The cute little rabbit with its impressive fecundity is devastating the walled garden.
Problems regarding invasive species is a recurring theme at Crathes and the recent works on the entrance building (with its alternative access), the rose garden (with a temporary hole in the wall), and the current replacement of the Croquet Lawn wall have created openings for one of the most opportunistic of mammals. The yew hedges provide ideal hiding places and when night falls the growing population can emerge to feast on a buffet of impressive proportions. Last year much of the annual bedding suffered and just now there is a banquet of tulips; almost all of the hundreds of bulbs, carefully planted by Steve in autumn 2020, have been dug up and eaten.
Rabbits have, for centuries, been a world-wide problem causing massive damage to ecosystems and economies from Australia to Argentina. We may be on the side of Peter Rabbit and Bright Eyes when we read to our children, but the reality is harsh. A rabbit, Oryctolagus coniculus, can breed throughout the year, produce up to twelve young in each litter and mate a few days after giving birth. It’s time to take Mr McGregor’s point of view in the walled garden, but first the walls have to be secure.
The Romans are known to have bred and eaten rabbits, which are native to northern and central Europe, but there is no evidence that rabbits were feral in Roman Britain. It seems likely that we can blame the Normans for their arrival. In medieval times the grand estates built enclosed sandy mounds called warrens to encourage rabbits to breed, thus providing fur and food for the household. In Scotland royal warrens were protected from poaching on pain of death in the reign of Alexander II (1214-1249), but it seems to have been some centuries before rabbits became troublesome. At Crathes we can see from the few remaining household accounts of November 1697 that ‘rabbetts’ were sometimes on the menu. A ‘cupple of Rabbitts’ cost eightpence on ‘Satterday’ 13 November and later in the same week ‘3 rabbetts’ cost a shilling (all items seem to be costed even if from the home farm). Whether the name Warren Field is an old name is not clear. This field (where he highland cattle browse today) is not named on the 1838 estate map, and if warrens were built there no remains are visible today.
By 1827 we have game books recording the shooting on the whole of the Leys estate – at that time including parts of the Hill of Fare and Trustach, west of Banchory. In the 1827-28 season 282 rabbits were killed as compared with 194 grouse, 474 partridge and 1 pheasant. In the 1840-41 season the tallies were: 1392 grouse, 13 snipe, 22 woodcock, 59 wildfowl, 100 hares and 1516 rabbits with the beagle taking 2 red deer, 28 roe and 2 blackcock. Rabbits were always recorded as game, but seem to have been a nuisance by December 1864 when James Horn Burnett (10th baronet of Leys), Thomas Burnett (his son) and Robert Rintoul (the gamekeeper) shot 50 rabbits at Rockheads (Caroline’s Garden) on the eighth of the month. Helped by J Adams and J Davidson, the next week they got 41 more rabbits and a fox in Rockheads and nearby Milton Wood. 141 rabbits were killed that week on the Crathes estate.* In the 1914-15 season, when many of the men were away in the First World War, the keepers shot 4326 rabbits, but they were still recorded as game. The vermin for that year were listed as: squirrels 626 (133 at Cairnton), stoats and weasels 105, hawks 8, magpies 7 – some of these ‘vermin’ would have helped to keep the rabbits in control. An entry in 1928 states ’Rabbits were allowed to get completely out of hand while Sir James was in China’. A lot of trapping took place at that time.
Rabbits were ‘completely out of hand’ all over Britain – it was estimated there were 60-100 million rabbits in Britain by the 1950s.**
It was, however, in the 1950s that the horrific disease of myxomatosis, spreading from France, caused a dramatic reduction in population numbers. It is illegal in Britain, since 1954, to introduce this disease, but it has been used in various countries to control rabbits. Because of the disease the IUCN now classifies the rabbit as ‘near threatened’. When myxomatosis was at its peak some areas, such as the South Downs, suffered from the growth of grasses crowding out rare flowers and some of the insects dependent on the flowers, showing that the rabbit is now an important part of some British ecosystems.
