Rabbit Warrens

The Judge

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I dare say most of us have heard of manor houses or monasteries having rabbit warrens on their land which, together with dovecots and fish-ponds, helped to provide meat for the table. However, I thought this was a relatively small affair so when this afternoon, as I was checking some details about a local landmark, I was surprised to find it was far more important than I'd thought and involved much more complicated construction/adaptation.

From the scheduled monument listing of Stagbury Hill in the New Forest:

A warren is an area of land set aside for the breeding and management of rabbits or hares in order to provide a constant supply of fresh meat and skins. Although the hare is an indigenous species, the tradition of warren construction and use dates from the 12th century, following the introduction of rabbits into England from the continent. Warrens usually contain a number of purpose-built breeding places known as pillow mounds or rabbit buries, which were intended to centralise the colony and make catching the animals easier, whether using nets, ferrets or dogs. The mounds vary in design although rarely exceeding 0.7m in height. Earlier monuments such as burial mounds, boundary features and mottes were sometimes reused as breeding places. The mounds are usually surrounded by ditches and contain underlying channels or are situated on sloping ground to facilitate drainage. The interior of the mound may also contain nesting places constructed of stone slabs or cut into the underlying subsoil or bedrock. A typical warren may contain between one and forty pillow mounds or rabbit buries and occupy an area up to c.600ha. Many warrens were enclosed by a bank, hedge or wall intended to contain and protect the stock.​
Other features associated with the warren include vermin traps (usually a dead-fall mechanism within a small tunnel), and more rarely traps for the warren stock (known in Yorkshire as `types') which could contain the animals unharmed and allow for selective culling. Larger warrens might include living quarters for the warrener who kept charge of the site, sometimes surrounded by an enclosed garden and outbuildings. Early warrens were mostly associated with the higher levels of society; however, they gradually spread in popularity so that by the 16th and 17th centuries they were a common feature on most manors and estates throughout the country. Warrens continued in use until fairly recent times, finally declining in the face of 19th and 20th century changes in agricultural practice, and the onset of myxomatosis.​
Warrens are found in all parts of England, the earliest examples lying in the southern part of the country. Approximately 1,000 - 2,000 examples are known nationally with concentrations in upland areas, on heathland and in coastal zones. The profits from a successfully managed warren could, however, be considerable and many areas in lowland England were set aside for warrens at the expense of agricultural land. Although relatively common, warrens are important for their associations with other classes of monument, including various forms of settlement, deer parks, field systems and fishponds. They may also provide evidence of the economy of both secular and ecclesiastical estates.​

So for those of us writing semi-historical fantasy, here's another element of real life which can be incorporated into a story.
 

Ursa major

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A typical warren may contain between one and forty pillow mounds or rabbit buries and occupy an area up to c.600ha.
Does "ha." mean "hectare"?

If so, 600ha. = 1482** acres = 148.2 square furlongs (a square furlong is 10 acres) = 2.315 square miles... which seems rather large for a "typical" warren. (They must mean warrens could be up to that size, not typical warrens.)


** - 1ha. = 2.47 acres.
 

The Judge

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I'm pretty sure "ha" is hectares. It didn't strike me when I was reading it (my maths and spatial sense conspiring together to mean I hadn't the foggiest idea how big 600 of them might be!) but you're right, it does sound enormous.

I see that Stagbury Hill itself, which is quite sizeable in my view, is only 0.4ha, so a tiddler on that basis. So yes, unless it's a typo, they surely can't mean something of that size was "typical".

I'll go see if I can find anything which might help make sense of it.
 

HareBrain

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I realise now I read "c.600ha" as "about .600". But that would be about right, wouldn't it? (Though the extra decimal places are a bit odd.)
 

Ursa major

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I realise now I read "c.600ha" as "about .600". But that would be about right, wouldn't it?
I would have thought that 0.6 hectares would make more sense: it's not quite 1½ acres.

I subconsciously assumed that "c." = "about" -- c. and ca. both can stand in for "circa" -- and the two trailing zeros somehow made more sense as indication that the figure was 600 hectares than giving the number a rather odd precision that didn't really correspond with "about".
 

sknox

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No rabbits in England prior to the 12thc? Nice bit of trivia. I wonder now if rabbit warrens are to be found on the Continent, and if the warrens were in part because the animal wasn't a native. Maybe over in France there were enough bunnies just hopping about, one didn't need a warren?

