Originally published March 2014
Hello everyone! Not for the first time this winter I was counting my blessings last month whilst taking advantage of one of the few, bright winter days to shore up my rapidly diminishing fence, for the umpteenth time. A month on from my scribble about the groundwater situation and the elements have continued to batter the British coastline whilst the, seemingly, never ending rainfall eroded both soil and morale alike. Those academics of a hydrological persuasion now agree that the subterranean aquifers are now fully charged. What they cannot decide on is how long before the next hosepipe ban! A dry winter, run-off, pollution and increasing demand and extraction may shorten the timescale to as little as eighteen months. Let us hope that lessons are learnt regarding the links between development and water storage; that is to say, less of the former enables more of the latter! With this in mind we cannot ignore the fact that hundreds of people have suffered dreadfully over the past few months. Whether the fingers of blame are pointed at developers, planners, local government, central government or towards a public with unrealistic expectations, and I suspect all of these parties are guilty to some extent, our sympathy must be with those engulfed in misery at present.
Despite my Doomsday predictions of frozen frog spawn and chilled chicks Ma Nature is pushing on regardless; not that she listens to me, or anyone else for that matter! A stroll through Quarry Wood on another sunny February day had me thanking the grand old lady for the therapeutic qualities of communing with her domain. Amongst the woodland debris, uprooted trees and flooded footpaths the Bluebells, Wood Anemones and Spotted Orchards were emerging whilst the bud-bedecked trees resounded to the type of bird song you only get at this time of year. The overall effect was enhanced by the sound of our local ‘Peckers yaffling and drumming in the distance, no doubt in search of a good meal and companionship. My few hours of near-religious fervour reached a pinnacle when a pair of Buzzards ghosted over my head at treetop level before soaring into the sky and filling the air with their haunting cries, fuelled by a goodly dose of spring fever!
Over the past few weeks my nocturnal travels have provided me with many sightings of two of our mammals who prefer the hours of darkness to feed, though daylight activity is certainly not uncommon. The first being our cunning foxes, sloping around between the hedgerows. If this mild weather does continue, I fully expect to see the cubs out before too long. Fans of Richard Adams will have guessed the second animal from the title by now, the more astute would have seen the error in describing it as one of our mammals. Yes the ubiquitous Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is not a native of our shores but, possibly along with the Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus), was first introduced to Britain by the Sandal’d and Toga’d Ones who farmed them for food. They discovered them during the second Punic Wars in Iberia where they originally evolved around 800,000 years ago. It is believed that the Roman Rabbit did not thrive once the Legions were recalled and, very much like the Latin language itself, was re-introduced with the Normans. It is an intriguing thought that Benjamin and Peter et al could be descendants of rabbits brought over to this area, maybe even Crowhurst itself?
Anyone in this country with the surname Warren, Warrener or variations on that theme can, almost certainly, claim to be descended from the Warreners, men employed by the Norman lords to maintain the rabbit enclosures. These Warrens were stone walled, with a large artificial mound in the middle for the rabbits to burrow into. Like the Romans before them, the Normans used Ferrets and nets to capture the young Rabbits, called Coneys, for the pot. Now it does not take a genius to work out that keeping an animal, whose Latin moniker translates to a hare-like digger of underground passages, in an outdoor enclosure is going to be problematic! Many a Warrener must have dreaded the sight of a number of new holes suddenly appearing throughout their Norman master’s estate. It was the Medieval Monks who began the process of selective breeding and by the 17th Century the humble Iberian Rabbit was available in a variety of sizes and colours. The Victorians, as usual, took this to a new level and bred rabbits for shows and competitions.
Both Rabbits and Hares belong to the Grand Order of the Lagomorpha. Despite similar traits in dental structure and diet to the Order Rodentia they are not related, or at least no more than any other mammal. It is thought that the evolution of the Lagomorphs followed that of the several Grass species and they have a number of adaptations to gain the maximum nutritional value from grass. Rabbit owners will be familiar with the fact that Flopsy produces both a soft and a hard pellet, the former is eaten and mixed with food in the stomach so that the nutrients are absorbed the second time around. Our Agrarian Revolution which started back in the 16th Century provided a ready food source for the spreading population and the Enclosure Acts of the 1700s gave rabbits the opportunity to colonise hedgerows conveniently adjacent to fields of crops.
Given that the Rabbit is prey to a large number of carnivorous animals and birds it has needed some very special adaptations to overcome the high mortality rate. These include reaching sexual maturity early in life, females at three and a half months and males at four, short gestation periods, large litters and the ability of the females to conceive immediately after giving birth. Even given that rabbits in the wild only live on average for one to two years the mathematics add up to a lot of Mopsys!
So successful are these prolific animals at overcoming the odds that by the 1950s the population in the UK was estimated to be close on 100 million. Farmers, having intensified their efforts following the U Boat campaign to try and starve the country in the 1940s, soon came to consider the rabbit as public enemy number one. Not only were crops being destroyed but the land itself was being undermined as it became riddled with a network of Lagomorphic tunnels. As most people are aware a “solution” came from across the pond where French scientists had been experimenting with a virus, first seen in Uruguay in the 19th Century, called Myxomatosis.
Spread by blood sucking insects and in particular the rabbit flea Spilopsyllus cuniculi, the disease is usually fatal within twelve days after initial infection. The virus was transported to Australia in 1951 to combat the country’s 600 million rabbits. It was deemed a great success as 99.8% of the infected rabbits died and within two years Australia’s wool and meat industry had fully recovered. The virus was released in France under very controversial circumstances where it decimated both the wild and domestic rabbit populations. It quickly spread throughout Europe and found its way to Kent and Sussex in 1953, again under very suspicious circumstances. The resulting epidemic not only affected the rabbit population but had wide-ranging effects on our flora and fauna. Short grass ecosystems disappeared in many places and scrub and woodland started to regenerate. The removal of a readily available food source had a dramatic effect on many predators and Fox, Stoat, Weasel, Buzzard, Owl and Peregrine Falcon numbers dropped dramatically; the Peregrines absent from the South Downs completely until recent years. As with all viruses the lack of hosts controlled the spread of the disease and today the population is roughly about half of what it was in 1950. Occasionally new strains of Myxomatosis affect small groups throughout the country but in general our rabbits are thriving thanks to an immunity to the virus developed over the last few decades.
So what did the Normans do for us? Well apart from providing us with the material for a very unsatisfactory episode of Time Team, they introduced a pest which has cost this country more than any other species in terms of loss of crops. However, they also added a lovely animal to our countryside, without which our landscape would be sorely lacking, our literature strangely incomplete and our traditional recipe books that little bit slimmer. Mixed blessings indeed!
All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning.
Watership Down, Richard Adams, 1972
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