Farmers in northeast Spain say the rabbits are wreaking havoc on crops like peaches, pistachios, olives and grapes.  

‘Either they die, or we do’: A rabbit plague threatens farmers’ livelihoods in northeast Spain

A plague of rabbits is rampaging through one of Europe’s most bountiful farming regions. Farmers in northeast Spain say that, without help, they’ll lose most of this year’s harvests.  

The World

Farmers in northeast Spain say the rabbits are wreaking havoc on crops like peaches, pistachios, olives and grapes.

Gerry Hadden/The World

At midday during a sweltering heat wave, farmers in northeastern Spain would normally be heading from their fields to the shade of the village bar. But farmers Ramon Bonet, Ramon Boleda and Joan Bonet are stuck driving around counting rabbits.

Around the village of Verdú, just outside the city of Lleida, they see dozens of them scamper among crops and dart in and out of underground warrens.

“The rabbits have chewed the skin off the vines,” Boleda said. “This vine is done for. This entire harvest is lost.”

Rabbits in Spain are nothing new, but this year’s population explosion is unusual. Locals fear the long-eared bunnies may have gained a permanent upper hand and they’re wreaking havoc on crops like peaches, pistachios, olives and grapes.

Grapevines destroyed by Lleida’s plague of rabbits, causing millions of dollars in damage.

Grapevines destroyed by Lleida’s plague of rabbits, causing millions of dollars in damage.

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

The plantations around the city of Lleida are sometimes called Europe’s fruit basket. There are millions of dollars at stake here, as well as the supply of many farm products favored by shoppers from Berlin to Budapest.

A short drive away, Boleda found new losses among his pistachio trees.

“The rabbits eat the bark all around the trunk,” he said.  “They’ve destroyed more than 400 trees.”

Boleda said that’s about $100,000 down the rabbit hole. And the plague is getting worse. There are now up to 1,000 rabbits per square kilometer here, local farmers say. Fifty is the acceptable number, according to the Spanish government.

A grapevine has been killed off by marauding rabbits.

A grapevine has been killed off by marauding rabbits. 

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

Everyone agrees the bunnies need to be culled. The problem is how to do it.

After the drive around, Ramon Bonet tested his 12-gauge shotgun. He said rabbits have always lived in Iberia — in 300 BC, the Carthaginians named the peninsula España, or Land of Rabbits, and it stuck.

Humans and bunnies have long coexisted. But recent hotter temperatures are causing rabbits to reproduce faster. Bonet said the pandemic hasn’t helped.

“During these years of COVID restrictions,” he said, “no one was out hunting. … Plus, there are just fewer hunters in general. Our average age is now over 60.”

But hunting is the only tool farmers have.

Antoni Torres, a local hunting warden, said that in Lleida county alone, rabbits have overrun 99% of the farmland.

“We’d need to double the number of hunters,” he said, to reduce rabbit numbers.

“But then you create other problems. You can’t have that many people with guns hunting at once.”

 “We need to be able to put out poison,” Ramon Bonet said. “Either they die, or we do.”

The remains of a rabbit most likely shot by a hunter.

The remains of a rabbit most likely shot by a hunter. On a busy night a single hunter can bag close to a hundred rabbits. But it’s not enough to stop their numbers from increasing.

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

That’s exactly what was written on a giant sign residents woke up to on a recent Sunday. It was hanging from this bridge on the edge of Verdú. “Farmers or rabbits,” it read.

And there was something else. Dead rabbits were hung off the bridge with ropes around their necks.

The anonymous gesture attracted TV crews, and sparked a minor, unexpected animal rights backlash in the village.

“The next day the animal rights folks had hung their own sign,” farmer Joan Bonet said.

“It said, ‘to protest, you don’t need to shed blood.’ It had a picture of a bunny giving us the finger,” he said.

The farmers here will keep protesting, as they did recently, driving through town on their tractors.

Officials have offered up to 300 humane no-kill rabbit traps, but farmers have laughed at the offer, saying that it's impractical.

They hope that if shoppers find less produce to choose from this coming fall, society might support their fight to keep the rabbits in check.

Related: 'Fire flocks’ of sheep and goats get deployed to help battle forest fires in Spain

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?