I WENT out to feed the hens the other day and was confronted by two rabbits.
They hunkered down and stared at me, wide-eyed, before losing their nerve and bounding off. They looked a bit bedraggled.
On the face of it this was an unremarkable encounter for anyone living the country. What gave it some significance is that I’ve owned this little plot of land for over thirty years and this is the first time I’ve seen rabbits on it. I think it has something to do with the weather.
Rabbits belong to an order of animals called lagomorphs, which means ‘hare-shaped’, and the order is divided into two taxonomic families, the pikas and the rabbits and hares. The rabbit and hare family has about fifty species worldwide.
The main differences between rabbits and hares is that hares are solitary animals that don’t make burrows and give birth to what biologists call ‘precocial’ young. This word is connected to ‘precocious’ and means that new born leverets are small versions of adult hares, fully furred, with good eyesight and the ability to run.
Rabbits, on the other hand, are normally social, live in burrows and their kits are ‘altricial’, born blind, without fur and almost completely helpless.
Rabbits are not a native Irish animals. They were introduced by the Normans in the late 1100s as domestic animals for meat and fur production and then escaped into the countryside. Their original native range was confined to Spain, Portugal and a bit of North Africa, but for over 2,000 years human fondness for rabbit meat has meant they have been introduced all over Europe and much of the rest of the world.
The Irish hare, on the other hand, is not only native it may be longer established here than any other mammal species, including ourselves. Hare remains found in Co Waterford were radio-carbon dated to 28,200 years ago and there is growing evidence that they should really be classified as a full endemic species.
Anyway, back to the rabbits in my garden. Before they arrived there had been huge amounts of rain. There was spot-flooding on the roads and new pools in the fields. These things don’t worry hares much. They often live in bogs and seem quite content if it’s a bit wet under foot.
But rabbits live in burrows and, although they pick the site of a burrow with care, they can get flooded. I think the two lost looking rabbits in my garden were refugees whose home had been flooded after an exceptional series of storms. I felt a bit sorry for them.
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