Many sources state that the rabbit was not an original native of Britain and that they were introduced by the Normans. There are now several reports that this was not so and perhaps re-introduced should be the correct term. Archaeological excavations at Boxgrove in West Sussex revealed rabbit remains that dated back to the Palaeolithic times which was about 500,000BP. Another recent excavation at Lynford in Norfolk has turned up rabbit bones in a Roman context and are thought to date back 2,000 years to the second Roman invasion. There is a 4th century mosaic in the Corinium Museum in Cirencester that contentiously depicts a rabbit although some say it’s a hare, as seen below. Because of the few discoveries of rabbit remains it may well be possible that at some time the native rabbit became extinct and was re-introduced by the Normans. There are several illustrations of early rabbit warrening practices to be found in some of the medieval psalters, one of which are Queen Mary’s’ and the Lutterell psalters – see below. Probably the earliest Devonshire documented record of the rabbit stems back to 1135 when what is now Drake’s Island was granted to Plympton Priory. In the document is the term, ‘cum cuniculi‘ which translates as, ‘with the rabbits’, (Hayes, 1970, p.147). During the reign of Henry I the abbot of Tavistock Abbey received authorisation from the king to maintain warrens on his lands, (Finberg, 1969, p.192), again this would have been another early record of rabbits near to Dartmoor.
In a medieval or post medieval context the word ‘warren’ can refer to three things; firstly there was free warren which was the granted right to hunt over a specific tract of land, (Sheail, 1971, p. 35). The animals that were allowed to be hunted were called, ‘beats of warren’ and were defined by anything that could be taken by a large bird of prey. These included; rabbits, hares, partridges, woodcock, roe and fallow deer, (Williamson, p.17). The next classification of a warren was known as a hare warren which was a parcel of land that had been set aside for the breeding and keeping of hares. The last category of warren was the rabbit warren which was a tract of land reserved for the breeding and preservation of rabbits. During the early Middle Ages these were known as coneygarths, the name deriving from the Middle English term – coning-erth. At this time the adult rabbit was known as a coney and the word rabbit referred to the young of the species, hence the word coneygarth. During the mid 1300s the word warren came to be used more and more and usually described a commercial warren, by the 1500s the term was a common reference for a rabbit preserve. Later in the 1600s a warren could also mean a rabbit burrow system and applied to those belonging to both managed and wild rabbits.
During the medieval and post medieval periods the rabbit was kept for its meat and fur. The meat was considered a delicacy and therefore was consumed primarily by the elite classes. There is a recipe collection dating back to about 1390 which lists numerous recipes that were prepared and cooked for King Richard II, the document is known as ‘The Forme of Cury’. In it are several recipes for Connyng or rabbit, below is an example which is a recipe for rabbit in gravy. This roughly translates as: ‘Take the rabbit and smite them to pieces. boil them and mix them with a good broth with almond blanched and brayed. do …. sugar and ginger powder and boil it and the flesh … … it with sugar and ginger powder and serve forth.’ In 1525 there is an inventory for a high status wedding in which appears an entry for, ‘21 dozen conies – £5. 5s. 0d.’ which in today’s money would be in the region of £2,500 or £119 pound a rabbit. The rabbit fur was used during medieval times as a popular trimming for the clothing of the time such as night gowns, in later times it was used for trimming gloves. Another industry that made use of the rabbit fur was hatters, the loose hair would be stuck together with shellac and made into felt from which hats were fashioned. So, all in all not much of the animal went to waste.
The number of rabbit warrens increased steadily during the late 1300s and 1400s and they slowly began to move down the social scale and such came into the domain of the local gentry. It has been suggested that after the Black Death (1350 ish) rabbit warrens became an extra source of income that required less labour and could be carried out on marginal lands which again added to the increase in warren numbers. In the 1500s and early 1600s large commercial warrens began to establish themselves, an exercise which was repeated again in the late 1600s and early 1700s, (Williamson, p.17). This growth in rabbit numbers meant that from the 1300s to the 1800s the rabbit slowly left the realms of being a prestigious and luxury commodity and moved down the social scale until it became into every man’s reach. Rackham, (1986, p.48) considers that during the 13th century the market price of a rabbit and its skin was worth about 4½d which was more than a craftsman could earn in a single day. By the 1400s a rabbit was worth about 2¼d which meant a craftsman could possibly afford one for the occasional Sunday dinner and equated out to half a day’s wage. During the 1700s the market price of a rabbit was around 5d and this represented about one fifth of a craftsman’s daily wage. In the 1800s the price had fallen even further and the rabbit became a staple food that even the relatively poor could afford.
