Nature Notes

October Rabbit Kits.

My daughter found a nest of baby rabbits in the back field. The dog had pointed them out, politely – our old dog would have golloped them down without asking.

They are incredibly well hidden, but poorly protected. Some yards from the hedgerow warren, the doe has dug a shallow hole into the crust of the wheatfield. It is on the highest point of the field and, not far from the reach of the oak roots, is perhaps the only free-draining corner of the field.

It is late in the year for rabbit kits, but it has been mild and rabbits breed year-round if the conditions are right. With a 28-day gestation period and the ability to become pregnant half an hour after giving birth, this could well be the ninth-generation of bunnies this year.

There are seven kits, silver-grey as the soil and perhaps only ten days old. Their coats look glossy and silky, their eyes are still shut and their tiny ears are mostly held flat against their heads. I carefully remove one dead kit (and its attendant flies) from near the entrance and the other kits shuffle up, kicking over their siblings with distinctly rabbity hindlegs. I could probably hold all seven in my cupped hands.

It is said that six rabbits eat as much as one sheep, but as a staple food for many predators and under constant threat of disease, only 10% live to breed themselves. Even so, rabbits have evolved survival strategies, breeding in synchrony to ‘swamp’ predators and adopting extreme measures to ensure no attention is drawn to their vulnerable young. As with hare leverets or deer fawns, the young are left alone and hidden, the rabbit doe returning just once a day for a few short minutes to feed them a rich milk.

If the rabbit bury were exploited by a hunting polecat, it’s likely this outlying litter in its little earth-cave would be missed. I imagine the litter has already been moved: it is not lined with fur plucked from the mother doe’s breast, making me sure they were not born here. I wonder how many (if any) will make it? Rabbits are an invaluable link in the food chain. I love their big, dark eyes, pale ringed like those of Exmoor ponies and the way the sun shines through their ears. We take them for granted, seeing them everday, perhaps leaping over one another, or washing their faces, whiskers and ears with their paws. And everyday, the slight sound of a hindleg thumping earth somewhere, or a white scut bouncing through the dark, alerting fellow warreners with a flag of warning. You’ve got to admire their tenacity.

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