Breckland Bunnies

Reporter: Anne Grimshaw

An entertaining, lively and enthusiastic speaker, Anne Mason, spoke at October’s meeting about the history of commercial rabbit warrening in the Breckland area around Thetford and how these large managed areas surrounded by warren banks and overseen by warren lodges have left an imprint on the landscape.

She began by explaining the research project she led in 2008 with English Heritage grant funding which has led to a greater understanding of the importance of warrening for the region. The geography (dry climate) and geology (light sandy soils) of the Brecklands suited the rabbit whose original habitat was in the Mediterranean area. Bred for their meat and fur, both luxury items in the 13th century, rabbits (then called ‘coneys’) were valuable and hence belonged only to wealthy individuals such as Lords of the Manor or monasteries.

The guardian of the rabbits, the warrener, lived in the warren lodge. This was a two-storey, almost square building of flint and stone or brick, built to a standardised design, with windows on each of the four sides on the upper floor, allowing him  to oversee the warren. The rabbits were contained within the warren by banks built of turf and topped by gorse bushes, patrolled by ‘security guards’ to keep the rabbits in – and poachers out.

Mildenhall Warren Lodge, dating from the 1320s, is one of only two surviving warren lodges. Renovations began recently and include a roof to protect the flint and lime mortar walls from weathering.

But rabbits did not always breed ‘like rabbits’. There were years of disease when they were wiped out and later fashions both in clothing and foods changed. Eventually, rabbits were no longer ‘game’, the preserve of the wealthy, but a pest that could be caught by anyone. Fur-trimmed garments fell out of fashion, as did hats made from rabbit fur compressed into felt.

Anne’s research revealed an untapped source of original documents from soon after the Domesday Book (1086) that gave hitherto unknown facts about this valuable part of the region’s economy both at home and abroad which continued until the early 20th century. It is rare that archaeological and documentary evidence have survived and reinforce each other.