Having generally looked at the reasons why and how warrens became into being it is now time to refine the subject down to a specific Dartmoor level. There is some debate as to when the first rabbit warren was established on Dartmoor. Generally it is agreed that Trowlesworthy Warren was the first to appear on the moor. Glover et al. (1992, p.259) note that the first record of the place can be found in the Assize Role of 1281 where it appears as Travaylesworth. However, this place-name does not in any way suggest a rabbit warren and probably refers to Travell’s worõig which means an ‘enclosed homestead belonging to Travell”. There is also a document dating from 1272 in which Sampson de Traylesworthy was granted land by Baldwin de Riparis in the Plym Valley, (Brewer, 2002, p.263, Haynes, 1970, p.156). This has led to the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that this included the right to establish a warren, however, this is contested by Stanbrook, (1994, p.78) who cites some research carried out by Jennifer Robinson who suggests the warren does not appear until 1651? The whole basis of the argument centres around what Risdon wrote in 1811, in his Survey of Devon he records the following, (p.393): ‘Trowlesworthy Warren, in the parish of Shaugh, was granted before date of deeds, by Baldwin de Rivers, Earl of Devon, to Sampson de Traylesworthy, at some period between the year 1135 and 1272 …‘. Robinson contends that although Risdon lists the settlement as Trowlesworthy Warren he was using the place-name of his time not what was recorded in the original document where there was no mention of a warren. Linehan, (1966, p.139) informs us that, ‘Sixteen rabbit-warrens have been found on Dartmoor‘. Below is a map showing the distribution of these warrens and a count of the sites will show that there are in fact eighteen warrens located. There are two reasons for this, Firstly, Linehan lists Newhouse Warren (excluded from his figure of 16) as being a fairly modern establishment but there is very little documentary evidence for it albeit there are vermin traps and a possible boundstone in existence. This warren I have (rightly or wrongly) listed as Soussons Warren which appears on the OS map, Secondly, when writing the page on Whiddon Deer Park I came across a record in the National Monuments Register for, ‘nine pillow mounds within Whiddon Park‘. According to Williamson, (p.35) a group of between 6 and 25 pillow mounds is considered a, ‘large group‘, which would definitely include Whiddon, so I will suggest that in light of this there are now seventeen rabbit warrens on Dartmoor.
As can be seen from the map below there is a large concentration of warrens in the south western section of Dartmoor. This cluster is centred around the Plym Valley which serves as a boundary for some of the warrens. Although not shown on the map there is an interesting correlation in the number of warrens that were sited near to prehistoric settlements, in fact 14 out of the 17 sites conform to this trend. In the case of Dartmoor I would suggest that there are three possible reasons for this, firstly the pillow mounds need to be on well drained, sunny slopes as would prehistoric settlements. Secondly, due to the amount of damage rabbits could have done to agricultural crops they needed to be kept well away from them and in the case of Dartmoor the marginal uplands ideally suited this need. This then coincided with the prehistoric settlements which also occur on the same tracts of land. Thirdly, and most likely one of the main reasons, was that warrens needed stone for building the various features which are associated with them such as walls, pillow mounds (in some cases) and vermin traps. Therefore faced with either the option of quarrying the stone and simply ‘re-cycling’ it from the existing prehistoric structures the warreners went for the easy option.
The table below lists the Dartmoor warrens along with their Ordnance Survey grid references, if you would like further details then I suggest you do a search in the advanced ADS facility and enter for example; pillow mound. rabbit warren etc in the ‘what’ box and Devon as the ‘where’ criteria.
