Ear to the Ground with Steve Blacksmith: Furry mammals that have made valley home

The dry stone rabbit-catching hole at Clifton. Picture: Steve Blacksmith
The dry stone rabbit-catching hole at Clifton. Picture: Steve Blacksmith

Recently some of us were looking at rabbit-catching holes specially built into drystone walls at Clifton near Brighouse.

These are narrow slits in the base of the walls which are said to be a relict of an important trade in rabbits.

Not only were they caught to be eaten, but also the fur was valuable.

And not always as a skin; the fur was apparently shaved off to make felt. Rabbit felt is one of the best for making hats, and at the time of the enclosures every man wore a hat outside, in fact there was a time when it was illegal not to wear one.

I had a leaflet once about drystone walling in Cumbria, which mentioned these holes, and gave them a local name. If anyone remembers this or knows of the location of any more walls with these small rabbit or hare-sized holes in them I would love to know.

Apparently the rabbits were left in peace for a time to come and go through the holes, then on a given day, someone would go along the back of the wall, stopping the holes up with rags.

When the rabbits were scared from the other side they fled for the holes they were used to, but were caught in the bottom of the walls, where they could easily be collected.

There are the remains of an old warren, where rabbits were semi-domesticated, at Cunnery Wood, near Shibden Park.

The partially underground storage building for the hanging of the carcases is still intact and can be visited.

The name of the wood comes from Coney, which was the original name of the animal, “rabbit” originally referring only to the little ones, the ones we now call bunnies.

The story of the introduction of the rabbit to Britain (because it wasn’t originally native) is one of twists and turns.

The first animals brought here from southern Europe were not well adapted to the climate and kept dying out. They had to be kept in carefully constructed warrens with sandy soil between layers of stone for them to burrow between and with walls and fences around.

It is thought that it was only when epidemics like the plague decimated the people in Elizabethan times that some warrens were abandoned and rabbits adapted to fending for themselves in the wild.

It’s a treat to see Brown Hares “boxing” in spring, though I haven’t seen it for a number of years, nor heard of it being seen in Calderdale recently. It has been discovered that it is a male and female who do this together as part of courtship.

It’s the female’s way of saying “get away from me, I’m not in the mood “, or “I wouldn’t touch you with a barge-pole, even if you were the last hare in the Pennines!”

There is a rarer hare in the South Pennines, the Mountain Hare; slightly smaller, and bluey-grey in summer, turning white in snowy winters. It is commoner further south, in the Pennines above Sheffield, where the Sorby Natural History Society does an annual count.

There are just a handful of records from our part of the Pennines.

This hare was introduced from Scotland in Victorian times for sport.

It’s a pity that so many of our mammals have been hunted for sport. It was originally part of the subsistence of the people, but there’s no place for such brutality now we are all well fed.

Those that set dogs on deer and other wild mammals deserve the full force of the law. If anyone sees it happening they should contact the police immediately and say they are witnessing “a crime in progress”.

The commonest deer in Calderdale is the Roe, but I’ve seen two Red Deer – a hind twice in the same place a week apart, and a young one, a ”kid”, grazing with sheep in the valley beyond Portsmouth. These could have been escapees from the local deer farm.

Even bats, those harmless consumers of vast numbers of flying insects, were at one time caught in nets just for fun; “bat-fouling”.

Luckily that is a thing of the past, and also illegal, but they are still vulnerable to disturbance in lofts, old buildings being renovated, bird boxes or hollow trees.

Ancient or hollow trees, however decrepit, should never be felled or lopped unless there is a specific danger to people or property.

They are wildlife treasure-troves. Our commonest bats are the little Pipistrelles.

Other mammals that are occasionally reported in Calderdale, some common, some very rare, are badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, mink, otters, mice, voles, shrews, moles, stoats and weasels.

It would be great if we still had the Dormice which were here up to the late 19th century.

They were probably wiped out because they were popular as pets, presumably before hamsters were available, but also the countryside has changed.

They need bushy coppice or woodland-edge habitat providing plenty of hazelnuts and wild berries.

We also have Grey Squirrels - the native Red Squirrel went extinct in the 1970s. It hung on longest at Hardcastle Crags.

At one time there would have been fierce wild wolves in our valley; still here of course, but being slightly more intelligent than foxes, and very sociable animals, they’ve wheedled their way into our affections and allowed us to change them into a range of different forms.

Free food, warm house, and a car to take them to play in the park. The most endearing of our furry mammals!