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.