This trend for building warrens in marginal upland regions was by no means exclusive to Dartmoor but as can be seen from the England and Wales map above, the moor has one of the highest concentrations of surviving pillow mounds in these two countries which would suggest that it was one of the primary rabbit producing areas. In the 19th century there is also evidence that single farms built the odd bury or two so that the farmer could supplement his income from the sale of his rabbits, two examples being those near West Rook Gate, (Haynes, p.164)
So, as discussed above, there were a number of rabbit warrens on Dartmoor and many of these have left their marks upon the modern day landscape in the form of various associated features. The most common of these is what is generally termed as – pillow mounds although locally they are often referred to as burrows or buries. These were the very heart of a working warren as it was in these that the rabbits were kept.
But what was the need for such structures? In order to answer that question we need to look to the rabbit itself. The most inherent characteristic of the animal is its need to burrow, both to establish a social network of underground tunnels and chambers and to provide bolt holes when danger threatens. Having built such a network the next need is that the tunnels and chambers are dry, rabbits will not thrive in damp conditions. But not only do they need dry conditions they also need well drained warrens that will not flood during times of heavy rainfall as this will result in the young rabbits drowning. Therefore, Dartmoor with its wet climate and stony soils was hardly conducive to the rearing of rabbits as there were no naturally occurring sites that were dry and where the animals could burrow. To overcome this problem man devised artificial mounds in which the rabbits could burrow and live in dry chambers where there was little risk of flooding, these were the pillow mounds or buries. They were normally built lengthways down a slope and surrounded by a drainage ditch which alleviated any risk of flooding. Sometimes there would be a single bury or they were constructed in a series consisting of several mounds. The buries varied between 30 and 130ft (10 – 40m) long and from above can best be described as, ‘cigar shaped’. Below is a general description from the nineteenth century on how to build a bury, it comes from a book written by a warrener of Wortley Hall Park in Yorkshire. ‘Whether the rabbits are to be raised for sport or for the market, the earth-mounds for the rabbits to breed in, and natural sunny banks where they exist, must be laid out with some degree of order, so as to facilitate shooting operations, and to make the catching up of the rabbits in large numbers easy and convenient… Burrowing here and there and everywhere all over the pasture must be checked, and burrowing in flat ground stopped altogether, and both may be done by the person in charge blocking the holes up with his foot as he finds them. Burrows in flat ground are the causes of serious loss, as during heavy and sudden rains the holes become reservoirs into which the water quickly drains and drowns the young rabbits… And now as to laying out the burrows. First, the dry sunny banks should be utilised, and if colonies are not already established in these, holes should be made a few yards apart, by boring into the bank horizontally with a long planter’s spade to the distance of a yard, or at least out of arm’s-length. The rabbits will do the rest. Where there are no natural burrows of this kind, artificial mounds must be thrown up in parallel lines about 100 yards apart. These are easily and quickly made, and will cost about 9d per cubic yard to throw up. They may be about 4 yards wide and about 3 feet above the ground line at the apex. The labourer should proceed thus in making them: Set out a circular piece of ground 4 yards wide and a ring 1 yard wide or more around that. This will take up a circle 6 yards across altogether. Dig the soil out of the outer ring, and throw it as roughly as possible into the 4-yard space in the centre, forming a conical heap. The first spits of sod should be thrown loosely together, in as big lumps as possible, and about every yard or so, access should be provided to the centre of the mound by holes formed by placing the first sods together so. Above this the earth should be piled loosely, til the desired height is obtained. The rabbits afterwards excavate the heaps to their own satisfaction,’ (Simpson 1893, pp. 81 – 85).
On a more local level, William Crossing describes how the pillow mounds were constructed on Dartmoor: ‘The burrows, or burys, as the warrener calls them, are formed by first digging a narrow trench, with small ones branching from it on each side, but not opposite each other. Large slabs of turf are then cut, and with these the little trenches are covered. Over this is heaped a mound of earth, and the burrow is finished. A few holes are made for the rabbits to enter, and they quickly take possession of their new abode.’, (Crossing, 1966, p.62). Pillow Mounds have at times caused a lot of confusion in the archaeological world insomuch as they can easily be mistaken for prehistoric burial mounds. However, there is sometimes one good indicator that will suggest a rabbit bury and that is the presence of a reed known as Juncus conglomertatus or the Compact Rush. This plant enjoys light, well-broken soils in which to thrive and such conditions are by their nature provided by pillow mounds thus resulting them having an easily distinguishable, brown, reedy cap – see above. By far the best way to locate pillow mounds is by way of an aerial photograph and with the advent of Google Earth this task has been made much easier.
