Friday, 13 February 2015


Rather like last week, we have been simply busy getting on which is probably the best thing to be doing at this time of the year. Flanders and Swann (do you remember them?) included in their repertoire an excellent little ditty about the months of the year: A Song of the Weather. The couplet that described February runs thus:

February’s ice and sleet
Freeze the toes right off your feet.

Certainly true here and so there has been little incentive to go out and potter around instead of staying tucked up warm and cozy at home. So it is that I find myself following the same tack as I did last week and talking about my explorations associated with the book about Tavistock and another alley I found my self following which has almost nothing to do with what I am writing about but which I found surprising and slightly compelling. It is about rabbits.

This photograph was taken on Bodmin Moor about a mile from the setting of the house called Trescairn in The Way We Were. It is actually in a field that abuts open moorland and these rabbits seem to be managing well. The soil here drains far better than it does on Dartmoor.
 Have you noticed the crow, top left on the skyline?
When I was a youngster, we lived alongside one of the old English estates which consisted of three farms, plenty of mixed woodland and, although no longer used as such, a deer park. We were allowed to roam wherever we liked once we had proved ourselves to be responsible members of society which we did in various ways. Mine was to become friendly with the gamekeeper and I owe to him rather than anybody else my interest in the flora and fauna of our wonderful countryside. There is, of course, no such thing as a free lunch and I had to be helpful in various ways in order to be able to spend so much time with him.

One of those ways was to take part in the never ending attempt to control the rabbit population on the estate. Sensibly the rabbits favoured places where woodland met farmland, preferably with the field to the south of the wood. They were deeply unpopular with the farmers and it really is quite incredible how much damage rabbits can do to crops. So, when matters got out of hand, I would find myself with Mr Brinkley on a rabbit cull. That evening I would return home with two or three rabbits and my mother would make a wonderful rabbit pie.

It was only when I started thinking about the Tavistock book that I gave a thought to rabbits on Dartmoor. They are few and far between: to be honest I don’t think I have ever seen one up there. In the fields that border the moor, yes: on the moor itself, no. A bit of investigation into the habits of rabbits and I found out why this was.

First and foremost rabbits need to be able to dig burrows. These create spaces in which rabbits can socialise and where they feel safest. Obviously these burrows need to be dry and the soil in which they are dug reasonably friable and stone-free and not too far away from a reliable food source. Take a quick look at Dartmoor and all you will find is the reliable food source. The soil is acidic, very peaty (dry it most certainly is not as peat retains moisture) and carries far more than its fair share of stones.
I took this photograph in May 2013 but neither of us can remember where.
Meanwhile, rabbits were then very important and not just for their meat – then a great delicacy and so eaten only by the wealthy – they provided the fur used to trim clothing and, when felted, to make hats. Nevertheless, breeding rabbits for meat and fur was at the expense of damage to crops but there was a simple solution: create artificial warrens up on the moor which provided the rabbits with the perfect environment in which they could prosper a long way away from any farmland. So, starting in about 1300, that is what they did.

In simple language, they chose a flattish area near the top of a rounded hill, dug a trench around it – an ellipse which could be up to a hundred and thirty foot long and thirty foot wide. Next was a long ditch that ran down the middle of the ellipse, a number of cross ditches that linked that long one to the first trench (never opposite each other but I have been unable to find out why) and, finally, a ‘gripe’ or drain was dug to take the water away from the burrow. These trenches were then covered by turf and stones to support a thick layer of suitable soil which created the burrow. Last of all this was then roofed with further turf to keep as much water out as possible.

Here is how William Crossing put it in his Guide to Dartmoor: The burrows, or burys, as the warrener calls them, are formed by first digging a narrow trench, with small ones branching from it on each side, but not opposite each other. Large slabs of turf are then cut, and with these the little trenches are covered. Over this is heaped a mound of earth, and the burrow is finished. A few holes are made for the rabbits to enter, and they quickly take possession of their new abode.' (Incidentally, Crossing lived in South Brent which is featured in The Courtyard and is one of the many villages in which Marcia and I have lived).

Thus, after a great deal of effort, the perfect solution was found. These burrows – now known as Pillow Mounds and often wrongly thought to be burial mounds – provided ideal conditions for the rabbits away from the farmland and, most importantly, the warreners knew exactly where they were and how to catch them.
We were delighted to find that there were rabbits in the field behind the house when we moved into Dartington Hall. Then one started to come into the garden and not everything he (or she, of course, as the case may be) did was entirely to our liking: I can confirm that rabbits love pansies!
Not that it ended there: almost every year the burrows needed work to be carried out to ensure that the drainage system and the roof were in good order but it was all well worth while.

In 1800’s there were eighteen such warrens being operated on the moor – of which nine were in the Tavistock area – and each warren contained anything up to twenty Pillow Mounds. It was highly profitable: in the 12th century a rabbit and its fur cost far more than a skilled craftsman could earn in a day. Gradually as supply built up the prices dropped: by the 15th century it was down to what our craftsman could earn in half a day and by the 18th century rabbit meat was in the grasp of all but the very poorest.

Amazing where a book about Marcia’s books can take you, isn’t it?