Quite often when rambling around Dartmoor you come across something that makes you stop in your tracks and think to yourself- “am I really seeing that?” Once you have confirmed that, yes, you are seeing that, the next question is usually – “how did that get there?” Many years ago whilst letterboxing around the Bench Tor area I was prodding and poking around the rocks when all of a sudden a small, dark shape shot out from under a large boulder. I think it was more unexpectedness of its appearance and the speed that it was travelling that initially startled me. Having regained my wits I could clearly see that the small, black figure had large ears and a shiny coat. Surely that cannot be a black rabbit I thought but yes it was sat still and was intently looking at me and twitching its nose. Unfortunately in those days I never carried a camera so photographic proof was never obtained. Clearly to observe such an animal in a domestic environment would be nothing out of the ordinary but to be running wild on Dartmoor was another matter. The most logical explanation was that perhaps it was a family pet that had either escaped or had been purposefully released on the Moor. There certainly were no signs of any other rabbits, black or otherwise in the area. So at the time I simply favoured the domestic rabbit theory.
In 2015 we along with some friends took a walk around the Pew tor area and were mooching around the old quarry that lies to the west of the tor. Suddenly a small, black figure shot out of the undergrowth and casually sat on a nearby rock. Yes, it was another black rabbit who seemed quite at home amongst the old workings of the quarry. Luckily Rhys had his camera at hand and as can be seen from his photo below black rabbits do exist on Dartmoor. The distance (as the crow flies) between the quarry and Bench Tor where I saw my first black rabbit is some ten miles. Therefore it seems improbable if not impossible that there is any connection between the two rabbits bearing in mind how far apart they were.
In the May of 2017 again in the company of the same friends we were walking around the Bellever Plantation and tor. On reaching the tor my friends were sat on the summit and lo and behold they saw another small, black figure. Unfortunately the rabbit was too quick in making his escape to get another photograph. Again, Bellever tor is some five miles from Bench Tor and seven miles from the Pew Tor quarry. Once again suggesting that these three creatures do not hail from the same gene pool.
So the big question is; “how do black rabbits get to run wild on Dartmoor?” There are several possible theories as to how and in some cases why this should happen. In John Sheail’s book – ‘Rabbits and their history’ he notes how black rabbits were known to have been kept in the grounds of country houses and they were known as ‘parkers’. In some cases these ‘exotic’ rabbits escaped and managed to survive in the wild. Alternatively in medieval times black rabbits were reared in some warrens as their fur was much in demand for use as ornamental trimmings on clothing. p.25. Such was the importance of black rabbits that even King Henry VIII kept them in his royal warrens. A document from the accounts of Henry VIII read; “To Robert Bing, of the Wyke, smythe, for a great nagre (auger) of irne, to make and bore cony holes with the kynges beries new made for blake conyes in the warren.”p.43. Clearly it would have just been a matter of time and opportunity before such rabbits escaped from the warrens into the wilds. Another reason why some warrens kept black rabbits was to give the warreners indications that poachers were at work. These black rabbit would be allowed to mix freely with the other rabbits and because they were easy to spot their absence would soon be noticed and would indicate they, along with the other rabbits had been stolen. This would then allow the warreners to take preventive measures against the poachers. p.63. In both of the above cases there were plenty of country houses on and around Dartmoor along with numerous rabbit warrens. Therefore it could be possible that some ancestors of today’s black rabbits did in fact originate from one of these sources.
A very plausible explanation is that the black rabbits are merely a rare ‘freak’ of nature. Black wild rabbits are completely natural and are what’s described as being melanistic, This occurs when there is an over development of the melanin gene which leads to the dark colour. If both parents carry the gene then the greater the possibility of a really black rabbit becomes.
Finally, as noted above it could be that some of today’s black rabbits have either escaped from peoples gardens and have resettled on Dartmoor or have been intentionally released on the Moor. What would be really interesting to know is how many wild black rabbits are there on Dartmoor and where do they occur. Should anyone spot a black rabbit on Dartmoor it would be really helpful if they could let me know where and when it was found and a photo would be even better. This would allow some sort of idea as to the black rabbit population living on the Moor.
Black Rabbits in Folklore.
As with most folklore beliefs most black things are regarded to be harbingers of doom as the very colour black is often associated with death, evil, and other sinister connotations. Therefore it should be no surprise that the poor little black rabbit has never been the most popular ‘furry’ in the animal kingdom.
1) In Richard Adams’ 1972 novel – ‘Watership Down’ a black rabbit appears and is called Inle-rah or the Black Rabbit of Inle. He was the ghostly spirit servant of the Great Frith. It was his duty to ensure that all rabbits die at their allotted time, a rabbit version if you like of the Grim Reaper.
2) Some folk belief that black rabbits hosts the souls of dead humans and at all costs should be avoided.
3) It has also been said that if you dream of a black rabbit then this is a portent of discovering a ‘great secret’.
4) Should anyone be daft enough to kill a black rabbit then a whole heap of bad luck would soon descend on them. If one was shot on an organised shoot then the rest of the day would result in failure and an empty game bag.
5) A way of ensuring good luck was to shout “white rabbit” on first waking up and “black rabbit” just before going to sleep. A similar practice to attract good fortune for the whole year was to shout “black rabbit” three time just before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and “white rabbit” three times as soon as the New Year begins.
Sheail, J. 1971. Rabbits and their History. Newton Abbot: David & Charles