Rabbits, ferrets and polecats in East Anglia

Rabbit warrens

Before the 20th century, rabbits were highly valued, both for their meat and for their fur.  Rabbits were introduced into England by the Normans, and until the late 19th century were kept in protected enclosures known as warrens.  The largest warrens in East Anglia were in the heathland areas of Breckland and Forest Heath districts, where the term ‘coney’ (the name for adult rabbits) betrays a history of rabbit farming.  Large warren enclosures had a lodge: the warrener would live on the upper floor, while his equipment and the rabbit carcasses would be stored below.  


Rabbits as wildlife and pests

The popularity of rabbit meat and rabbit fur as luxury items waned towards the end of the 19th century, and in 1880 their protected status was removed.   With the closing of warrens, rabbits became part of wildlife rather than farmed animals, and to farmers a pest.  The job of a warrener in the 20th century was therefore not to farm rabbits but rather to control their populations, a rural function still practised today.


Polecats and ferrets

Rabbits are generally a welcome feature of rural wildlife and part of the natural habitat. However, their extensive warrens can sometime cause difficulties, for example with horses.  As in the famous Peter Rabbit stories, they are also notorious for damaging farmers’ crops.  Warreners generally use three methods to control rabbit populations: nets, ferreting (use of trained polecats and ferrets), and shooting.  Poisoning or introducing diseases has been used in the past, but can be environmentally harmful.