The original European wild rabbits evolved about 4,000 years ago in Iberia. In fact the visiting Phoenician merchants referred to part of Iberia as 'I-shephan-im' which means land of the rabbits. This was translated as 'Hispania' or as we know it - Spain. The scientific name for rabbits is 'Oryctolagus cuniculus' which sounds much more complicated than it actually is because it means 'a hare-like digger of underground passages'.
Life was peaceful for the rabbits until the Romans arrived in Spain during the Second Punic war in the 2nd century B.C. Much to the rabbits dismay the Romans quickly cottoned on to the idea of farming them in a practise known as cuniculture.
The increasing trade amongst countries by sea and land helped to introduce rabbits to every continent except for Antarctica. Humans were now getting good at growing crops and as more land was cultivated into fields full of food, humans inadvertently provided rabbits with ideal habitats to live in. Combined with their famously fast breeding rate this ensured that they established themselves quickly wherever they went.
The domestication of rabbits is believed to have begun when medieval monks began to keep rabbits in cages for food. Newly born rabbits, Laurices, were not considered to be meat and were therefore allowed to be eaten during Lent. Monks tend to be dedicated fellows and it wasn’t long before they were studiously selecting and breeding rabbits to create new fur colours.
The industrial revolution meant many people moving from the countryside into towns and they brought their rabbits with them. As a pair of rabbits can produce up to 90kgs of meat a year they were an important source of food. But in the 19th century things started to look up for the rabbits as the Victorians began dabbling in breeding them for shows and competitions. Since then we have more or less stopped eating rabbits in the UK although in many other countries they are still a regular part of the diet.
Domestic rabbits were commonly carried on sailing ships and sometimes released on islands as food for castaways. Rabbits were still imported as late as the 1860's to stimulate a domestic fur and meat trade. Establishment of wild populations was limited at first by lack of suitable habitat but increased pastoral farming assisted spread and growth in numbers. By the 1880's rabbits had become a serious threat to the fragile New Zealand economy.