The Bunnies of Barley Cove

I’m remembering back to a warm summer evening spent on the Barley Cove dunes with the bunnies. 

How many can you see?

We wanted to just sit and observe, so we found a comfortable spot where we had a view over the warren. They were everywhere! They weren’t unduly perturbed by humans, although they disappeared quickly when dogs came sniffing around. In the face of all the challenges rabbits face  in Ireland, it felt good to be in a place where they seemed to be in a long-term relationship with their habitat.  

European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus to the biologists, coinín, pronounced cunneen, in Irish) were introduced to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century. They called them coneys and kept them in coney garths as a food source. Niall Mac Coitir, in his marvellous Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends and Folklore, tells us

The ‘coney garth’ consisted of a small enclosed field surrounded by a deep ditch, and a huge turf mound planted with gorse and blackberry to keep the rabbits in. Escape was easy, however, and the rabbit soon became free game for yeoman and serfs, even though it was illegal. . . 

The Barley Cove dunes – rabbit country

A hundred years later, they brought their rabbits to Ireland, with the same predictable results. When you think that an adult female (a doe) can have up to seven litters a year, each one yielding up to ten kittens, the proliferation rate is explosive. They are kept somewhat in check in the wild by natural predators and a high mortality rate. Left totally undisturbed, rabbit populations probably undergo the same cyclical variations that other mammals do, with numbers increasing for about ten years and then declining due to over-population, before building up again.

Ears back – what’s he listening for?

But rabbits have never been left undisturbed for two main reasons – first they are a natural source of food and fur and second they can be a significant agricultural and horticultural pest. Exporting rabbit skins was big business in medieval Ireland and as late as the 1940s rabbit meat was still being processed and eaten at a great rate. But pity the organic gardener who comes out in the morning to find his patch stripped and desolate, or the farmer who loses a portion of her hard-won crop. The solution for the agricultural sector was disastrous – in the 1950s farmers introduced the disease myxomatosis into the rabbit population with devastating results. As I was growing up in 1950s Ireland I never saw a rabbit – the population had been virtually wiped out.

Since then, they have recovered somewhat (although now threatened with a new disease in the wild) but in this part of the world it’s still not commonplace to see a rabbit. That’s why it’s such a treat to be able to sit and watch them at Barley Cove. The best time to do this is in the evening, since they are naturally nocturnal creatures.

The warrens are obvious and sizeable – those big hind legs are effective digging machines! The tunnels have several entrances and contain passages and chambers where kittens can spend their first few days. Chris Packham, the British naturalist, has an amazing clip from his BBC program “The Burrowers” where a rabbit warren is filled with concrete, creating a model of its extent and complexity. Just click on the photo below and then on the picture again when you get to the site.

To get closer to the Barley Cove rabbits in order to photograph them I had to crawl through long grass and try not to spook them. Once they and I were at eye level, it felt like a real communication – being regarded by those deep pools of age-old knowledge, gentle and wise, was lovely. At the same time, the ears were on high alert, and I knew that one false move and he was gone.

16 thoughts

  1. From about the age of 9, as a child of comfortably-off urban parents, I attended a rural primary school in the depths of north County Cork, when my family relocated. Rabbits were a permanent topic of fascination among the poorest boys who walked barefoot to school. No, this was not in 1850 nor 1900, but the early 1950s. I reported home that Jimmy’s feet were blue from the cold, Seaneen’s legs a vivid shade of purple. My mother gasped! Nonetheless, these boys from too-large families living on a few rocky acres, were up to the challenge of their parent’s needs. En-route to school they laid snares for the rabbits – a twist of wire or string attached to a stick, and collected them on the way home; meat for the dinner and also something to sell; rabbit skins.
    Not far from our house lived the rabbit man, an aged ragged individual who occupied a house largely submerged underground, with smoke drifting up from a hole in the roof, the only indication that it was inhabited. This was a dwelling out of an Arthur Rackham illustrated children’s story, closer to an animal burrow than a human habitation. Every market day the rabbit man set off for the local town, pushing a bicycle with long-flat tyres, the handlebars hung with rows upon rows upon rows of rabbit skins, as though he had been on an expedition to exterminate all the rabbits in his townland. He progressed slowly with the weight of his spoils, bought from my schoolmates for pennies. The boys saved these pennies and bought shoes and socks for themselves, rather than wear the worn-out hand-me downs of their elder siblings. The new shoes were be worn only in the depth of winter. Otherwise, the boys were ‘spearing the leather’. Myxomatosis followed, and dying rabbits were seen everywhere, on the verges of the roads, in the fields, their bodies gradually becoming paralysed. Within a few years, rabbits had totally disappeared from the landscape.
    Over half a century later, nature has triumphed. Rabbits are again abundant, on my road here near Ballydehob – and indeed in Barlycove.

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  2. Hi Finola and Robert, what great pictures! Used to get loads of them round here a few years back, the babies used to play on my lawn, and they ate all my nasturtiums! But I loved them anyway. Haven’t seen any for about three years, now.

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    • We’ve seen them in out garden too, but not for a long time now. They are under threat so it so good to see them living so happily on the dunes. It’s actually hard on the dunes, apparently. Why is everything so complicated?

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  3. Lovely bunny photos, Finola! Barley cove was a mystical place for me. We frequented the strand at Killkileen during my childhood summer visits to Church Cross. It was nice to get into the salt water and feel the waves, but the shore was pretty rocky with a lot of kelp; so it could not exactly be called the “Riviera of West Cork”, We took only one trip to Barley Cove over the summer. The place was really on the open ocean, and it had a beautiful protected cove with the best yellow sand for walking and digging. We would bring snacks, blankets, umbrellas and make a lovely day of it. On one trip we hit one of those bunnies, a young small one, while driving into the cove. Joe Dwyer picked him up to move him off the road, but he suddenly came to life in his hands, snapping back from the collision. Joe put him in a box with some grass in the back of the car and cracked the windows slightly for air. We intended to give him a little nursing before letting him go. provided he made it through the day. When we got back to the car in the afternoon, the bunny was gone. We searched every nook and cranny, hoping that he did not get stuck and die in some small crevice under the seat, but he was nowhere to be found. I did not think he could have escaped, given the tiny window gap – maybe someone released him. I always wondered what happened to that bunny.

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  4. I know what you mean, but they are PESTS in a garden… P

    On Sun, 14 Feb 2021 at 15:58, Roaringwater Journal wrote:

    > Finola posted: ” I’m remembering back to a warm summer evening spent on > the Barley Cove dunes with the bunnies. How many can you see? We wanted to > just sit and observe, so we found a comfortable spot where we had a view > over the warren. They were ” >

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  5. Love those white “collars” I will have to look at my local Colorado rabbits but I’m pretty sure they do not have these cute markings!

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