It’s early summer and the hedgerows are alive with rabbits of all ages, says Pip Webster
“rabet”) was only used for the young kits.
It was probably the excessive vigilance of gamekeepers, exterminating the rabbits’ predators, that led to the population explosion in the wild and, after all, rabbits breed like rabbits.
Spring and early summer are the best time for watching rabbits as the vegetation is relatively short. Look for them in fields and hedge banks by the towpath. They often lie up in brambles and other thickets, coming out to graze on leaves and shoots in the early morning or evening.
Grass is not especially nutritious so needs to pass twice through the gut for maximal digestion. Rabbits manage this by re-ingesting special soft faecal pellets in the privacy of the burrow. The hard pellets excreted above ground are the product of the second digestion and you will often see a pile of droppings in a prominent place. These communal latrines are used as a territory marker by the 20 or so rabbits that share a warren.
The rabbit is well-equipped to sense danger with long sensitive ears, an acute sense of smell and a wide field of vision. You will often see a rabbit sitting upright on its hind legs, inspecting the environment for predators – foxes and stoats are their chief enemies, though aerial attack by buzzards, barn owls and other raptors can also occur.
When it runs at high speed, zig-zagging to evade capture, you cannot miss the flashing white underside of the rabbit’s tail (scut) – and it alerts nearby rabbits to danger. Its characteristic hopping gait is produced by the powerful, heavily-muscled hind legs which are much longer than the front ones.
Warrens are an interconnecting set of tunnels with living quarters, bolt runs and emergency exits. Nests are constructed at the end of a blind tunnel and lined with grass, moss and belly fur. The breeding season can last from February to October, though is dependent on the weather and population density.
Kits are born naked, blind and helpless. The mother usually only nurses for one short spell each night, to avoid attracting predators, but the milk is very nutritious and the young are weaned and nibbling vegetation within a month.
Their exceptional fecundity, with several large litters a year, results in a population explosion most summers and hedgerows are suddenly alive with rabbits of all ages.
Be sure to enjoy the delights of early summer.