WATER­SIDE WILDLIFE

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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.

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