Time for rabbit on the menu to save the planet

What did the Romans ever do for Ireland? Not a lot, it seems.

They didn’t even bother to visit us and an animal they brought to the neighbours became one of our notorious pests. However, in a climate-changing world, could that particular Roman legacy turn out to be a blessing in disguise?

Following Claudius’s invasion of 43BC, England joined the original EU under the first Treaty of Rome. Towns and chariot- motorways blossomed and a common Euro currency was accepted all the way to the Black Sea. A feisty lady, named Boudica, led the proto-Brexiteers. Marcus Terentius Varro, who farmed during the reign of Julius Caesar, wrote De Re Rustica, which the cognoscenti will know means ‘on country matters’. He mentions rabbits. Brought to Rome from their native Spain, bunnies were bred for the table in artificial warrens.

Historians used to argue that rabbits weren’t introduced to these islands until after the Norman invasion. Then, in 2002, remains were unearthed during a ‘dig’ at Lynford in Norfolk. Pottery fragments found with them suggested a 2nd century origin, but the bones were not carbon-dated and a doubt remained as to their age.

Now another piece of the rabbit jigsaw has come to light. A 4cm-long bone fragment was found at a site in west Sussex in 1964.

It remained unexamined in storage until 2017, when Fay Worley, of Historic England, showed that it belonging to a rabbit. She had it carbon-dated. The results, just released by the University of Exeter, indicate a 1st century AD date; clearly, rabbits were in Britain 1,000 years earlier than was previously thought.

Irish rabbits, brought here by the Normans, are probably descended from Romano-British ones. In medieval Ireland, warrens were located mainly on islands. One was established on Lambay by 1191. James Fairly, in A Basket of Weasels, says rabbits “provided both meat and pelts in incalculable abundance”.

He estimated that 114 million skins were exported from Ireland between 1697 and 1819. In due course, rabbits escaped from their prisons and set up shop in the wild, becoming a nuisance. Although farmers had a protein-rich goldmine at their disposal prior to the myxomatosis onslaught of the 1950s, the rabbit was public enemy No1. Its flesh is delicious but, inexplicably, eating rabbit wasn’t considered ‘chic’ in modern Ireland.

Given the amount of climate-changing methane belched from the rumens of farm animals, is it time to review our attitude to rabbits? These little vegetarians aren’t ruminants, so their greenhouse-gas footprint is lower than those of cattle or sheep.

In 2017, Lancaster University’s Stephen Clune published an environmental league-table of climate-impacting foods. He estimated eating non-ruminants such as rabbit and duck, instead of beef or mutton, could halve the amount of greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere. Not eating meat at all reduced the impact by 95%!

Rabbit harvesting, however, won’t provide any free lunches. Sheep are much better at converting vegetation to meat, one sheep being roughly equivalent to 10 bunnies.

Expensive barriers will be needed to prevent rabbits from raiding crops; Australia’s ‘rabbit-proof’ fences come to mind. Managing warrens is expensive but, with climate catastrophe looming, can protein-addicted gourmets come up with a better alternative? Come back rabbits, all is forgiven? Perhaps.

Stephen Clune et al. Systematic review of greenhouse gas emissions for different fresh food categories. Journal of Cleaner Production. January 2017

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