The location, a kempt lonicera hedge atop a bank.
Moorland on one side frequented by foxes, the other side human home, with dogged dogs just metres away.
Some years ago this hedge was a worn and weedy affair, for early Summer evenings would bring forth a herd of Charolais cattle like migrating elephants, plodding determinedly toward it looking for somewhere to rub off the flies that had been irritating them all day. The big dog on the other side was driven to a peak of frenzy at the sound off huge breaths being taken in and let out in rhythm with the hedge rocking to and fro; losing any remnant of sense he would hurl himself on top of the hedge to see whatever it was off, of course his legs immediately descended through the deceptive looking table top of green, in his panicking and flailing to be free the poor old hedge sustained dreadful unsightly holes, the dog had to be rescued, which turned the cattle away to reveal the big dents they had delivered to the other side.
Enough was enough, soon there would be no barrier or boundary, both sides were fenced off against animal attack. Over a period of time the gap between moorland and hedge has filled itself in with happier hedge and a thorny thicket of brambles, not worth a foxy foray, briars for protection, sweet berries for bunnies and relief giving leaves for their upset tummies. In conclusion, if you have the nouse and nerve of a rabbit you could safely rear some kits inside that hedge.
Towards the end of March, skylarks’ song ringing above, the rabbit doe carefully picks her way along the old sheep path through the reeds to a small place where she squeezes under the brambles and hops up inside the bank, where she has the beginnings of a nursery for the kittens she expects. This little creature is the epitome of femininity, so pretty and purposeful pulling at the long grass to line her nest, she will finish it off with a layer of her own fur.
The kittens are born that night. Ten days on you may imagine the kits – their eyes open, moving about a bit, getting stronger, bigger.
Another week and they will be sent out to try their first solid meal. They sit very tightly together looking out through the netting, overwhelmed by the wider world. The next day they take a leap of faith and hop through the wire onto the bank, I can see them through the kitchen window but they can’t see me, and so the script is acted out before me that I am privileged to witness year on year.
The grass hasn’t been cut yet on the bank so the kits have to reach up for a blade and try and hold down a tip as it bends over, a bit old, weathered and tough for them but they manage. They pause to consider that first taste and then there is no holding back. The grass will be cut in a few days time and the new tips will emerge juicy and sugar sweet for them.
Inevitably the sound and then fumes of a car being driven down the nearby lane sends them flying back in terror to their mother. They learn so fast, the next day a passing car freezes them to the spot for a moment, the third day a twitch of one ear in recognition – no grazing interrupted.
One day during this first week abroad a most fearful wind struck up, the little rabbits reluctantly but bravely went through the netting, wisely sticking near to it or they would have been swept right away by its force. It wasn’t any good, the rough conditions were too much and back they went to their burrow.
I was fascinated to see the doe appear, sit on her haunches, swivel an ear, look around for something, then a huge gust of wind came along ‘whumph whumph’ and I could read the recognition in her face; she also returned to the burrow. The little rabbits had to eat, but strong wind like that impairs the workings of rabbit hearing and also sense of smell that are danger sensors, vital parts of survival equipment. None of them were seen all that day, but wind abating they were up early the next morning making up for lost meals.
A rabbit following instructions for taking its first face wash is a charmful sight.
Sit firmly back on haunches, wash both front paws thoroughly, put paws either side of face by nose making a circular movement, wash paws, repeat working further and further up face. Ears and behind ears; sit up a bit taller and again with freshly cleansed paws reach up one fore leg behind one ear, pull it down by paw to mouth secure it quickly by bringing other paw into play, lick the tip clean. This takes several attempts and tumbles before the technique is finely honed. Basic living lessons all learned the doe will soon be confidant in leaving her charges and move on.
The young rabbits continue to grow, getting fitter every day through their play, they become adventurous moving further along the bank and sampling different plants in the hedge.
The boldest will jump off the bank and test out their moves, jumps, bucks and side kicks along the driveway. The first sighting of a hen strolling along sends all the rabbits scampering for the safety of their bank home, they hide in the darkness of the hedge but look out upon the hen. The rabbits get braver as they get hungrier and out they come again, hen may give them a cursory glance but she has seen this all before, she is more concentrated on turning over the grass in search of a tasty bug or two. Familiarity they say breeds contempt and it isn’t long before the rabbits are playing grandma’s footsteps behind the hen and when she turns around and glares their bravado quickly dissolves and they skiddaddle.
Speaking of which, it appears that hopping through the holes in the wire netting is becoming more of a tight squeeze, the first half goes through alright but the second half is a bit of a struggle pulling at first one leg and then the other. They must have a clear exit, it’s time to find pastures new.