It's surprisingly difficult to find sound scholarly books on medieval rabbits. <g>
 

Parson

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The idea that rabbits could bring considerable profit. -- "The profits from a successfully managed warren could, however, be considerable" -- blows me away. The fur must have been the key issue. Otherwise I would think chickens would be a much more profitable endeavor. A modern chicken will lay app. 325-350 eggs a year, and/or you can raise a modern chicken from birth to fryer size in 3 months and maybe less. --- But from a story, the idea of someone living inside a rabbit warren is going to leave you a very colorful character.
 

Elckerlyc

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No rabbits in England prior to the 12thc? Nice bit of trivia. I wonder now if rabbit warrens are to be found on the Continent, and if the warrens were in part because the animal wasn't a native. Maybe over in France there were enough bunnies just hopping about, one didn't need a warren?

It's surprisingly difficult to find sound scholarly books on medieval rabbits. <g>
According to Wikipedia rabbits were introduced by the Romans throughout much of the Roman Empire. Don't know if or why England was excluded. Perhaps import rules. ;)
Rabbits were kept (in cages) in France by monks in the 6th century.

Rabbits were mentioned a few times in Duizend Jaar Weer, Wind en Water in de Lage Landen (which translates as Thousand Year Weather, Wind and Water in the Low Countries), parts 1 en 2 (750 - 1450). Unfortunately Rabbits were not included in the Index, so it's a bit of a problem to locate the text (it's over a 1000 pages.)
What I remember is that around 11 or 12th century rabbits were released in the area of what later became The Hague, for hunting purposes. These were the hunting grounds of the Counts of Holland (then called Frisia). Over time the release had a big impact on the landscape, the dunes especially. No mentions of warrens, IIRC.
The did keep swans, though. I'm curious how that would taste.
 

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Very interesting. While I hadn't realised that they actually built warrens for rabbits, the food supply was much more automated that people might think. Fish were caught in V-shaped traps set where the flow in tidal rivers would effortlessly bring them. The nets diminished in size as the V-shape tapered preventing their escape. A similar idea was used for some quite complicated duck decoy structures. A series of wooden or iron hoops, built over ditches leading to a pond, diminishing in size as the ditch tapers.

It is fairly well established that the Normans brought rabbits to Britain, but it does seem unlikely that the Romans would not have earlier. I cannot understand why not. There were chickens in the UK from, at least, the Iron Age. There is a legend that Phoenician tradesmen introduced them but they were probably already here. In 54BC, Julius Caesar was impressed that the ancient Britons bred birds for fighting, rather than meat.
 

HareBrain

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I subconsciously assumed that "c." = "about" -- c. and ca. both can stand in for "circa" -- and the two trailing zeros somehow made more sense as indication that the figure was 600 hectares than giving the number a rather odd precision that didn't really correspond with "about".

Yeah, I'm surprised at myself. My subconscious usually chooses the least credible option when it reads anything.
 

The Judge

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I realise now I read "c.600ha" as "about .600". But that would be about right, wouldn't it? (Though the extra decimal places are a bit odd.)
I wondered if that is what was meant, as Stagbury is 0.4ha, though the rest of the listing is clear on having the zero before the decimal point.

No rabbits in England prior to the 12thc?
I'd always understood they came over with the Romans -- and certainly some did BBC NEWS | England | Norfolk | Remains of Roman rabbit uncovered and Did the Romans introduce rabbits to Britain? | SHOW ME But the apparent lack of a native English word for them (coney is from the Norman French and is first seen in documents around 1200 and rabbit is from the Walloon and late C14th rabbit | Search Online Etymology Dictionary) rather argues against them being widespread here until the Conquest. I suspect the Romans kept them in cages, just as Elckerlyc's French monks did, and there weren't enough escapees who survived long enough to form colonies.

The idea that rabbits could bring considerable profit. -- "The profits from a successfully managed warren could, however, be considerable" -- blows me away. The fur must have been the key issue. Otherwise I would think chickens would be a much more profitable endeavor. A modern chicken will lay app. 325-350 eggs a year, and/or you can raise a modern chicken from birth to fryer size in 3 months and maybe less.
Fur was certainly part of it, but chickens in medieval times were nowhere near the prolific layers they are nowadays and it would take far longer for them to be ready for the pot and likely wouldn't be the fat things we see now thanks to selective breeding. And I'd guess the eggs were more important than the meat, so it was largely surplus males (cf coq au vin) and old and weak hens which were eaten, certainly by the lower classes, other than in extremis.
 

Tirellan

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Swell, now I have to try goose as well... :rolleyes:
Quite expensive and a whole goose takes a long time to roast - but gives vast amounts of fat which is the best medium for roast potatoes . Roast goose is my Christmas Day preference. Feeds fewer than turkey but tastes better.
 

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