Monday, 25 June 2007

The King of the Heath

Olive Cook once described the rabbit as being ‘the king of the heath’, a sentiment that still holds true on East Wretham Heath today. A visit during June, especially if made early in the morning, shows the heath to be alive with rabbits. With every footfall, rabbits of various sizes dash away towards the safety of their burrows. This is the only place in Breckland that, perhaps in a small way, still resembles the warrens of old, so prized by their owners as a source of substantial income.

Although the rabbit remains a central part of the Breckland landscape, shaping its soils and raiding the acres of arable crops that have come to replace it, the old warrens have been lost. Today, their ghostly historical presence hangs on only through the echo of lettered names on Ordnance Survey maps or the ruined remains of the stout lodges that housed the warreners. Like other warrens, Thetford Warren probably came into existence soon after the Norman Conquest, at a time when many of the manorial lords were granted the rights of free-warren. Thetford Warren was listed among the possessions of the Thetford Canons in 1338 and it appears in various documents over the following centuries.

The rabbits were treated like domestic animals, being protected as far as possible from the ravages of predators and given supplementary food during winter. They were also heavily protected from would-be poachers, through a system of extremely brutal punishments handed out to those caught stealing rabbits. In 1813, two young men were convicted at the Norfolk Assizes of taking a rabbit from a warren near Hockwold. While one of the men received two years imprisonment, harsh in itself, the other was transported for seven years.

While rabbits may have been destined for the table, especially initially, from at least 1573 they were also marketed for their fur. During the season, rabbits from the warrens around Thetford would be caught in deep pits, known locally as ‘tipes’, covered with a swinging iron plate, to be taken back to Warren Lodge where they were skinned. Harvesting for fur brought with it the introduction of different colour morphs, including both white and silver-blue forms, the latter being considered more valuable than the traditional wild type fur. In more recent times, many of the furs would have gone to the Lingwoods Hat and Fur Factory at Brandon.

Today the rabbit has a different role. At both Weeting and East Wretham Heaths, the rabbits are used to maintain the grassland sward in a manner that is most beneficial to wildlife, including, most notably, the breeding stone curlews so beloved by conservationists. The king of the heath is still working hard for his subjects.

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