As February slides into March, Spring is finally on the way. The dawn chorus is gathering strength, leaves are budding and wildlife is perking up. I’ve seen rabbits in abundance, not just in fields and open grassland, but on the edges of towns. Beside the dual carriageway a trio of rabbits lollops under cover of a bramble thicket, and in the middle of a roundabout, another pair relaxes on the turf. I’ve seen them from the train on scrubby embankments and on tufty sand-dunes at the coast.
Ironically, considering I live in the country, I have yet to see one in the garden. Many gardeners tell me that I’m lucky not to be troubled by these voracious herbivores. They can decimate a veg patch or flower bed overnight, and when everything else is below the snow line, they will gnaw on young trees and shrubs. I’m sure I could cope with a couple of them, but, of course, you never get a couple, because they breed like, well, rabbits. Breeding starts in January and continues all summer, with the female able to produce four or more young every five weeks. Despite foxes, buzzards and stoats, to name a few rabbit-loving predators, plus the danger of busy roads, bunnies are everywhere. Yet only 25% of new-born rabbits survive their first year.
We used to blame the Normans for shipping them over for food and fur, but in 2005 archaeologists dug up 2000-year-old rabbit remains in Norfolk. Apologies to the Normans, it seems the Romans were to blame. They considered rabbits to be something of a delicacy and reared them in walled enclosures, or warrens. Inevitably, a few enterprising rabbits escaped and settled happily into a feral existence. The rest is history.
Rabbits are ‘crepuscular’, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, but the ones I saw frolicking by the roadside were out and about in the middle of the day. Their enviably soft coats keep them warm, but need to be kept clean and dry if they’re to be efficient. After days of heavy rain, the burrows can get wet, muddy, or even flooded out, and the rabbits need some serious grooming to keep their coats in good shape. Drying out and cleaning up in the sunshine is a necessity for a healthy rabbit, even if a roundabout is a perilous place to do it. The sight of a rabbit, twitching its nose and washing its face with its paws is endearing. No wonder Beatrix Potter was inspired to create the classic character, Peter Rabbit.
According to superstition these animals bring luck. Some people might wish you ‘a pinch and a punch’ on the first of the month, but others say ‘rabbits’ or ‘white rabbits’, and I’m told that it was the first thing superstitious World War Two bomber crew said in the morning. Ancient civilisations saw shapes of rabbits on the face of the moon and associated them with fertility, magic and shape-shifting witches.
Based on the damage they can cause to crops, trees and gardens, rabbits are a pest. Yet many creatures depend on them for survival – and not just predators. In the Seventies, when rabbit populations had been decimated by myxomatosis, chalk downlands became swamped with long grasses which had previously been grazed to short turf by the rabbits.
Unable to live in this environment, numbers of butterflies like the Adonis Blue and the silver spotted skipper fell to drastically low levels. Thankfully, with the recovery of the rabbits and their management of the grassland, the butterflies have returned. And that’s definitely lucky for us.