Beware the Easter bunny….
It started quietly enough. An innocuous idea; why don’t we get a rabbit, something for Lara to have as a lockdown companion, keep her entertained during those days when the schools are closed? From which the next step in the decision process became inevitable; it’s such a shame to have a single rabbit, it’d get lonely, it needs a companion, why don’t we get two? Easter was approaching so the search for suitable furry playmates was intensive, scouring the further corners of the internet and mapping them on to a real life country still restricted in its travel options to short essential journeys only.
Finally we found somewhere not too far out of range, a quick dart across country, a dip down to the southwest to collect a pair of Dutch dwarf rabbits. Six weeks old, big enough to leave home but small enough to settle somewhere new, become part of our hopeful family. Equipped with a large cardboard box and some assorted leaves and grasses we made the expedition while Lara was out playing with a lockdown friend.
The plan was simple; pick up the rabbits, quick dash home in time to relocate the rabbits in the hastily constructed run we had built so that Lara on return could glimpse them, investigate and then explode with joy at discovering her new companions.
Like most plans this one did not survive contact with reality for long. No-one had told us that whilst dwarf rabbits might be petite they balance their lack of stature with impressive quantities of imagination and ambition. In particular they are born running a core program called ‘Escape’ and by six weeks have already become adept at a skill which they will spend the rest of their lives honing. Jumping the (2ft high) fence demarcating their rabbit run was child’s play to them and pretty soon two little balls of high-speed white fur were darting in and out of bushes and wriggling expertly from our grasp whenever we managed to corner one of them with our increasingly desperate attempts.
As a result Lara’s introduction to her new-found friends was as part of a hastily-assembled peacekeeping mission involving whoever of our friends and neighbours we could recruit to help us slowly herd the rabbits back to camp
I forgot to mention; we live on a hillside and behind us is a big wide sprawling meadow. On which sheep safely graze, dotting the grass with those pleasant tufts of white which make you think you’ve fallen asleep and woken in a world where the sky is green and the clouds have little stubby legs to bumble around with. This idyllic pastoral landscape is home to field-mice, birds of every shape and size and a large extended family of wild rabbits who can be seen from time to time frolicking in the long grass as the sun gently sets over the hill behind them.
It is also home to a family of foxes dominated by a matriarch who strolls proprietorially amongst the sheep (occasionally checking for the one-eyed sheepdog who does patrol duties every so often). She prowls with purpose; feeding her growing breed takes all the usual cunning and she’s got her fingers (or claws) firmly on the pulse of what’s happening in the meadow-world over which she softly treads. Her nose is constantly sniffing, her eyes darting and her whole being operates in high sensitivity mode, scanning her surroundings as effectively as an early warning radar system.
Which the arrival of two escape mad rabbits certainly qualified as. Her radar began working overtime, her patterned pacing of the meadow took on a deliberate search and locate mode and we in turn upped our attempts at defences. The flimsy wood and wire rabbit run was replaced with a full-strength hutch complete with inner safe room into which the rabbits could be locked at night with enough food and water to survive a long siege. Their wider run had its walls strengthened and was o’er-topped with enough netting to deter even the most brazen airborne attack. (We’d resigned ourselves to losing this year’s crop of fruit and diverted the entire stock of our anti-predator netting munitions to the job).
Beginning to relax and settling into a rabbit routine we let down our guard. Forgetting that with DNA containing the infamous Houdini strand these rabbits were not going to be put off by the mere presence of walls or roof; what are paws and claws for, for heaven’s sake? So it was that a few days later we returned from a short expedition to the shops to find the rabbit run empty and no sign of our little friends. A long day spent scouring first our garden and then that of neighbours in an increasingly wide radius yielded nothing but doom and tears (Lara doing her best to comfort her distraught mother).
Only as dusk began to fall was there a sign of hope — a flicker of white in the otherwise green landscape up the hill as the light began to leach away. Closer inspection revealed not one but two Netherlands Dwarf rabbits partying like it was their last night on earth with the wild rabbits whose burrows criss-crossed underneath the meadow in our own version of Watership Down. Every so often there’d be a flash of brown or white to indicate some particularly impressive dance moves going down in Disco Dell.
Panic mode as we called out the equivalent of the National Guard, enlisting neighbours and torches to try and draw them back to the safety of their hutch and out of the claws of Mrs Fox whose shape seemed to grow in our imaginations like a giant version of Shere Khan in dogged pursuit of Mowgli. Halfway through we managed to recapture one of them and hauled the prodigal back to base where it hungrily munched and gulped down some food and drink before falling asleep. But of his sister no sign; we went to our own beds sad and worried.
To wake the next morning to the sight of a dishevelled teenager rabbit, eyes red rimmed from partying all night, hanging round the gate to her run. She slept all day and emerged late afternoon without a care in the world. Cue extensive cuddling and reunion stuff and a major process of re-landscaping the garden to introduce an impromptu rockery around any of the places where digging might be taking place to thwart tunnels at their earliest stages.
Summer passed in a kind of phoney war; there were frequent signs of digging, multiple attempts at jumping the fence , gnawing of the wire and even clever ploys in which one rabbit would seek to distract us while the other slipped past us, darting through our legs and into the garden. We retaliated with increasingly high technology solutions; the garden hose became a very effective water cannon with which to flush out rabbits hiding beneath garden sheds or in hedges and its wide angle of sweep enabled us to gradually focus the escapee back into a corridor leading inevitably back to captivity.
In this fashion we’ve settled to a delicate kind of peace with the occasional flurry and flare-up to keep us on our toes. Sometimes we’ll relax a bit too much, sometimes we’ll lower our guard and we’ll be rewarded with another break-out followed by wild celebratory partying in the back field. But sometimes it’s been their turn to surrender, giving themselves up to their role as passive pets, allowing themselves to be stroked and cuddled. Acquiescent bundles of soft white fur, settling on to our laps and doing the rabbit equivalent of purring.
There’s good research to support the view that pets, particularly in this configuration, are good for you. Sitting and stroking them helps relieve stress, stimulates the production of oxytocin, soothes our ravaged souls with a gentle wash of cuddle chemicals. It feels that way right now, as we sit by the fireside, my wife playing host to two little darlings spread peacefully across her lap.
But I can’t quite relax. One of the fascinating things I discovered during this last year of co-existing with the Dutch Duo is that rabbits sleep with their eyes open. And right now as I glance across the room I’m wondering if I see a flicker of something stirring behind those gentle big blue pools……