One very familiar and seemingly ubiquitous creature in the landscape of the Kent Downs is the wild Rabbit. Bridge residents who venture out into our local countryside will know we have our fair share of them here. Originally from the south west of Europe, they were brought into Britain as farmed animals in the 12th century by the invading Normans who kept them in managed warrens to provide a cheap and easy source of meat and fur. Of course some escaped and, finding a landscape they could adapt to, they naturally bred like… Rabbits!
Given its countryside status as a bit of a pest, particularly one that lives gregariously out in the fields, it is odd that parents of young children frequently buy them a Rabbit as a pet to be kept in a small hutch out in the back garden. It is wilfully ignorant, cruel and quite obviously runs contrary to the animals’ natural way of life. The hutch gained popularity in Victorian times when Rabbits were captured alive and held for a short time before being killed for the pot; but even the barbaric Victorians were not so misinformed as to think they were actually being kind to a much loved pet in the way that many children are deceived into believing by trusted adults today. It is a national disgrace that Rabbits are kept confined in small hutches in primary schools all over Britain to this day.
We must dismiss any spurious excuses about ‘domesticated’ Rabbits being bred for captivity: it should be clear, a Rabbit is a Rabbit, there is not some convenient division in the species between those that like being trapped in a tiny wooden box all their lives and those that don’t! Rabbits are intelligent and active creatures, they need a lot of exercise and the freedom to roam about grazing. Out in the wild each one may graze over an area as large as three football pitches in a day. Furthermore, being herbivores and non-aggressive, they are one of nature’s ‘runners’, animals that run away from a predator. If threatened in the field they escape to hide within the safety of their burrows, away from the sight, smells and sounds of the predator, but, confined within a small hutch in the garden, they have nowhere to run when a dog, cat or fox comes sniffing around them. This is a terrifying experience for them.
Burrows deep in the ground also provide good temperature insulation and protect Rabbits from the extremes of weather: in a simple wooden hutch, exposed to the elements, they often spend their lives trembling in cold and terror in the winter and cramped in horrendous dehydrating heat in the summer. Huge numbers die every year from poor living conditions, bad diet, neglect, and undiagnosed diseases. Those that survive often do so only to suffer the loneliness of isolation.
Rabbits are very social creatures: in the wild they live in large family groups structured by a social hierarchy within a warren; so they don’t like being alone, but they don’t want human friends either, they prefer Rabbit company to people company; they hate being picked up, will scratch to escape if they can, and are very prone to injury if they are dropped. Clearly these are not animals which are at all suited to becoming children’s pets, and in the UK the RSPCA say they have more problems with neglect and cruelty to Rabbits than any other creature (1). Rabbit owners generally hide details of their own negligence, but veterinary figures suggest many hutched Rabbits die within days of purchase and few live their full life expectancy of seven years or more. Perhaps that is a mercy.
On Kent’s open downs Rabbits are charming, harmless creatures trimming and fertilising the grass, as prey they provide food for other creatures of the countryside. Unfortunately, on arable farmland they are a major nuisance: wild animals living in the wrong place. Recent figures suggest £100m of produce is lost to Rabbits in the UK (2), and in consequence many farmers understandably feel the need to cull them. The Rabbit’s main natural predators are foxes and buzzards, so this begs the question: if fox hunting ever was about efficiently killing foxes, why would any arable farmer condone a sport which kills his biggest ally against the Rabbit?
As pest, pet or prey, the life of the Rabbit is full of fear: mankind is its nemesis. Where does this gentle creature really belong? Somewhere in a wild place, far away from us.