Having built the buries it was necessary from to regularly maintain them, this usually involved keeping the drainage ditches clear and to re-roof them thus ensuring the underground burrows remained buried below the ground surface. Indeed there was an old saying on Dartmoor that insisted that the warreners, ‘kept a good roof’. Sometimes it was also necessary to dig gripes or surface drains which led the water away from the bury’s surrounding ditch, these too can be visible today in the modern landscape.
The whole concept of buries is twofold, firstly they are a place of relative safety where the rabbits can live and breed but even more important they are a location where the warrener can control the animals when it becomes time to catch them. In the larger warrens most of the rabbits were caught in nets (usually ‘knitted by the warrener’s wife) which could be anything up to 300ft (91.4m) long and 5ft (1.52m) wide and there were two different ways in which they could be used. One method was to place the net around the bury and then loose some ferrets down into the holes, the rabbits would then bolt out of the bury and become entangled in the nets. The other method is a lot different, during the day the warrener would stake out a row of sticks which would be later used to hang the nets upon. Later that same evening when the rabbits have left the buries to feed the warrener would return and hang out the line of nets between the rabbits and the buries thus effectively preventing the rabbits from returning. Early the next morning the warrener would return with his spaniels and approach the rabbits from behind where they are feeding. The dogs would then begin to chase the rabbits whose natural instinct was to bolt towards their buries, their flight would then take them straight into the awaiting nets which stood between them and the safety of their burrows. Once entangled in the mesh of the nets the warrener would then walk the line and dispatch the rabbits by breaking their necks. The other way of catching the rabbits was by placing copper wire snares around the buries and then trap them, this practice was carried out mainly on the smaller warrens, (Crossing, 1966, pp. 61 -62). Having caught the rabbits the warrener would then take them back to the warren house for skinning and cleaning and at Ditsworthy it is known that a donkey was used to transport large kills.
Another warren feature which seems to be exclusive to Dartmoor is the vermin trap, these were used to control natural predators such as stoats and weasels. In 1970, Haynes carried out a field survey of the vermin traps on Dartmoor and recorded over 80 examples around the larger warrens. Today the National Monuments Register lists 67 records in which several are listed which do not appear in Haynes’ survey, this search can be found – HERE. (enter WHAT – vermin trap, WHERE – Devon and select ALL resources). It can be assumed that other examples have been lost, damaged or dismantled and possibly that others await discovery but even so there still is an impressive amount of field evidence out there. The vermin traps were always made from stone which considering their locations is not surprising as there was always a plentiful supply of natural granite or existing granite built into previous structures. It appears that there were three main types of locations for the traps in and around the warrens and all were set along the pathways used by the various predators. The first kind of site was that which was laid on a pathway that ran between two obstacles such as between two large clitters or between a clitter and a watercourse such as a brook or leat. Where these occur the warrener would always built a funnel consisting of two walls which would lead the animal into the awaiting trap. In some cases the pathway may run alongside an obstruction such as a wall or a leat, in which case the obstacle would act as one side of a funnel and a constructed wall the other. The final type of site was one where the predators pathway ran through a wall which usually was of prehistoric origin, here the trap would be set in the wall thus enabling the trap to work from both sides. Examples of each of the types of trap site can be seen in above.
