This is a European rabbit, and it has stories to tell about people.
Yes, people: the ambitious species that has taken it on a journey most flattering, adventurous, cruel and extraordinary. People like the mighty Carthaginians – who named a peninsula Ispania, literally the Land of Rabbits, AKA modern Spain. People like the Romans, whose British litter includes rabbit bones – perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that some of the invading army were based in Hispania.
People in Norman chainmail, masters of the culture that introduced rabbits to Britain permanently as livestock. And people in medieval times, supporting themselves through farming rabbits, especially in the shifting sands of Breckland.
People worked hard to introduce rabbits. And then, with equal angst, sought to evict them. Rabbits did not stay tamely as livestock – freedom called too loud. Many farmers cheered when myxomatosis entered Britain in the 1950s, and some institutions (especially in Scotland) deliberately spread it. But rabbits, always rubbing shoulders with the famous, had a friend in Winston Churchill, who used his influence to make such acts a criminal offence. Today, myxomatosis waxes and wanes, but the newly-evolved Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease type 2 is repeating the decimation.
They’ve been here for centuries; critically important habitats like the Breckland heaths are now dependent on their grazing and digging. So I was pleased to see a fair number yesterday.
This is a brown hare, and no one knows where its British tale began. Also not a native, but introduced in the Iron Age, and flying its black-tipped ears like flags in open farmland ever since.
Hares are fleet of foot: 45mph say some. They run across stubble, and they run into our minds, etching themselves on our art – perhaps nowhere more than in the ancient Cotswolds town of Cirencester, where the Romans added them to mosaics while Constantine the Great ruled the world.
Modern artists continue the custom. Trails of colourful animal models are becoming popular attractions around many English towns, and in Cirencester, the species was easy to choose.
We do have one native lagomorph: the shy mountain hare Lepus timidus, restricted (in a rare example of a species name making sense) to the uplands. During the Pleistocene, its range extended southwards but as the ice ran away, so did the hare.
Ice and sand. Rabbits and people. Rivers and farms. It would take many lifetimes of oak trees to unravel more than a few chapters of this tale.