A bonny sight on a fine winter’s day

Rabbits in the big field behind my house can again be seen since the wheat crop was harvested.

The grass that came on afterwards is tall in places, and one can see only the tips of their ears.

When the field was still an old meadow, we sometimes photographed them amongst the buttercups and orchids. They were diverting to watch as they chased one another around in the springtime, thumping and humping as they went.

The original European wild rabbit evolved 4,000 years ago in Iberia, which was called ‘I-shephan-im’ or ‘rabbit-land’ by visiting Phoenician merchants. This became ‘Hispania’, nowadays ‘Spain’. They were all wild until the Romans began farming them in fenced-off areas in the second century BC. However, they kept tunneling out.

Over the centuries, trade introduced rabbits to every continent except Antarctica. As humans cultivated more land, they provided rabbits with ideal habitat and food sources. Notoriously fast breeders, they quickly established themselves wherever they went.

Archeological evidence indicates that rabbits were introduced to Britain by the Romans, who no doubt developed a taste for them in Spain. However, the earliest British records date from the 12th Century, at about which time they were introduced to Ireland by the Normans for economic purposes. There was burgeoning trade in the export of rabbit skins during the middle and late medieval period.

There is fossil evidence that rabbits roamed Lambay Island at the time the Welsh churchman Giraldus Cambrensis, Giraldus de Barri, known as Gerallt Gymro in Welsh, arrived in Ireland on his second visit in 1185. A Fitzgerald on his mother’s side, he subsequently wrote an important treatise on the natural history of this island and on the Irish people. In 1188, he chronicled the Norman conquest of Ireland. He was a keen observer of nature, although possibly not adverse to putting a bit of ‘spin’ on his reports when this was politically expedient.

He recorded seeing many dippers on the rivers — he hadn’t seen them in Britain, it seems — but no kingfishers. However, there was the question of the ‘doubtful’ frog.

While he reports that wild boar roamed the extensive Irish forests, wild deer were widespread and wolves howled in the hills, he says there were no reptiles or toads but there were frogs. He cannot have visited Castlemaine Harbour in Kerry, where the natterjack toad was probably already naturalised.

Controversy surrounds the Irish natterjack. It has been maintained that they are ‘natives’, a Lusitanian species that crossed on the ancient land bridge — later drowned — between Iberia and Ireland and survived the ice age on Kerry’s relatively clement shores. Other opinion has held that they arrived in ship’s sand ballast carried from mainland Europe and dumped in Castlemaine.

Recent genetic studies, however, find a link between the Kerry natterjacks and the small population in north-east England. Now, it is posited that natterjacks survived in an ice-free refuge somewhere in northern Europe and, when the surrounding ice sheets melted, some crawled off to establish colonies around Liverpool Bay and, crossing the still-extant land bridge to Ireland, set up home on Dingle.

Cambrensis’s assertion that there were already frogs in Ireland when he visited may have been a propaganda exercise designed to convince the Irish that invasion by all sorts of creatures, including Normans (who, although they emanated from France, were probably not yet nicknamed ‘frogs’ at the time...) was, to coin a word, the ‘norm’.

In his chapter entitled Of a Frog lately seen in Ireland, Cambrensis relates how, shortly after the Normans first arrived, a knight showed a frog to an Irish prince and the prince, never having seen a frog before, took it as a sign that invasions of all sorts were imminent and that resistance was useless.

In fact, as no frog bones have been found in caves or middens, or frog leg-bones in the vicinity of Norman castles or banqueting halls, it is unlikely that the amphibians reached here before 1696, when a Fellow of Trinity College poured a jar of spawn from England into the ditches in Phoenix Park. While they quickly colonised Ireland, I rarely see frogs now.

However, the rabbits, as usual, thrive. A pair of rabbits can produce 90kg of meat a year. In these straitened times, maybe we should all be practising rabbit husbandry.

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