Welsh rabbit – the furry sort!

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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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