As I write the rabbits have free reign in the walled garden because of the repair to the Croquet Lawn wall. This wall was slowly falling over. Although it looks substantial it has little in the way of foundations. Contractors have been brought in for the repair and this necessitates another hole in the wall to give access for a small digger. Once the wall is complete and all the gaps in the Woodland Garden are dealt with, pest control will be called in. It is not a pleasant thought, but without control the garden would be mediocre at the least. Outside the wall the rabbits are left to their own devices, when they provide food for buzzards, foxes and a range of wildlife.
James and Steve have been planting Madonna lilies on the west border of the rose garden. This border, once hidden under the hedge but exposed since the cutback of yew about 23 years ago, has been a problem area for some time. Now the plastic weed barrier has been removed and the lilies have been planted along with camassias. Both are toxic and should be rabbit proof. James is hoping that the bulbs might naturalise. They have been given a good start with a handful of bonemeal to each planting hole.
As the Dee salmon season started on 1 February the chat in the bothy turned from rabbits to the dearth of fish in the river. Some of the ghillies think they won’t have a job for much longer. The recent floods shifted large amounts of sand and gravel which may not have helped. A programme on the radio about the continuing management of the Beltie Burn gives a little hope. Some of the large trees, including their roots, fallen in Storm Arwen are now being placed in the Dee tributaries to provide shelter for the young salmon. Along with the initial re-meandering of the Beltie Burn, and the tree planting which will help cool the burn this may help to revive the prospects of this important keystone animal (see Cycles of Life 16 November 2022). 700 fallen trees are reported to have been added to the Dee river system in this project. Another hopeful sign for our ecosystems is an advert for a beaver project manager in the Cairngorms National Park.
Back in the garden Andy is pleased to be able to get on with pruning. Mike and Steve have been tackling the roses. Where the arbutus fell in Storm Arwen the trellis was broken and so they use wires to support the Madame Alfred de Carrière – a vigorous white/pale pink rose.
Dave (volunteer) has been working hard on the tree labelling. He is now considering all the champion trees designated by the Tree Register of the British Isles (TROBI). Look out for the blue labels which tell you that it is a champion tree for either the whole of Britain and Ireland, or for Scotland (denoted by ‘Country’), or for Aberdeenshire (denoted by ‘County’).
In the glasshouses Joanna has been dealing with another pest, a root mealy bug – but fortunately not the invasive golden root one. Nevertheless the bug is getting into the succulent roots and is thought to have spread by means of the capillary matting which enables easy watering. Accordingly soft soap is used to reduce the mealy bug and all the pots have been given a saucer each so that each plant is isolated from its neighbour; the capillary matting has been replaced by sand which has been sprayed with a natural citrus disinfectant.
The hyacinth bulbs which were overwintered in the boiler room below glasshouse six were flooded in the January floods, but have survived. Whilst there seems to be an overload of problems just now there is lots of promise for the coming season. Weeding is going well with volunteers Judy and Gill tackling the thale cress (a hangover from lockdown days), and Kiran and Jenny tidying up the Trough Garden. I have missed other volunteers by not being around on their work days.
There are signs of spring everywhere: the birds are suddenly singing with new purpose; woodpeckers are drumming; snowdrops are plentiful; the rangers report lots of squirrel activity on the trails; the older hazels are covered in catkins and those planted in 2020 are also doing well. After a winter of hard work in the garden it’s time celebrate nature’s yearly renewal.
The lily of the valley have flowered successfully; the smell really is exquisite, but is more elusive than the paperwhite narcissi.
In the Rose Garden the gardeners have been working hard placing the outer edges – made by a local blacksmith. There is still some work to be done on the paths. The central sculpture is to be lifted into the garden by crane sometime in March. The rabbits will not eat the roses, but much of the planting will have to wait until the rabbits are gone.
* University of Aberdeen Special Collections, AU/MS/3361/4/ 67 and 68
**The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles by Christopher Lever (London 1977)