by Anne Mason.
'There is none who deem their houses well seated who have not to the same belonging - ... a commonwealth of conies... at all times to furnish his table.'
From their introduction by the Normans, rabbits were highly-prized luxury items, served at feasts and used as trimmings and linings on clothing. They had the same exclusive protection as the pigeons in the lord's dovecote. The ownership of a warren, an area designated for the farming of rabbits for their meat and fur in which they were nurtured, protected and trapped by a warrener, was a manorial privilege.
Native to the Mediterranean, rabbits prefer dry, sandy soils and the distribution of warrens reflects this preference, showing the greatest concentration in the heathland areas of Breckland, with smaller clusters in north-west Norfolk around the Greensand outcrop, and to the east of Dereham and north of Norwich where there are sandy soils. Until the 1700s, the adult rabbits were known as 'coneys': 'rabbit' was applied only to the young, hence the 'coniger' and ‘coneygarth' place-names. However, there may be a distinction between the 'coney' derivatives as the term applied to the enclosures where rabbits were bred for the needs of a manorial household and that of 'warren', implying commercial exploitation on a much larger scale. However, the terms could be interchangeable: the Hare Estate Field Book of 1626 refers to the 'conywarren' at Wimbotsham.
Many of the medieval Breckland warrens were owned by monastic institutions or leased to them by the Duchy of Lancaster on a profit or loss basis. Medieval manorial accounts refer to warrens in existence by the 1300s but Mark Bailey's analysis shows that few medieval warrens culled more than three thousand rabbits a year. With the expansion of the warren area following de-population after the Black Death and as a result of more intensive management practices, warrens yielded substantial profits in good years.
By the 1600s, warrens were leased by lay landlords on fixed income rents, though leases such as that for Shouldham Warren of 1634 stipulated the numbers of rabbits that had to be supplied to the household. The peak of rabbit production was in the 19th century, when two hundred dozen were sent to London daily in November from the Breckland warrens; on Thetford Warren alone, the cull was 28,000 a year. The skins were sold to factories in Brandon and Thetford where the fur was treated and processed into felt, either for the hat trade or for export. Other trades in the local economy associated with warrening included skinners, barkers, glovers, lurcher dog trainers, ferret breeders and trap and net makers.
The warrens varied greatly in size, from the 'conynger furlong' at Ryston to over a thousand acres at Methwold. Topographical evidence includes perimeter banks, internal banks and remains of lodges. Constructed originally of turf sods to a height of nearly two metres, topped with a hedge of gorse, hawthorn or blackthorn, sections of perimeter banks survive on former warrens such as Bromehill, Gooderstone (NHER 4595), Hilborough (NHER 37062), Sturston (NHER 37049, 37050, 37051) and Thetford (NHER 30716), where the circumference was eight miles. A map of Beachamwell of 1776 shows the gates needed where highways crossed the warren banks. Internal parallel, double or triple banks are named on maps as 'trapping banks' with examples on Santon (NHER 31217) and Hilborough Warrens. Rectangular enclosures such as those on Thetford Warren (NHER 30716) may have been where winter fodder for the rabbits was grown.
The warrener was one of the highest-paid manorial officials, reflecting his multi-skilled work. He had to monitor the condition of his stock, regulate the number of bucks to does, organise extra labour for the autumn and winter culling, and protect the rabbits from extremes of weather and from natural predators and from poachers. Manorial records refer to organised gangs raiding the Breckland warrens in the 14th and 15th centuries. By the 19th century, prosecution for poaching could result in transportation or imprisonment. Escaped rabbits which damaged crops were a source of contention and the subject of legal disputes or illegal culling.
A defensive building, a lodge, provided the warrener with accommodation, on the upper floor, and storage for the carcasses, traps, nets and lanterns below (NHER 31601, 31770, 37037). The lodge at Thetford (NHER 2760) survives as a standing building, with features reminiscent of a small castle keep or a pele tower.
The warrens were subject to the zeal for 'agricultural improvement' either in the 18th century or in the Victorian period of 'high farming'. Some warren areas were enclosed and farmsteads established, often incorporating the lodge or using its building materials. Stands of commercial timber and pine shelter belts were planted and the managed warren area was reduced, only to expand again when it proved unprofitable to establish arable on marginal land, not least because rabbits ate the young crops.
Eventually, perception of the rabbit changed. They were no longer luxury items provided at banquets and valued as furs but had become a staple food of the poor and a pest to farmers. The Ground Game Act of 1880 abolished the rabbit's protected status and so there was less reason to confine them in warrens, especially as cheap imports from Europe and Australia resulted in a fall in profits. Huge numbers of rabbits were killed for sport during weekend shooting parties on Norfolk estates. The Forestry Commission employed warreners to eradicate the rabbits from their Breckland holdings but it was only with myxamatosis in the 1950s that rabbit numbers declined drastically.
Afforestation has preserved many of the warren features, especially in Breckland. A woodland edge often follows that of a former warren and hidden within plantations are the warren banks and the remains of the lodges. Place-names also survive as evocative and powerful reminders of an industry which once dominated heathland areas of the Norfolk landscape.