Poachers Prize

By Maggie Chaplin - First published in the February 2011 issue of the Magazine

From poacher’s prize to pampered pet

Today when you think ‘rabbit’, depending on whether you cultivate crops or you’re a pet owner, you either think ‘destructive pest’ or ‘cuddly bunny’. You may even think both!

In the Middle Ages your view would have been totally different. Rabbits were an extremely valuable commodity and formed an important part of the domestic economy – legally in the case of the upper classes, and, although there were strict anti-poaching laws there was a brisk trade in rabbits on the black market.

Rabbits were indigenous to Britain in prehistoric times but were wiped out in the last Ice Age. They were re-introduced at the time of the Norman Conquest as a source of meat and fur. These eleventh century rabbits were not the resilient animals that we are familiar with. They were used to the warmer climes of continental Europe and needed careful nurturing to thrive in the British climate. It took several centuries of natural selection for the rabbit to develop into the hardy creature that is often the bane of farmers and gardeners today.

In medieval times an adult rabbit was called a coney – rabbit being the name given to its young – and the early rabbit enclosures were referred to as coneygarths or coneygres. These housed small colonies and were situated near castles, manor houses, monasteries and abbeys and they were often established in deer parks.

The coneygarths provided the rabbits with shelter and protection from the weather and were enclosed to keep out predators. This system also enabled the rabbit keeper or warrener to be able to feed them regularly, monitor their health and numbers, and cull them as required. Later, rabbits were farmed on a commercial scale on large areas of land rented out to a professional warrener. This was often a way of utilising ground that wasn’t good for growing crops.

The rabbit would best survive naturally in areas where the soil was dry and sandy and easy to dig and some warrens were established on heath and downland. Hard rocky terrain would not be suitable for burrowing and wet heavy clays would be too cold, so artificial burrows were made by building flat-topped mounds of light soil above ground. These would be 10 to 20 metres long, 5 to 10 metres wide and up to a metre high, and would generally be surrounded by a shallow ditch. They are often termed ‘pillow mounds’. Sometimes stone-lined tunnels and runs for the rabbits were constructed within the mound, and in the case of the bigger enterprises several burrows may have been set up in a walled enclosure.

Meat of any sort in the Middle Ages was usually the preserve of the rich. It would have cost a labourer more than a day’s wage to buy just one rabbit. In modern terms this would mean something like a price of £60 per animal – a luxury indeed.

RUSHTON TRIANGULAR LODGE, Northamptonshire. View from the North East.

Coney skins were also valuable, both as a source of warm clothing and as a decorative trim for garments. A type of felt was made from the fur and was made into hats. The rabbits were mainly the common brown ones, but there were rarer black, silver and blue coated varieties that were particularly prized for their pelts.

Such was the importance of the supply of rabbit meat for the table and fur for clothing that the warrener was often the highest paid employee on the estate. Managing rabbit colonies needed skill, both in rearing the rabbits and in protecting them from predators. The job could also be dangerous. It was not only vermin that stole the stock. Gangs of determined poachers, who were often armed, posed a real threat of violence to the warrener who usually worked alone.

A medieval rabbit keeper was probably a social outcast. He was not of the lord’s class, and often the very people he’d grown up with would be the same ones who were trying to steal his master’s rabbits so that they could put meat on the table.

To a local lord the ownership of a coneygarth was, like a pigeon house or a fishpond, not only an important source of food, it was also a status symbol. The warrens were often sited in a prominent and highly visible position on the estate. Sometimes if the warrens were extensive a lodge might be provided to accommodate the warrener and to store his equipment such as nets and traps. It might also serve as a venue for entertaining the lord’s guests, especially if the warrens were sited in a deer park. Few medieval warrens survive, and most lodges would be simple structures, but a dramatic three storey triangular lodge at Rushton in Northamptonshire can still be seen today.

Now in the care of English Heritage, it was built in the 1590s and combined functionality with recreation. The basement was used for storing carcasses and on each floor the corners of the triangle were partitioned off to form little rooms in which equipment could be kept, leaving a central hexagonal space to use for relaxation or for entertaining company. It is reported that the owner, Thomas Tresham, sold rabbits in London.

A lodge would often occupy an isolated position in the centre of a vast area containing numerous pillow mounds and vermin traps. The grass would be cropped close by the rabbits and the only other vegetation might be gorse, often planted as supplementary fodder for the animals. The mounds were usually cigar-shaped, and might have been arranged like an ‘E’ on a gentle slope with the arms extending downhill to allow drainage, or they would sometimes radiate from a central hummock like the spokes of a wheel.

Minchinhampton Common in Gloucestershire gives a good impression of what an extensive warren might have been like. Look carefully and you will see, spread out over the whole area, a series of humps and bumps that are the remains of warrens and vermin traps. (These are quite distinct from the humps and bumps associated with the golf course that is also sited on the Common.)

In the centre of the Common is the Old Lodge Inn. It is probable that the middle gable was part of the original medieval hunting lodge, where royalty as well as warreners are said to have stayed.

For five hundred years following their import to Britain most of the rabbits in England lived in these protected managed colonies. They were scarce and therefore valuable and if they did escape it was bad news for the tenant farmers. They faced an impossible choice. They could kill their lord’s rabbits to protect their crops and risk incurring a fine they couldn’t pay, or do nothing, lose their corn and still be expected to pay a tithe of what little they did manage to grow.

Sometimes the setting up of rabbit warrens caused local unrest. There were protests in the 1530s in the village of Over Norton in Oxfordshire when former common land was enclosed for the purpose of farming rabbits. The objections were apparently ignored because almost a century later when the occupant of Over Norton lodge died he was described as ‘warrener’ and his possessions included ferrets, hay nets and a gun.

It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that rabbits began to establish themselves as the feral creatures we know today. The Agricultural Revolution played a part in this. More widespread cultivation of crops meant that rabbits that escaped the warrens, perhaps as a result of overcrowding, could find a ready food source and had a good chance of survival. In the Middle Ages the rabbit’s destructive capacity was far outweighed by the value of its meat and skin, but gradually rabbits became widely established in the wild. Laws preventing trapping were impossible to enforce and it signalled the beginning of the end for lucrative commercial rabbit keeping. Use of rabbits for meat and for clothing began to move down the social scale.

Rabbit warrens were no longer status symbols, nor were garments trimmed with coney fur, so many of the great houses had their warrens flattened as part of landscaping projects. Close inspection of current Ordnance Survey maps reveals areas of land or farms called “warren’ or ‘coneygre’ that are suggestive of former sites of managed burrows and there are still pillow mounds on the Blenheim estate at Woodstock, but these are situated some distance from the Palace.

The decline of commercial warrens was patchy, and rabbits continued to be a source of cheap meat well into the twentieth century. The arrival of myxomatosis in 1954 more or less put an end to rabbit farming and today rabbit meat is no longer popular.

Nowadays a kept rabbit is more likely to be a family pet and to occupy a weather and vermin proof hutch, or it may even live indoors, eat in the kitchen and use a litter tray. It will almost certainly be fed a commercial balanced diet with occasional selected treats, and gorse will definitely not be on the menu. Today’s housed rabbit will probably have been vaccinated against myxomatosis and it is highly likely that at some time in its life it will have dental or other veterinary treatment.

On the other hand, a wild rabbit will have had a very hard winter.