When we told my father that he was to become a grandfather for the first time, he blurted out, “it’s not like a rabbit, you know. You can’t just leave it in a hutch” which, as a lesson in parenting, rankled at the time seeing as he once ate one of my childhood pet rabbits.
I’ve been thinking about rabbits as I have become a kind of foster mum to two of them. These rabbits are on track to be as costly as human children, having visited the vet on two separate occasions recently: once because one rabbit filled up with gas from a digestion that ground to a halt after eating too much, and the other because the silly furry fool got poop stuck on his penis and I wasn’t sure where the poop ended and Len the rabbit began. So off to the vets to have it cut off (the poop, not the penis) and cue much hilarity at Len’s expense. As for the stored up gas, it vented the morning after costly injections, a night of force feeding and hot water bottles, in such a noisy rush I half expected the rabbit to whizz around the ceiling like a deflating balloon. The rabbit looked at me with a dopey satisfied expression after ridding himself of the effects of the bunny equivalent of a night on the ale and the curry and ambled off to refuel itself with half a bag of expensive chamomile and Timothy hay. All I could think was thank goodness rabbits are vegetarian.
The common perception of rabbits is of hardy countryside creatures, providers of essential nourishment for our apex predators and to that end, we say they breed like, well, rabbits. If you asked a hundred people in the street, the words they choose to describe them wouldn’t be delicate or high maintenance. Except they are: these are not starter pets or animals for the inexperienced owner and this highly strung nature is reflected locally where the Breckland population of wild rabbits is declining at an alarming rate.
When I mentioned this to Michaela Strachan at the Springwatch launch last year she laughed in disbelief and commented that there were still plenty of rabbits at Minsmere. There may well be, but the descendants of those rabbits brought to the Brecks are in decline and nobody is quite sure why although research is being undertaken to address this. Historically rabbits were introduced by the Normans and intensively farmed here from the Middle Ages up until the 18th century and they play a fundamental role in maintaining a typical open scrub with its special mosaic of both acid and chalk loving plants. They keep at bay the woodland which would swiftly encroach without them, forever changing this special landscape. Many species thrive because of the rabbits’ close cropping and the Brecks contains 28 per cent of the rarest of them: many invertebrates alongside birds such as the nightjar, woodlark and stone curlew will not breed successfully on land where grasses and other plants are allowed to grow tall, unchecked by those constantly growing bunny teeth and we risk losing them if we lose our local bunnies.
Those teeth have been working their black magic on our own garden and they are particularly attracted to a shallow clay tray set into the ground which has become naturally colonised with mosses, grasses and sedums. Interestingly, my rabbits never raze it to the ground as they do with other plants in the garden (goodbye Bowles Golden Grass, Rosa Mundi, Nasturtium and every single herb) but always leave enough to regenerate, following a deeply buried behavioural affinity with their Breckland cousins a few miles down the road maybe? Their garden action reminds me a little of the effects of young children: fragile young shrubs would sport fractured branches from flying footballs; newly flowering mini bulbs would lose their blooms so that Purple Ted could wear them behind his ear; and Tonka trucks would excavate trenches and erect border defences so that entire power ranger armies could fight without loss of life and plastic limb.
My cosseted rabbits remind me of those childhood rabbits gone before: of Pinky and Perky-the Belgian Hare and binary coloured Dutch; and Trog who met his end in a pot, and also of the younger me who blithely went forth into parenthood without much clue about what it would entail. The kids have finally all left home now but I am still lashed to the mainsail of responsibility, a skipper of small fragile things.