land to make a living have reported increasing devastation to soil and crops on the vital pastures in the area.

An emergency meeting of the local community council decided that the creatures should be gassed and shot to protect hundreds of people's livelihoods.

"Six rabbits can eat as much as a sheep in one day," said Drew Ratter, Crofters Commissioner for Shetland and Orkney and a local councillor.

"When you multiply that by thousands it is a considerable amount of food being consumed.

"Shetland has had good summers recently and the rabbit population has multiplied tremendously fast.

"The damage they can cause is huge, especially in an area like the south end of the island which is sandy. Rabbits can destroy huge areas of grazing."

Details of how the cull should be funded and even when the first operations will take place have yet to be finalised. However, the committee has ruled out reintroducing myxomatosis to the island.

The deadly viral disease was used extensively during the 1950s and 1960s when it almost made the creature extinct in the islands and many locals considered it cruel to the animals because of prolonged death.

The chairman of Dunrossness Community Council, Donald Robertson, said that traditional methods of "disposal" such as shooting and gassing would be considered as they were the most humane way to control the situation.

Mr Robertson said that there were now so many of the creatures that it was almost impossible to avoid running over them in the Quendale area, which is home to a site of special scientific interest.

"At the moment there are a few people shooting rabbits themselves, or who employ someone to do it for them, but it really is going to need a concerted effort if we're going to make a difference," he said.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has confirmed that funding may be possible from the agency, but only for areas of special scientific interest, which includes parts of Quendale.

"Rabbits are causing serious problems to the land. There is crop and soil damage, and conservation areas are suffering," an SNH spokesman confirmed.

Ironically, Shetland was the setting for the wartime song and popular children's nursery ditty "Run Rabbit Run". The song was written following the first enemy bombing on British soil by the Germans during the Second World War.

On a raid on 13 November 1939, during an attack on the Shetland islands which was intended for a flying boat base at Sullom Voe, all that resulted was a large bomb crater in the countryside, near to where Europe's largest oil terminal now sits.

The only death reported in the national newspapers was of a rabbit, giving the inspiration to the wartime marching song.

The song was written for Noel Gay's showThe Little Dog Laughed, which opened in October 1939.

The song was popular throughout the war, especially after Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen changed the lyrics to poke fun at the Germans - "Run Adolf, Run Adolf, Run, Run, Run."