Country & Coast: Characterisation of farmer's foe wins public affection

'Look!' My friend pointed along the brow of Upper Wharfedale. 'Over there... it's a rabbit.' The excited voice could only belong to someone from a city (in his case Leeds), who rarely gets country mud on his boots and doesn't know that out here rabbits outnumber humans by a factor of, well, a lot.

There are an estimated 40 million wild rabbits in Britain.

I passed him my binoculars and the rabbit continued to sit obligingly on a little mound of turf, as if enjoying the fact that it had become an object of astonishment and fascination akin to the exotic wildlife on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II.

A few more rabbits popped up, then pretty soon there were upwards of a dozen and the hillside began to resemble a scene from Watership Down. But as we proceeded in the direction of Kettlewell I sensed my friend was gradually becoming blasé about bunnies, which is the normal reaction to familiarity with Oryctolagus cuniculus. It’s the mammal most often seen in the British countryside, and consequently the one that is taken for granted.

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The rabbit was first brought to these shores by the Romans as a ready source of meat, who seem to have been extremely efficient at keeping them captive. In fact, it was not until the 13th century that rabbits were let loose into the wild, when Henry III ordered the establishment of large colonies that were known as “coneygarths”.

Coney is the old English word for rabbit, and Yorkshire locations like Coneythorpe near Knaresborough and the Fox & Coney pub at South Cave are reminders of the association. Particularly large coneygarths - later named warrens - were created in the Yorkshire Wolds, one of which was said to have no equal in the whole of England.

Near the village of Huggate you can still find both a Rabbit Hill and a Rabbit Dale, and elsewhere on the Ordnance Survey map for the area are numerous appearances of the word “warren”.

In the UK rabbits are loved by many, hated by others. To farmers and landowners, they are a pest capable of causing serious crop damage, particularly at the seedling stage. So destructive are they, in fact, that back in the 1950s the naturally occurring virus, myxomatosis, was encouraged to spread in the UK, resulting in an estimated 99 per cent of the 100 million rabbit population being wiped out. Since then, it appears rabbits have developed an immunity to the disease and the population has crept back up to around 40m.

The more general lovability of rabbits is perhaps the result of them being endowed with personalities by writers like Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll and Richard Adams. The latter’s anthropomorphising of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other residents of Watership Down certainly did a great public relations job for the species.

So much so, in fact, many meat-eaters baulk at the thought of tucking into them. At a Sunday lunch a few years ago, before the roast beef was served a middle-aged woman burst into tears on being told that she had just eaten a starter of rabbit terrine.