Having looked at where the traps were sited it would be a good idea to briefly see how they were made and Haynes, (1970, pp.148 – 150) gives an excellent description: ‘The trap itself is solidly constructed of five extremely heavy stones: a base stone, three side-stones and a cover stone. The base is a very large flat stone sunk level with the turf; on this are placed three dressed stones forming the side walls, held in place by their weight alone. One of these, the longest, stretches the complete length of the trap, generally more than 4 feet. The other side of the trap was completed by two shorter stones, leaving a gap of 6 or 7 inches in the middle. This arrangement of stones forms a long narrow passage, open at each end and on one side in the middle. Both the two end openings could be closed by a gate or shutter of slate, which fell into grooves at either side and was thus held in place. The side opening held a trip mechanism. The whole trap would be covered by a heavy flat stone lid or cover-stone, which was just long enough to leave the end grooves free for the slates to slide up and down. This cover stone was drilled with two or more shallow holes, usually 1½ inches diameter and of similar depth, either square or round, though the latter may be the result of weathering; in these holes were placed wooden posts which connected by strings or wires to the slate shutters. The side opening was permanently closed by a slate, the top being covered by the stone lid. The use of a thin material, slate, was necessary to allow the tripping mechanism to protrude and connect with the outside apparatus controlling the end slates… The method of setting and springing the tarps can never be known with certainty, but an almost identical wooden trap or ‘hutch’ has been used by gamekeepers well into modern times.‘
So, as previously mentioned the vermin traps would be placed along runs used by the predators with funnel walls to filter them into the awaiting stone passageway formed by the granite slabs. Once halfway in they would spring the trap and the two slate doors would fall thus effectively imprisoning the animal until such time as the warrener came along and dispatched it. The vermin traps began to be used less and less with the advent of firearms as the warreners found this a lot easier method of controlling predators.
In the case of the large warrens the next associated landscape feature would have been the warren house, sadly today virtually all that remains are a varying amounts of ruined walls. There are two exceptions however and they are Trowlesworthy and Ditsworthy, here the houses still stand and in the case of Ditsworthy it can be seen above.. Another feature of the warren house was the dog kennels which were built into the walls of the home field, again see above. As mentioned previously the warreners often used ferrets in the course of their work which led to another feature being once found near to the warren house, this being the ‘ferret trough’. Hemery, (1983, p.224) notes how the one at Ditsworthy was a, ‘beautifully shaped specimen’ and was removed when the warren was abandoned, he also states how another example at Trowlesworthy was actually stolen sometime after 1969. At Trowlesworthy there was an artificial pool that was known as ‘Carrion Stake’ a similar one existed at Ditsworthy which was called ‘Carronpool’ (Carrion Pool). In these carcasses would be submerged and then chunks would be sliced off in order to feed the numerous warren dogs, the meat was placed in crocks which hung from poles in the enclosure where the dogs were kennelled, (Hemery, 1983, p.220). Other features of the warren house were often solid, rabbit proof walls, these enclosed garden plots which with the obvious prescience of rabbits protected the warreners vegetable crops. Where a leat ran through the warren a small, single slab would be placed across the channel to allow the rabbits to cross the water.
As with any parcels of land the extent of the warrens needed to be clearly defined and their boundaries documented. In many cases rivers and streams were used as boundaries along with boundstones many of which survive in the modern landscape. One such being those of Hentor Warren whose boundary uses three watercourses and 5 boundstones to enclose it. The lease from 1807 reads as follows: ‘… from a certain row or heap of stones joining Trowlesworthy Warren and Spanish Lake Head… about Forty land yards above the same to a large rock marked with the initials H.W.B. 1 (Hentor Warren Bounds) from thence straight on East to another stone marked No.2 Eighty yards above the said row or heap of stones from thence in a straight line to another bound stone marked No.3 Which is Forty yards south of the large upright rock in Hentor from thence to the head of Shabbacombe Lake (Shavercombe Brook) … to another bound Stone marked No. 4 from thence in a straight line to Colesmills adjoining the River Plym to another bound Stone marked No. 5…’, (Brewer, 2002, p.264). As can be seen from the map above every possible use has been made of natural features and all except the bound stone marked No. 5 are visible today as can be seen above.The bounds of Headland Warren are arguably the best preserved and date back to 1780 with most of the boundary stones still standing, Brewer (2002, pp. 265 -266) lists 16 with a possible 17th. Other warrens that still have remains of boundstones are Skaigh Warren and possibly Soussons Warren.
