Thursday, September 29, 2011

John Sheail - Rabbits and their History

The history of rabbits in the UK might seem an unusal topic, but there is a surprisingly fascinating and complex story here. Rabbits first arrived on the British Isles at some point after the Norman Conquest. They began as a luxury food for the rich, but soon escaped the boundaries of their warrens and easily adapted to the British countryside. Over time, rabbits rapidly became an important part of  the rural economy and the natural ecology of the countryside, their meat helping to feed the population and their fur being a prized material for sale.

What John Sheail does well though, is to demonstrate how the history of the rabbit in the UK is one of an interaction between human society and nature. This is not a simple story of rabbits escaping their warrens and becoming accepted as a normal part of nature.

Rabbits could be a prized asset, yet their introduction often helped to destroy crops and woodlands. Their ability to procreate made it difficult, if not impossible to control their numbers. Whole areas of farmland were rendered worthless. A single collection of rabbits, unrestricted by property boundaries could, and frequently did, lay waste to crops. As a result of this, rabbits themselves became a battleground. Landowners might relish rabbits for the hunting parties that paid to shoot them, bagging dozens of animals in a day. The money from this could be much greater than the money obtained for farming the land, but the rabbits would alienated surrounding farmers. So poaching, hunting and trapping became something that also represented the struggle between farmers and landowners.

Dozens of laws aimed at restricting poaching are testiment to the landowners ability to use parliament to fight back, but the spread and growth of rabbits across the isles, meant that by the 20th century they were of epidemic proportions.

Much of Sheail's book deals with the back and forth nature of the battle for the right to hunt and eat rabbits and the defence of crops and land from them. He describes the, sometimes huge, artifical warrens built to house the animals (Henry VIII's estate owned an enormous auger, used to drill rabbit holes). He explains how gin traps worked, and why there was such an outcry at their cruelty and amusingly he discusses ferrets. He reports on the alleged use of crabs and lobsters (with lit candles on their backs) by rabbit trappers who used them to flush the animals out of their tunnels and called them sea-ferrets. He mentions evidence that toads were used in a similar way, but I find this somewhat unlikely.

Most interestingly he demonstrates how the introduction of myxomatosis destroying rabbits in their millions and almost driving them extinct had the consequence of changing, once again the nature of the beast. Rabbits today spend little time below ground, unlikely their more recent ancestors, and similar to the original animal introduced in medieval times. Their numbers are limited by the disease, and crops and agriculture are safer, but the example serves to show how rabbits are really a product of the social space that humans have created for them, rather than a natural evolution. The lack of suitable predators in Australia has shown the consequence of the introduction of the animals into an area offering almost unlimitless growth.

Sheail's book concludes by saying that the story of the rabbit has not ended. After all the interlinked nature of the shared history of humans and rabbit described so well in the preceeding pages will no doubt continue and develop.

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