Secrets of the underworld!
The scene at first glance looks utterly commonplace for anyone who’s ever owned a pet rabbit. Bounding into view, the ball of brown fur that is Hazel, whiskers twitching, floppy ears drooping slightly, pauses for a second before her nose appears to drop to her stomach. What follows will almost certainly never have been witnessed by any television viewer before. For, as the seconds unfold and Hazel seems to be plucking fur from her stomach, another little nose appears. Hazel has, in fact, given birth to a tiny, bald rabbit. Within moments the second of the litter, then the third, follows until the proud mother has produced five infants, or kits.
Incredibly, the whole thing has been filmed live inside the warren Hazel shares with two male rabbits and two other females, for a ground-breaking three-part series, The Burrowers. Wildlife expert Chris Packham, who presents it, says, ‘I’m quite a pragmatic bloke. I don’t use the cute word too often — but that first rabbit birth was a Champagne moment.’ And it’s just one of numerous jawdropping scenes that form part of this hugely ambitious natural history experiment. Chris and a BBC2 team of wildlife experts and scientists have painstakingly designed and built full-scale replicas of the underground homes of burrowing animals — rabbits, badgers and water voles — in a bid to enter their secretive world and understand them better.
Over three fascinating hours of TV we will learn how these creatures create their homes, breed and give birth. ‘We all use the expression “breeding like rabbits”, but they’re actually a very secretive species, especially regarding their young, so this was incredible to witness,’ says Chris. Very little has actually ever been observed inside underground habitats, because to do so would risk disturbing the animals and either frightening them or causing them to behave unnaturally.
Great lengths were taken to mimic the natural burrow and sett. A concrete mould was made of an abandoned rabbit warren to get an idea of the chamber layout. The results were amazing — for example, Chris says of the water voles, ‘We didn’t know they stored their food. Not only did we see them designating chambers as storage areas, but they stored different foods in different parts. Food that would go off quickly like soft fruit was stored separately, so as not to contaminate the other food if it rotted. It was quite a sophisticated larder system!’
The Burrowers, from 9 August, 9pm, BBC2
A groundbreaking new
TV show tracks bunnies, badgers and water voles at home in their burrows
Eager bunny Wildlife expert Chris Packham, who presents The Burrowers