The rabbit nursery burrow, with the entrance blocked by the doe (near the top of the photo)
The nest in a nursery burrow not so lucky, where a fox or badger had dug down for its reward
The nursery burrow 3 days later, now left partly open by the doe
The nursery burrow narrowly missed being destroyed by the tractor which had been spraying
Another nursery burrow in the same field, with the blocked entrance near the crook of my stick
The nursery burrow now fully open with the entrance made smooth by the doe entering
Dupplin Estate, to the west of Perth and where I based myself for a year to write Walking with Wildlife: a year on a Scottish estate, used to have rabbits aplenty. When I first became acquaint with the estate in the late 1950s rabbits were beginning to recover from the ravages of that horrific disease, myxomatosis. By the time I did some rabbit control on the estate in the 1970s there were hundreds of thousands. I wrote in my book:
‘Because of the vast number of rabbits, Bill (the retired keeper) used to take guests out at night shooting rabbits with the use of a spotlight and a .22 rifle. There were many nights when the haul was over 100 rabbits and with a best night of 330. Between what Bill shot during his time as gamekeeper on Dupplin and what I snared and shot we would have taken at least 60,000 rabbits, a huge amount which in truth made very little difference. Many more were gassed by Bill and Gordon, the rabbit trapper, and Gordon took another massive number of rabbits with his drop traps once the fences around the woods were netted. The number shot of course is always dependent on the accuracy of the shooter and the type of weather. A dark and damp night with a breeze is perfect, whereas on a frosty moonlit night it is a waste of time as the rabbits can hear you much better and can easily see the vehicle by the light of the moon.
Viral haemorrhagic disease came in to the estate in 1998. After the onset of VHD, suddenly, no matter where Bill looked for rabbits to shoot, they had disappeared. Very few were lying around dead, confirming the belief that most rabbits that are affected with VHD die in their burrows. I was not on the estate much at this particular time but it must have been a strange experience to look at a field with hundreds or even thousands of rabbits one night, and visit the same field a few nights later and not see a single rabbit’.
When I began the walks for my book in August 2018 I was saddened to experience the almost total absence of rabbits. I gradually began to see an odd sign, such as a rabbit run, droppings or an active burrow, but the rabbit numbers were a tiny fraction of what they once were. As I walked over more of the estate I began to see small pockets of rabbits here and there and in the spring of 2019 it was heartening to see clear evidence of them breeding. The following part of a chapter covers the breeding burrows of rabbits, the evidence of which not even many folks who are in the countryside almost daily can recognise:
‘Wednesday April 10. Sunny and calm. 14C.
A lovely spring morning and, for a welcome change, no wind. My last visit to the estate had been to the extreme east end. Today I was going to the extreme north-west. I parked at Greenhill Farm steading and was delighted to see the number of house sparrows at different parts of the steading. There would be at least 60, a number that is much more in keeping with numbers at East Lamberkin Farm when I was young.
I walked up the farm road to a prairie-sized field that had been sown with spring cereal just a few days earlier and I was pleased to see the work on the field was completed, with the last task being rolling the field with Cambridge rollers. These are the ridged type as opposed to the flat rollers. There’s nothing I hate to see more than a field sown, but not being rolled until a couple of weeks later. The eggs of any nesting bird are then destroyed.
There was a grassy end rig round the field that made both for easy walking and gave an added chance for birds such as partridge, skylarks, curlew and mallard duck to nest. I could see three or four rabbits on the grass further up the end rig. There was a ditch and a line of whin bushes on the other side of the fence; ideal places for rabbits to take refuge and dig their burrows. A roe buck, antlers cleaned of velvet, broke cover ahead of me, jumped the fence, and joined up with a doe on the other side.
