Rabbits? Who needs them? Well, it seems that many people do. They have an honoured place in literature and modern culture, featuring in books such as Watership Down and the Beatrix Potter Tales, in cartoons and in legend and fable – Bre'r Rabbit and the old superstition of rabbits feet bringing good luck.

These days rabbits are often kept as pets although rabbit meat is still considered a delicacy in many quarters. Yet they did not exist in Britain until after the Norman Conquest when they were introduced into the British Isles, Wales in particular, as an important part of the food chain.

Certainly there is no record of rabbits prior to 1066 and the Welsh name for rabbit, cwningen, comes from Middle English. As such it originates from a period well after the Conquest. Even the animal's English name, rabbit, derives from the French word rabette.

Once they arrived on our shores, however, the growth of the rabbit population was significant. But it was a growth that was not allowed to get out of hand.

To begin with rabbits were regularly culled by the owners of the large estates where they thrived and lived – that, after all, was why they had been introduced to Wales in the first place.

But the proliferation of wildcats such as pine martens and polecats also ensured that the rabbit population was controlled. These wild animals would quickly kill any rabbits that had managed to escape from the warrens.

It was only when these predators were hunted down and exterminated by gamekeepers in the 18th and 19th centuries – keepers desperate to preserve their precious game birds - that the growth of the rabbit population reached huge proportions.

Nowadays rabbits are found all over the world. There are dozens of different species but the furry creatures we see in farmers fields and at the roadsides in Wales are the European rabbit. This is the most common of the breed and provides a direct link back to the food larders of the Norman and Medieval periods.

It was not just food that rabbits provided. Their skins were also highly valued, particularly for the fur edging on collars and coats during the Middle Ages, perhaps the one piece of luxury enjoyed by men and women in a time of scant comfort and limited degrees of elegance.

The ideal habitat for the humble rabbit was, and remains, meadows and grassland but it was quickly discovered that rabbits could exist almost anywhere.

The coastal dunes of Wales and the off-shore islands were perfect breeding grounds. In the Middle Ages the Pembrokeshire islands of Skokholm and Skomer were just two of the places where rabbits were bred.

While, to begin with, rabbits lived in artificially created warrens, over the years they gradually developed the ability to dig their own burrows and by the 18th century most country estates, on the coast and inland, possessed large rabbit warrens. It was low maintenance farming with, quite literally, no work or effort required.

Initially, rich landowners had kept rabbits for their own use but during the Industrial Revolution demand for their meat and fur – cheap on both counts - was steadily rising as people realised that here was a real opportunity to make money. By the beginning of the 20th century rabbits were big business.

By the 1940s over three million rabbits were being sent each year from south Wales to London and other major cities. There seemed to be no shortage of rabbits – small wonder they soon acquired a reputation as ferocious breeders. They were, by now, something of a pest, however, eating crops and digging up lawns and other pieces of parkland.

In France they were a major problem and a pest. Consequently, just after the war, myxomatosis, a lethal disease, was deliberately introduced by French farmers in an attempt to keep the rabbit population at a decent level.

Very quickly, the disease spread to Great Britain and in the 1950s it wiped out over 90% of the Welsh rabbits. Since then there has been a gradual recovery of the rabbit population in the country but it is unlikely that the rabbit population will ever again reach the endemic proportions of the 1930s and 40s.

They may not ever be so important again but there is no doubt that the rabbit holds an important part in all of our hearts – whatever we want to use him for!

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 23 Jun 2013 05:51

    This weekend I’ve been reading a newly-published book about the village of Angle in Pembrokeshire. In the village was a small rural garage – “G B Rees, Garage, Coal and Rabbit Merchant.” So it would seem that from raytom’s account above (which I suspect I heard first hand, many years ago) that keeping a garage and being a rabbit dealer went hand in hand as a popular profession in West Wales!
    As far as rabbits being a welcome addition to the diet is concerned, well this was most certainly true. I have a photo of my eldest brother with the first rabbit he bagged during WW2 in rural Pembrokeshire and the rabbit is nearly as big as he is! Much later, when I was a young teenager, my mother would occasionally say to me “Could you shoot a rabbit this week, boy?” Which I usually did – thinking mother fancied a rabbit stew. It was only later in life that I realised that the real reason was that some weeks we were so short of money (she’d probably had to buy me a pair of shoes or something) that if I didn’t get a rabbit we wouldn’t have had any meat until the end of the week when her widow’s pension was due.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 21 Jun 2013 06:25

    The poor Rabbit has now been dealt a double blow Phil. A viral disease first identified in China in 1988 has been spread, probably deliberately, in the name of ‘pest control,’ first to mainland Europe and then here where it was first recorded in 1992. Called Rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease it decimates rabbit populations but perhaps not to the extent that myxomatosis did in the 50s – but still with a death rate of over 90%. Like myxomatosis it is an appalling disease. It is only to be hoped that the survivors have a natural immunity and as with myxomatosis the rabbit population will recover in time.
    The Naturalist Ronald Lockley did some fascinating work on rabbit behaviour and ecology in Pembrokeshire in the 1950s. He was also involved with some research on Skokholm Island, where myxomatosis was introduced but had no effect on the rabbit population. This led to the discovery that the main vector of the disease was the rabbit flea – and the rabbits on Skokholm didn’t have fleas! A Pembrokeshire farmer once told me that the rabbits recovered so quickly after the first myxomatosis epidemic in 1955, that he was convinced that they had been deliberately re-introduced by zoologists working on Skomer and Skokholm and they had live-trapped a load and released them on the mainland.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by raymondo

    on 18 Jun 2013 11:51

    My late father in law owned an old style petrol station in Whitland from the early 30s to the late 60s. Until the coming of myxomatosis, he used the premises to trade in rabbits and made a comfortable living from the trade. He was supplied by three or four local self employed trappers and he claimed that many weeks he was paying them £100 a week each, a fortune at that time. The rabbits, in their hundreds, were strung from the joists in the garage until there was sufficient to take up to the station to load on the train, most of them destined for the Midlands towns and cities My wife remembers, as a toddler, insisting on going to the station with her Dad to wave goodbye to the rabbits or 'bishies' as she called them.Of course, the rabbits were stored without refrigeration and in warm weather it was a relief to get rid of them.

    Much of this period was one of austerity and rural poverty and many families would have seen little meat without the odd free rabbit to help them out. Wartime and post-war rationing added another dimension and with meat having to be sold at a fixed price some dealers fell foul of the law by selling on the 'black market'.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Noreen

    on 17 Jun 2013 15:58

    Fascinating stuff. I never realised that myxomatosis was deliberately introduced by the French in an attempt to keep the rabbit population down. I remember seeing rabbits dead or dying from this horrible disease when I went on holiday to West Wales. And believe me, it was pretty horrible. let's hope we never see it again. I'm not a great rabbit fan but there must have been easier and more humane ways of killing them off.

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