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Rabbits, Warrens, Conigres

Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire

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rabbit at Turleigh

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Rabbits, Oryctolagus cuniculus, are considered a common feature of local wildlife, but were first introduced into Britain from the Iberian Peninsula during the Roman period. They are in decline in Spain and Portugal now and their conservation status there has been considered to be ‘Threatened’.

They appeared to have died out after the Romans and had to be re-introduced after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. During the medieval period farming them had a great economic and status importance, as they provided a source of meat and fur.

The right to maintain a rabbit warren was strictly controlled and jealously guarded. The Abbess of Shaftesbury was granted Free Warren in the Abbey’s manor of Bradford in 1293, but this is likely to refer to hunting and not just of rabbits. A rabbit warren was an artificial home for farming rabbits, with ‘pillow mounds’ – low rectangular mounds constructed for them to live in. A warrener may have been employed to look after the rabbits’ welfare and security and to harvest them. What he did with them is not certain as it would have taken a couple of days for them to reach the nuns’ table in Shaftesbury, Dorset.

In this part of Wessex the word conigre  (sometimes conigree, coneygar and other variations, originally coney-garth) is used for a warren and this occurs as place names in Bradford, notably at Conigre Hill. Bumps in a field called Conigree that was mentioned in 1811 in Budbury, next to Conigre Hill, may have been the remains of pillow mounds that belonged to the Abbey’s estate.

Inevitably, rabbits escaped and strains that were adapted to survive in the wild developed the basis for a population that meant rabbit became a meat of the poor rather than their lords.