As with all that's Maltese, the rabbit holds an interesting history on the islands.
We often think of those sandy brown or grey and white rabbits as being endemic to Malta, but actually, Malta's wild rabbit originally came from the Iberian Peninsula. As with so many things, rabbits were most likely introduced to Malta by the Phoenicians about 3,600 years ago - this would have been a way of ensuring fresh meat on the island when they stopped off in Malta on their way home from Spain.
The Romans believed that by consuming rabbit meat, their women would enhance their beauty - especially if the rabbit meat was in the form of newly born baby rabbits or embryos taken from before birth, cooked and served with honey. And it is likely that that they brought the practice here, to Malta.
Some of the rabbits they brought over would have survived, and as we know - it doesn't take rabbits long to multiply their population! As a result, they began providing meat for the local population.
Interestingly, during the time of the Knights of St John, several decrees were issued to restrict or prohibit the local population from hunting rabbits. Extremely harsh punishments were inflicted on anyone caught even merely helping himself to the same type of weeds on which the wild rabbits foraged, particularly in Comino. In 1773, the restrictions even resulted in a revolt known as the Rising of the Priests. This was when the rabbits had multiplied to such an extent that it was devastating farmers' crops. An upsurge of discontent followed, with clashes with the church authorities, and was solved in 1776 with a proclamation that allowed the hunting of rabbits in privately owned territories. Rabbit meat then became available to the masses with lowered prices, but this time in such abundance that it triggered the tradition of the fenkata as Malta's national dish.
The traditional Maltese stuffat tal-fenek (stewed rabbit) soared in popularity with the rabbit meat's low prices, establishing the dish as a culinary staple to this day.
Farmers would keep a doe enclosed within a small, four-walled stone enclosure, feeding it well to ensure that it was too heavy or lazy to jump out. Males would jump inside to mate, providing farmers with a continuous supply of meat. This would be the beginning of the local domestic rabbit known as Tax-Xiber.
Up until recently - about 30 years ago to be precise - this type of rabbit was almost exclusively kept on a “backyard” basis for consumption. While some farmers specifically bred rabbits for the market, most cattle, pig and poultry farmers allowed some rabbits to run around in their stables, casually reaping the harvest of young rabbits as they reached marketable weight.
In Tax-Xiber - The Indigenous Rabbit of Malta by J. Gauci Maistre, it is stated that, "the advent of the New Zealand White and Californian breeds in Malta, as well as (to a much lesser extent) that of the hybrid, broke the monopoly of the Tax-Xiber rabbit. The commercial breeds started gaining popularity, gradually at first, but dramatically later on as the trend gained momentum, till they edged the Tax-Xiber to the sidelines. The local breed has now lost so much of its importance that it is on the verge of extinction."
Although there are a fair amount of different types of rabbits roaming freely within the Maltese countryside, they're said to be elusive, due to centuries of hunting. Still, if you have the patience, you may be able to spot them gingerly emerging at dawn or dusk to feed.