Folk lore suggests that the Easter Bunny derives from an ancient Anglo-Saxon myth concerning the goddess ‘Ostara’. Ostara is the personification of the rising sun and in that capacity, she is associated with spring and is considered a fertility goddess. She is also the friend of all children and to amuse them she is said to have changed her pet bird into a rabbit. This rabbit brought forth brightly coloured eggs which the Greek goddess gave to children as gifts and it is from her name and rites that it is said that the pagan festival of Easter is derived.
However, there is no sign of Easter Bunnies here. Since the scourge of myxamotosis came our way, rabbits have been as rare hereabouts as hen’s teeth! Yet I remember the times when rabbits virtually seethed across great swathes of the countryside, much, I might say, to the detriment of the nation’s farmers who, collectively, probably lost millions of pounds to those avaricious rabbits and their fondness for crops. The symbol of new life as manifested in the very fertile rabbit, is no longer appropriate here because of the onset of the disease.
There are certainly plenty of newly born lambs gamboling about the fields here, so for me at least they represent the image of modern-day Easter. Indeed, they offer plenty of rich entertainment by suddenly and almost involuntarily jumping on all four legs as if they are spring loaded and racing up and down like a mob of young children suddenly let loose at playtime. Nothing quite represents that re-birth more actively than a field full of new lambs.
There can also be little doubt that love is in the air. The avian choir is growing by the day, with yellow billed cock blackbirds now really tuning in and competing vocally with one another in order to encourage interest from the duskier females. Furthermore, currently there appears to be a love match being enacted around our bird-table. All winter, we have played host to a single cock pheasant which we have named ‘Hopalong’. For although he is a fine fellow resplendent in his full spring plumaae, he has, what I take to be a slight malformation of his left leg which he seems unable to bend properly at the foot. Consequently, he limps when he walks, his step with that left foot ending up on a tip-toe. However, despite his handicap, he has evidently stayed clear of the guns and has now been joined by a female. Maybe in due course we’ll have the spectacle of them producing pheasant poults – another example of chicks perhaps, albeit not at Easter.
Not being a shooting person, I don’t ordinarily find pheasants very interesting but Hopalong has caught my imagination and is a daily presence here. I happen to think that sadly far too many pheasants are released into the British countryside on a yearly basis. The latest estimate that I have seen is fifty million birds released each and every year in the UK! That does seem to me to be excessive and the likely cause of some imbalance. They may be artificially fed by keepers but they also take a fair amount of natural food which means there is less for the wild birds.
Oddly enough, that mythical rabbit of old turned out, on further examination, to be a hare. This, according to 18th century German legend, passed judgement on whether children had behaved well and were thus deserving of some reward – Easter eggs perhaps. Incidentally, I understand that one of the first Easter eggs was given by the Pope to of all people, Henry V111! The hare has always commanded special respect and indeed, reverence and has been regarded as something of a talisman by generations of folk from many parts of the world. In recent days, hares have been courting heavily with their madcap March antics very much to the fore. This particular burst of energy, which often sees individual hares standing up on their hind legs and boxing – a male versus female encounter in reality - or jumping over each other in excitement.
This ‘mad March’ courtship ritual takes place before the vegetation has really started to grow and is thus it is quite easy to observe as the passion, which so overtakes the hares, means that they lose all their inhibitions and become oblivious to things around them. Further courtship occurs later in the season, for hares give birth to three or four litters each year. However, these later bouts of courtship are less ostentatious and at a time when there is plenty of growth to conceal it.
Of course, hares are not susceptible to myxamotosis which is a disease strictly affecting rabbits and the change in the rabbit population has been stark since that disease was introduced. As to the rabbit’s introduction here, the Romans most certainly discovered it during their conquest of Spain and certainly took advantage of them as a valuable source of meat. However, experts cite the Normans as the people who first brought them here and I have read somewhere that rabbit was a particularly favourite dish of Julius Caesar.
Whoever it was who was responsible for the introduction of the rabbit to these shores, the eventual consequences were considerable but it took a long time – hundreds of years - for the rabbit to have an impact. Whether the Romans or the Normans were the perpetrators of their introduction, the landscape of Britain then was vastly different from that we see today. By and large, Britain was dominated by heath and woodland and therefore the rabbit population remained relatively stable and largely insignificant for hundreds of years. And so it continued until the time of the Agricultural Revolution, when suddenly heath and woodland were transformed into a mosaic of agricultural fields growing a wide variety of crops. Such was the impact of that transformation that the rabbit population, now suddenly presented with a land of plenty – food by the field’s worth – literally exploded.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the rabbit had grown from being an unimportant incomer into an all-consuming monster costing the farming industry millions of pounds annually. All over the country, bodies to control the rabbits were established and ferrets were widely used to flush them from their warrens. It was total war! Yet curiously enough, although that war was being waged, by the nineteenth century, the rabbit had already become well established as a family pet. The rearing of rabbits had been first practiced by French monks back in the seventh century, primarily for a source of meat but slowly, however, as time went on those monks began to turn their attention to breeding them with special characteristics as domestic animals.
In more recent times, the keeping of rabbits has developed further so that nowadays there are also animals kept as house rabbits. Alas, there are no rabbits hereabouts to help us celebrate Easter or chicks either for that matter, but for me the image of Easter will always be of those gamboling lambs! Have a happy Easter!