As the Good Book says, "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." I must confess there was a time in my life - admittedly a long time ago - when I thought that prophecy had come true! Back in the early fifties, our countryside literally swarmed with rabbits, seen by many as 'the meek' among our wild creatures and a much favoured prey of many of the hunting classes among our native fauna. Yet they did indeed seem to be about to inherit our landscape!
And of course, there were those folk who dedicated themselves to the 'sport' of catching rabbits, using ferrets. With rabbits abounding, inevitably the skies were well filled with mewing buzzards. Wherever I went there were stoats ... dashing perilously across country roads with almost monotonous regularity, or sinuously exploring the warrens that pockmarked many a field in those far off days. Those were profitable days indeed for a whole range of predators, not to mention the owners of ferrets!
So numerous were rabbits at that time, that it was thought they were costing the farming industry millions of pounds in lost revenue annually. Rabbits were simply decimating crops. They weren't very popular with gardeners either, for they also destroyed many a vegetable patch too. During the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the rabbit population literally exploded. Yet rabbits had been present in Britain by then for several hundred years, their presence almost unnoticed. As most people know, rabbits are not true natives of these shores, nor indeed are brown hares. The only truly British member of this clan is the 'blue' or mountain hare. In truth, Rabbits are only truly native to southern Europe, although they have been introduced to many different parts of the world.
The Romans are believe to have introduced the brown hare to these shores perhaps the best part of two thousand years ago, principally as a source of food. The rabbit's arrival came many hundreds of years later, sometime it is thought, in the twelfth century. The introduction of this innocent looking creature is often laid at the door of the Norman conquerors. But William and his merry men and their successors had probably been resident here for at least a hundred years before the first rabbits were brought, it is thought, from the Isles of Scilly. Nevertheless, they probably arrived in those islands courtesy of those same Normans.
The apparent innocence of rabbits has been well and truly exploited by numerous writers, not least by one Beatrix Potter. Her Peter Rabbit became bedtime reading for literally generations of tiny tots. Every Easter-time brings forth portraits of fluffy little chickens and of course, large eyed 'bunny' rabbits. Apart from the Easter theme of new life - the resurrection - I guess that young rabbits do look cuddly and because of those large round eyes and chubby cheeks, portray a 'baby-like' image.
Thus, they are the very epitome of 'meek and mild' creatures which may have been why there was wide-scale outrage when, in the mid-fifties, myxomatosis, was deliberately introduced as a means of containing out-of-control rabbit numbers. Now a horror struck public was confronted with the sight of dying rabbits in their thousands. Blind, pathetic and emaciated creatures were to be seen crawling about helplessly, just waiting for death to come.
The dreaded 'mixi' certainly put people off eating rabbit which, during the war years, had been a much sought after source of protein when butcher's meat was severely rationed. Some enterprising folk had gone into intensive rabbit farming to meet the demand and probably found things becoming increasingly difficult when the disease struck as more and more people removed rabbit from their menus. But Peter Rabbit's reputation remained unaffected and he continued to be bedtime reading for millions of children! As I recall, Mr McGregor, did not subscribe to the view that rabbits were the meek and mild creatures of his garden! They were the enemy!
However, rabbits had existed in the British countryside for hundreds of years without apparently causing any problems. Of course, during those centuries the British landscape had been a much wilder place than anyone today would imagine. Dominated by woodland and heath and farmed on a much smaller scale compared with the modern day, the progress initiated by the Agricultural Revolution began to transform it. Woodlands were felled, heathlands 'tamed' and vast acreages of land improved and turned over to the growing of crops. The object of course, was to feed the fast growing human population.
Suddenly there was a huge spin-off for Britain's then quite meagre population of rabbits, or as they were widely known, coneys! Rabbits suddenly found themselves plunged into a world of plenty, with a glut of succulent food. And boy, did they exploit it. Now extremely well fed, they went forth with a vengeance and multiplied ... at a remarkable rate, fast becoming a costly problem for the new, more prosperous age of farmers. However their fecundity became a veritable bonanza for an array of predators. I well remember observing an eagle, which had come down from the mountains of Arran, feating upon the rabbits dispersing from a lowland field during hay-making. But it was buzzards that were among the main beneficiaries although stoats too profited from this abundance of food as did several other hunters.
When 'myxi' struck, there was a further bonanza to be exploited but thereafter there ensued a rapid decline in prey and a responsive downturn in predator numbers. In this airt, rabbit numbers seem hardly to have recovered at all but elsewhere, there does seem to be evidence of resistance to 'myxi' building up in some rabbit populations. Rabbits are gregarious animals and they are not as meek and mild as you may think. As with most animals, there is inevitably a struggle for dominance among male rabbits - bucks - as the breeding season approaches. Rabbits famously, have a well-deserved reputation for ambitious breeding with the first stirrings affecting them as early as January.
As said, they live in pretty close communities, which are very much dominated by the most aggressive bucks. The social structure is established, known as a dominance hierarchy, in which other bucks are consequently extremely subservient to the 'master' buck. Indeed, when young, up and coming bucks aggressively displace older animals and those ousted are sent packing to live comparatively lonely 'bachelor' lives on their own. So, in terms of lifestyle, they are not quite so meek and mild as they might seem. Although there is usually a dominant doe too, her role seems to be that of a tolerant matriarch.
The slow recovery of rabbits and perhaps the degree of resistance to myxomatosis, is definitely patchy. Locally, where I used to watch rabbits on a regular basis, now there are none. Hence, I seldom catch a glimpse of a stoat whereas a good thirty years ago, I recall typically seeing several in the course of a day. However, during a recent stay on the west coast, members of my family reported an abundance of rabbits. I also know that some of the islands off that coast to which perhaps rabbits were long ago introduced as an alternative to the monotony of a fishy diet, are still 'hoaching' with them!
And then a day of rwo ago, the sighting of that famous skut, so much a recognisable feature of this animal, was to be seen disappearing into a nearby wood. I'm sure the eyes of the local buzzards and kites will accordingly light up. The farmers hereabouts however, with memories of those teeming hordes, will perhaps be hoping that they may not again see coneys 'inheriting their bit of the earth'!