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Rabbits belong to the order of mammals called Lagomorpha, which includes 40 or so species of rabbits, hares and Pikas. Fossil records suggest that Lagomorpha evolved in Asia...

Rabbits belong to the order of mammals called Lagomorpha, which includes 40 or so species of rabbits, hares and Pikas. Fossil records suggest that Lagomorpha evolved in Asia at least 40 million years ago, during the Eocene period. The break-up of continents during this period may be responsible for the wide distribution of differing species of rabbits and hares around the world, with the exception of Australia. There are currently more than 60 recognised breeds of domestic rabbit in Europe and America, all of them descended from the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), the only species of rabbit to have been widely domesticated. It is a seperate species from other native rabbits such as the North American jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits and all species of hares.

The European wild rabbit evolved around 4,000 years ago on the Iberian Peninsula, the name 'Hispania' (Spain) is translated from the name given to that area by  Phoenician merchants, meaning 'land of the rabbits'. When the Romans arrived in Spain around 200BC, they began to farm the native rabbits for their meat and fur. The Romans called this practice 'cuniculture' and kept the rabbits in fenced enclosures. Inevitably, the rabbits tried to escape and it is perhaps no surprise that the latin name 'Oryctolagus cuniculus' means 'hare-like digger of underground tunnels'. The spread of the Roman empire, along with increasing trade between countries, helped to introduce the European rabbit into many more parts of Europe and Asia. With their rapid reproduction rate, and the increasing cultivation of land providing ideal habitat, rabbits soon established large populations in the wild. The European rabbit continued to be introduced to new countries as they were explored, or colonised by European adventurers and pioneers. Wild rabbits thrived in many new locations, and populations grew rapidly in countries with suitable habitat and few natural predators. The European rabbit became widespread in North America and Australia, for example, where the wild rabbit has become a troublesome pest to farmers and conservationists.

Wild rabbits are said to have been first domesticated in the 5th Century by the monks of the Champagne Region in France. Monks were almost certainly the first to keep rabbits in cages as a readily available food source, and the first to experiment with selective breeding for traits such as weight or fur colour. Rabbits were introduced to Britain during the 12th Century, and during the Middle Ages, the breeding and farming of rabbits for meat and fur became widespread throughout Europe. Sources suggest that some women among the Medieval gentry even kept rabbits as pets. The selective breeding of European rabbits meant that distinct breeds arose in different regions, and the origins of many old breeds can be traced back several centuries. For example; paintings from the 15th century show rabbits in a variety of colours, some even with white 'Dutch' markings; 16th century writings suggest that the Flemish Giant was already being pure-bred under the name Ghent Giant, in the Flemish speaking Ghent area of Belgium; 17th century sources tell of the arrival of 'silver' rabbits in England and France, brought from India and China by seafarers and influential in the Silver and Champagne de Argente breeds; 18th century sources suggest a breed known as Lapin de Nicard once existed in France and weighed as little as 1.5kg (3½ lbs), some consider this to be the forerunner of all dwarf breeds; the English Lop can also be traced back to 18th century records, and is considered the ancestor of all the lop breeds. By the middle of the 19th century, the widespread practice of selectively breeding domestic rabbits had resulted in a large variety of breeds, ranging from the tiny Polish rabbit to the huge Flemish Giant.

Up until the 19th century, domestic rabbits had been bred purely for their meat and fur, but during the Victorian era, many new 'fancy' breeds were developed for the hobby of breeding rabbits for showing. Industrialisation also meant that many people moving from the country to the expanding towns and cities, brought rabbits with them; apart from poultry, they were the only 'farm' animal to be practical to keep in town. Although many of these rabbits were bred for meat, it became increasingly common among the rising middle classes to keep rabbits as pets. Rabbits were connected with the countryside and the animals they had left behind, and became considered almost sentimentally. Rabbit wares were promoted in connection with children, and the romantic attitude towards rabbits persists today in the association of 'bunnies' with newborn babies, and the idea of rabbits as a children's pet. By the 20th century, rabbit breeding had become a popular hobby across Europe, with many rabbit fanciers developing new varieties and colours. Some breeds, such as the Himalayan and Rex, came about as the result of naturally-occuring genetic mutations which were then fixed or enhanced through a selective breeding programme. Others were developed through cross-breeding, particularly with rabbits imported from other countries as a result of increasing travel in Europe. Many breed societies and clubs were established, with some breeds undergoing dramatic swings in popularity, often due to changing fashions for fur and commercial uses. Although the European rabbit arrived in America with european settlers, and established a large wild population, rabbits were mostly hunted in the wild until the late 19th century. Domestic rabbitry did not become popular in the United States until around the turn of the century, when many European breeds began to be imported, and breeders also developed some American breeds.

During the two World Wars, governments in both Britain and the United States encouraged people to keep rabbits as a source of homegrown meat and fur, both for themselves and to help feed and clothe soldiers. After the wars, many people continued to keep rabbits in their gardens, and they become commonplace as household pets. Rabbits have become the third most popular pet after cats and dogs in the UK, unlike cats and dogs however they are traditionally seen as 'childrens pets', and often sadly misunderstood. During the last 30 years or so, attitudes towards rabbits as pets have been undergoing a gradual shift. The promotion of rabbit welfare is fostering a greater understanding of rabbits; from their basic needs to their intelligence, personality and behaviour. Rabbits are increasingly seen in the same way as cats and dogs, as a rewarding companion or family pet, and provided with the same level of care and attention, from routine vaccinations and healthcare, to greater freedom and interaction with their owners.

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