You often encounter rabbits when you are out and about in the Norfolk countryside. The dry, free-draining soils of the Brecks are particularly well suited to their needs and it is no surprise that I see so many rabbits on my travels. There is a long history of the rabbit in the area and it would be fair to say that the rabbit has shaped the Breckland landscape and, at times, driven its economic fortunes.
Breckland was once a centre for the production of rabbits, with huge warrens maintained on many of the estates and an industry producing felt that continued through into the 1950s (and the arrival of myxomatosis). The rabbits arrived soon after the Norman Conquest and the light soils of Breckland, although poor for crops, were ideally suited to these burrowing lagomorphs. Initially many of the warrens were operated by landowners but from the 15th Century most were leased to professional warreners. Their legacy can be seen in some of the local place names, for example Thetford Warren, and in the ruined lodges that once housed the warreners.
Needless to say, many rabbits escaped from their warrens and damaged both crops and the landscape, altering vast tracts of land with their burrowing habits. The scale of the rabbit’s impact can be seen in the writing of the time. Gilpin had called Breckland ‘the land of the rabbit’ and the fifth Earl of Albemarle, also writing in the 1800s, described the Breckland region as ‘a mere rabbit warren’, noting that it still went by the name of ‘the holely [Holy] land.’ Walk across a large and long established warren today and you soon learn how difficult the going can be; with each step you run the risk of sinking a leg into a tunnel and turning an ankle.
Over time the rabbit industry gradually faded, as farmers enlightened by new agricultural practices came to regard the rearing of rabbits as a wasteful and damaging practice. The rabbit continues to make a living in Breckland; sometimes it is cast as a villain, eating farmland crops, and sometimes as a useful tool for conservation, maintaining the short Breckland turf that favours rare insects and birds like the stone curlew. One of the best places to sit and watch rabbits is the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at East Wretham. I find that watching rabbits changes your attitude towards them. To see their social interactions or watch their response to a passing stoat shifts them away from the image of a brown blur bolting for cover to a creature of interest and worthy of study. I am certain that the rabbit will continue to play a role in our countryside for generations to come.