Wednesday, 16 January 2019

On the real Watership Down, rabbits are hard to come by

Numbers may be at an all time low as a new adaptation of the novel hits our TV screens
Chris Howard
Sat 22 Dec 2018 08.00 GMTLast modified on Thu 27 Dec 2018 10.51 GMT
The real Watership Down is not hard to find.
In the introduction to his book, Richard Adams helpfully gives the Ordnance Survey map reference – sheet 174. Once located on paper, long-remembered names jump from the map: Nuthanger Farm, Ashley Warren and Honeycomb are all there. It was the multitude of rabbits found on this little square of England that inspired Adams to write Watership Down.
The book, and the 1978 film that followed, famously terrified a generation. Instead of fluffy bunnies living in a rural idyll, Adams’s rabbits were both calculated killers and senselessly slaughtered. It was red in tooth and claw, and in the case of the film, shown in glorious and brutal Technicolor.
But with a new BBC/Netflix adaptation apparently taking a gentler tone, what is the reality for the UK’s rabbit population?
For Dr Diana Bell, a rabbit disease expert at the University of East Anglia, it’s pretty dire. “Rabbits may be at an all time low” she says. “When did you last see a roadkill rabbit? You don’t anymore – they simply aren’t around like they used to be”
The figures bear her out. Bell points to a report by the British Trust for Ornithology, which estimated that the population had declined by 60% between 1995 and 2016.
On Watership Down itself, rabbits are certainly hard to come by. The Warren, a deep combe set into the Down, is pockmarked with burrows, but an hour’s watching reveals just four rabbits.
Although there are fewer rabbits, the landscape does bear marks of the book. The huge beech tree that sheltered the Watership Down warren was a landmark for many years. “People used to really care about that tree,” says local resident Bryan. “One lady even made her husband drive three hours from Cheshire in the great storm of 1987 just to check it was all right”.

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