Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus): Architect of the Breckland landscape.
CAN ONE ANIMAL ALONE BE RESPONSIBLE FOR A SANDSTORM, a sandstorm capable of swallowing an entire village and virtually stopping the flow of a river? Residents of Santon Downham in the year of 1668 certainly believed this to be true when the contents of a nearby heathland, Wangford Warren, was picked up by a fearsome tempest and dumped on their village, blocking roads and impeding the river Little Ouse to a near standstill. You may ask yourself what terrible creature was the cause of this life-threatening chaos and prompted John Evelyn to liken the area to "the deserts of Libya": it was the rabbit, of course…
Almost singularly responsible for maintaining what is left of today's scarce lichen rich heathland that used to dominate the Breckland landscape of centuries ago, the rabbits of the time were farmed in the way that we farm sheep and cattle nowadays (after being introduced by the Normans in the 12th century) and kept in huge enclosures called warrens. It is in these warrens that they would crop the grassland until it was nothing more than thin, windblown sand with no soil structure worth speaking of -- the grasses could no longer regenerate the root stock that was necessary to hold the soil together. It is this intense grazing that led to Wangford Warren and nearby Thetford Warren becoming more like the surface of the moon, exhibiting shifting dune-scapes with an inclination to travel.
However, the continental climate of the Breckland area suited its new inhabitants very well indeed, the light, sandy soil made for excellent burrowing and the prolonged periods of dry weather were a welcome reminder of their Mediterranean homelands. The rabbits' near non-stop grazing -- they can eat up to 450-grams of vegetation a day -- and continual burrowing did little to improve the fertility of the land, but it did something altogether more interesting; the sparse, flint-laden ground suddenly became attractive to a number of species that would otherwise have ignored the Breckland area, for it was now perfect breeding territory for the stone curlew, wheatear and ringed plover.
There are few places left in the Brecklands to watch large colonies of rabbits behaving as they would have done in centuries past, but a visit to either Weeting Heath N.N.R. or East Wretham Heath can prove very rewarding. It is best to visit between June and September when numbers are high after a summer's breeding and activity can be at its most intriguing; taking the time to determine where different territorial boundaries lie and which animal is the dominant buck are important clues to understanding their behaviour. It is not unusual to observe frenzied periods of frantic chasing as dominant animals send subordinate interlopers packing!
Look out for a rabbit rubbing its chin on the ground at frequent intervals. This is the dominant male marking the boundaries of his warren with scent secreted from a gland beneath his lower jaw -- an activity known as 'chinning'.
After spraying his potential suitor with urine, a buck rabbit sits tight at the entrance to her burrow. He will vigorously defend her from other males, leading to high speed chases across the arid heathland as he pursues any rival with thuggish intent.
Sensing that a doe is ready to mate, a buck rabbit runs past her, spraying urine in as he goes. Rather than being a rude gesture, it is his way of signalling interest, a little like wearing aftershave or perfume.
It is most interesting to watch the rabbits after a bout of intense feeding, a regular occurrence before stormy weather, when, instead of heading for subterranean shelter, they stretch-out at the entrance of their burrows for an afternoon of sunbathing. Danger is never far away though, and the rabbits superb all round senses (acute hearing, hypersensitive nose and near 180-degree vision) pick up the slightest disturbance, whether from the ground or an airborne attack. The entire colony, maybe 100 rabbits or more, will be on full alert within seconds, a foot-stamp or flick of a white tail being the signals that potential menace is nearby. Also worth noting is the fur of a Breckland rabbit; it seems thicker and more luxuriant than their rural cousins and it has a distinctive silvery sheen to it. It may be that the colder nighttime temperatures of the Brecks have led them to growing a denser pelage, although however thick the fur grows, it is not waterproof, hence the rabbits understandable dislike of wet conditions.
A typical Breckland heath like this one at East Wretham displays all of the characteristics that the grazing of rabbits produces: short turf rich in mosses, lichens and other acid dependent plant species that are found nowhere else in Britain. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM FOUR IMAGES)