Lagomorpha

This is a European rabbit, and it has stories to tell about people.

Rabbit1 Aug 21

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.

Rabbit1 18 Sept 21

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.

Brown hare 18 Sept 21

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.

Cirencester hare1

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.

Cirencester hare2

***

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.

22 thoughts on “Lagomorpha

  1. We have three species of rabbits, or hares, here in New England. One is our native New England Cottontail-Sylvilagus transitionalis which is becoming more rare and is considered endangered. Part of this, of course, is human encroachment on the land. Another part is the Eastern Cottontail-(Sylvilagus floridanus) that is native to the U.S. but not so much in New England and is crowding S. transitionalis out in places. In my yard they are the only species I see and we do see a lot of them. Bentley is happy they are here as he forages for what his vet calls “doggie caviar”. There are projects to help the New England native species to rebound and so far their numbers have seen a hop or two. 🙂
    Our third species is the native snowshoe hare-Lepus americanus which is a more northerly species. The name coming from its large hind feet which enable it to zoom across snow and evade its predators.
    There are folks who raise rabbits as a food commodity but it is not a hugely popular meat at least so far. Ad, of course, hunters run their hounds to capture and keep them as food.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the info – and I can confirm that dogs on this side of the Atlantic have been known to take an interest in the ‘caviar’ too 😉 Were the eastern cottontails brought in or did they move with habitat modification? I have seen a few snowshoe hares in Canada. Beautiful creatures.

      Our European rabbit is in a different genus (Oryctolagus cuniculus). It is listed globally as near-threatened.

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  2. Great post, Adele. I didn’t know that they were so prolific in Spain so long ago, but I’m not that surprised. I’m sure they “bred like rabbits” and were an easy source of food. It’s really a shame about the myxomatosis. Way back in the 1977 when I was traveling in Europe I saw a rabbit with this disease and it was so sad to see how it must have suffered. There are more humane ways to control rabbits than to encourage the spread of disease.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, their native range is Iberia and northwest Africa. Iberian lynx and imperial eagles are dependent on them and their decline in Spain has had serious consequences.

      Myxomatosis is a horrible disease and I still frequently see it. Have to hope that the foxes find them fast.

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    1. Thanks for the link – a good summary of the challenges that the rabbit family faces. There’s conservation work going on in the UK to help our rabbits https://naturebftb.co.uk/2019/01/17/the-brecks-bunnies/ but many other headaches worldwide.

      Incredibly, Australia deliberately released RHDV at 600 sites as recently as 2017. As we’ve all learned with covid, once a disease is in the ‘wild’, there is no controlling where it ends up, and I sincerely hope that it wasn’t exported anywhere to harm non-target rabbits.

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    2. We can only wonder how different the last 18 months might have been if we had learned from the original SARS outbreak. Let’s hope that in a few years’ time we are not asking how it’s been permitted to happen again.

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      1. I couldn’t agree more. After SARS our federal government sold our last remaining vaccine production facility and it was subsequently shut down. So silly and shortsighted. Now we have to pay all over again to develop a new one. And then there are all the other lessons that weren’t learned …

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    1. They are indeed important – for creating habitat through their grazing and digging (though perhaps this aspect is best kept out of gardens!) as well as feeding carnivores. Breckland is home to nearly 13,000 species, and many of them need the habitat that rabbits create.

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  3. You get my prize for today’s fascinating fact, ie that Spain, the land of Pablo Picasso, Franco the dictator and Manuel the waiter in Fawlty Towers, is named after a rabbit…truth really is stranger than fiction 😂. And on the subject of hares, I love the way the animal features so often in traditional British folk songs, which celebrate its grace, speed and (from a hunter’s perspective) its frustrating elusiveness: The Creggan White Hare, Hares on the Mountain, The White Hare of Howden, The Hare’s Lament, etc etc…the list just goes on and on!

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    1. Suddenly I have a mental image of Elizabeth I facing down an armada crewed by rabbits!

      I seem to recall seeing something in a Peaks museum about white hares and the superstitions that miners attached to seeing one. I must look up the folk songs though. Thanks for the tip.

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      1. Try also “The Bonny Black Hare,” a classic example of how folk songs often cloak raunchy tales in innocent outer-garments. In this case it’s pretty difficult to believe that lagamorpha were really what the composer of the song was writing about 😉 Incidentally, when I reflected about it after posting my earlier comment I noticed that a number of the folk songs featuring hares appear to be Irish in origin. Don’t know why, but intriguing. (to a nerd like me, anyway!)

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    1. Now I’m wondering how many animals have given their name to a country. Not many, most likely. Although the internet tells me that Kosovo means ‘field of blackbirds’ and Italy is ‘land of cattle’.

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