The rabbits scurried for cover at my approach but I could see from the runs going through or under the fence that there was a decent colony in that area. There were lots of scrapes in the recently cultivated soil, and further up the field was a burrow that would have new-born young rabbits inside. Most doe rabbits dig a shallow, short burrow, maybe two or three feet in length, away from the main burrow or warren. The chamber at the end of the burrow is lined with dry grass and fur which the doe pulls from her belly to make a cosy nest for the young. This particular burrow would contain four to seven naked and blind pink and black rabbits that at that stage resemble mole rats. The burrow was barely noticeable, since for about the first week the doe pushes earth into the entrance to prevent stoats and weasels entering and killing the young. At night she removes the earth blocking the entrance to enter and feed the young, and pushes it back when she leaves. If the burrow has been blocked on a wet night it is slightly more easily spotted as much of the earth pushed forward by the doe goes into small balls about half the size of rabbit droppings.
Nearer the top of the field my attention was drawn to a scattering of dried grass near some disturbed earth. I walked over and my suspicions were confirmed. A rabbit nesting burrow had been dug out, with the suspect being either fox or badger. The burrow had been about two feet long and little more than six inches below the surface. The nest chamber at the end of the burrow had been lined with grass but there was no rabbit fur present. An absence of fur means that the likelihood is that the young had not yet been born. However a fox or badger would smell the doe rabbit in the chamber of the burrow. It is unlikely to dig out an empty burrow so the chances are that the predator would have dined well’.
I had later found evidence of a badger or badgers in the area and I suspect they would have been the culprit rather than a fox. Badgers tend to dig right down on top of the nest chamber and that was the case here.
I intended to monitor the area and made another couple of visits. On my second visit, about three days after the first, the entrance to the nesting burrow was slightly open. This is normal since, as the young rabbits grow, the doe is less concerned about totally blocking up the entrance. The field had been sprayed the previous day, but luckily the tractor had straddled the burrow rather than running over it. Had a tyre gone over it the rabbits inside would have been killed instantly.
I wrote of my third visit:
‘Friday May 3. Dull with occasional sunshine 7C.
I was keen to see how the young rabbits in the burrow at Greenhill were faring. The field had been recently sown when I first saw the burrow on 10th April but there was now a good growth of spring barley. As I walked up the edge of the field I heard a willow warbler singing in a damp and rough area just outside the fence and went over to investigate. The wee light brown and yellow bird was perched right at the top of a small tree and was singing with gusto a series of notes that started off high in the scale and came tumbling down to a flourish at the end, rather in the manner of a chaffinch.
I walked up the field 30 yards out from the fence, knowing this was the line at which I would find the burrow. This must be about the favoured distance from the fence for rabbits digging their nursery burrows as I found another one before I got to the burrow I was looking for. The young rabbits in this burrow must have been recently born as the entrance was filled in to give them some protection against predators. Rabbits run in a series of hops, often landing in the same place as they make their way to and from a particular area. There were three clear pads or hops off to the right made by the doe rabbit as it came and went from the burrow. The earth at these hops was smooth and shiny and the barley growing in the hops was flattened. It was a sure sign of activity at the burrow.
When I reached the burrow I had come to see, the entrance was still open, as I had expected. As in all nursery burrows the entrance was also much smaller in diameter compared to that of a normal rabbit burrow, only just big enough for the doe to squeeze through. There was clear evidence that it was still being visited nightly by the doe as the earth just outside the entrance was smooth and polished, caused by the doe sliding in and out. She obviously sat at the same place just outside the burrow, and this resulted in a rabbit-sized patch of flattened barley. Young rabbits start to come out of the burrow at four weeks of age. They were obviously not quite at this age yet as I would have expected to see the barley round the burrow nibbled as they were weaned off milk and onto vegetation. Within the next few days they will be nibbling the barley and a week or so after that they will move from this short nursery burrow to a larger burrow in the bank of whin bushes beside the fence separating the barley field from the permanent grass of the moor.
On the subject of rabbits and their predators, it is really unusual that I have now been walking around this estate for nine months and have not seen either a stoat or a weasel. Stoats, in particular, depend on young rabbits as their main source of food. I have no doubt that when rabbit numbers crashed it would have had a knock-on effect on these mustelids’.
Walking with Wildlife: a Year on a Scottish Estate. £15 plus £2 P&P. For a signed copy contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org