Apart from animal predators another threat to rabbits in any warren came from poachers, especially those located near any mines or other places of industrial activity. There are numerous records and stories about the poaching activities of tin miners who would often raid the warrens in search of a meal. In some cases the miners would be living in remote locations on the moor throughout the week and their meagre food stocks would often be replenished with stolen rabbits. Crossing, (1974, p.35) relates how a workman commented to him, ‘that the labourers (turf cutters) used to make incursions into Huntingdon Warren, which is in full view across the valley from Western Whittaburrow, and trap rabbits, he having sometimes seen … as many as a dozen being boiled at one time in the crock..‘. One result of these poaching activities can be seen today in the form of a small shelter that is located on the left bank of the River Avon (NMR Pastscape Record – HERE). Hemery, (1983, p.325) notes the following, ‘here, I think, we have the warrener’s shelter – strategically sited so the sudden emergence of man, blunderbuss and dogs would put the raiders to rout‘. It was not only poachers who caused a problem to warren owners. In the October of 1875 a case was brought before the Hatherleigh magistrates in which involved the parishioners of Belstone being accused of shooting rabbits on a local warren (presumably Skaigh Warren). It transpired that a Mr. Fewings had obtained a lease from the Duchy of Cornwall to rear rabbits on part of Belstone Common. The locals objected to this because in their eyes they had commonable rights on the land where the warren was located. It was also said at the time that the rabbits were eating the herbage which left little for their sheep to graze on. As a result some of the villagers went into the warren and shot a number of rabbits which according to Fewings numbered, ‘thousands‘. The defendants cited a charter granted by King John which stated that his tenants had the right to use, ‘bows, arrows, and quivers’ for the purpose of killing animals upon the common. Therefore, in their eyes they were only exercising age old rights granted to them by King John however the law saw it slightly differently and imposed a, ‘nominal fine’ upon the accused, (The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), Thursday, October 28, 1875; Issue 3337)
Other legacies left to us by the warreners is that of field names, in the 1840s Tithe Apportionments there are 13 enclosures on and around Dartmoor called ‘Coney Park’ with other examples being – Conegar, Coneywell, Burrow Park, Bury Meadow, Rabbit’s Brake, Rabbit’s Close, Rabbit’s Meadow, Rabbit’s Park, and Rabbit’s Warren, all suggestive of the presecence of rabbits.Other names describe the uses and activities that were carried out in them. For instance at both Huntingdon and Ditsworthy Warrens the enclosures that housed the dog kennels was known as the ‘kennel court’. The rabbits were usually gutted and skinned in a building near the warren house and at Ditsworthy this was known as the ‘Big Shed’.
Due to both the sheer acreages of the warrens and the numerous rivers and streams on the moor another feature which often survives today is the clapper bridge. Clearly these would be needed to take the warrener and any form of transport he used dry-footed over the water and in one case the name of such a crossing still lives in the Dartmoor record. Although not strictly a clapper there used to be a wooden bridge across the River Avon that was used by a one-time warrener from nearby Huntingdon, this became known as ‘Pearces’ Plank’, (OS grid ref. approx. SX 657 661).
So, with all this one-time warrening activity on Dartmoor why did it vanish? The industry prospered until 1891 when in that winter the famous ‘great blizzard’ wiped out many of the warren’s rabbits. Rabbit populations recovered enough to allow commercial warrening to continue for another 64 years. In 1954 an epidemic of myxomatosis eradicated around 99% of the rabbit numbers. This was followed a year later by the 1954 Rabbit Clearance legislation which was the final nail in the coffin of Dartmoor warrens. Basically this legislation stated: “(1) The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries may make orders (in this Act referred to as “rabbit clearance orders”) designating areas as rabbit clearance areas to be freed, so far as practicable, of wild rabbits, and providing for or regulating the steps to be taken for that purpose, and may by a subsequent order vary or revoke any such order.
(2) The occupier of any land in a rabbit clearance area shall take such steps as may from time to time be necessary for the killing or taking of wild rabbits living on or resorting to the land, and, where it is not reasonably practicable to destroy the wild rabbits living on any part of the land, for the prevention of damage by those rabbits, and shall in particular comply with any directions contained in the rabbit clearance order as to the steps to be so taken or as to the time for taking them…”
There are still plenty of wild rabbits on the moor and there even small colonies of black rabbits around such places as Bellever, Meldon, Emsworthy Mire, Nattadon Common and Swell tor. I would imagine these were pet rabbits that had been released into the wild.
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