In the introduction to his book, Richard Adams helpfully gives the Ordnance Survey map reference – sheet 174. Once located on paper, long-remembered names jump from the map: Nuthanger Farm, Ashley Warren, and Honeycomb are all there. It was the multitude of rabbits found on this little square of England that inspired Adams to write Watership Down.
The book, and the 1978 film that followed, famously terrified a generation. Instead of fluffy bunnies living in a rural idyll, Adams’s rabbits were both calculated killers and senselessly slaughtered. It had been red in tooth and claw, and in the case of the film, shown in glorious and brutal Technicolor.
But with a new BBC/Netflix adaptation apparently taking a gentler tone, what is the reality for the UK’s rabbit population?
For Dr. Diana Bell, a bunny disease expert at the University of East Anglia, it’s pretty dire. “Rabbits may be at an all-time low,” she says. “When did you last see a roadkill bunny? You don’t anymore – they simply aren’t around like they used to be”
The figures bear her out. Bell points to a report by the British Trust for Ornithology, which estimated that the populace had declined by 60% between 1995 and 2016.
But the same is also true down the food chain, as well as the distinctive chalk grassland of Watership Down relies on the rabbits to keep it maintained.
“There’s a project in the Brecks [in East Anglia] where rabbits are being actively re-introduced,” explains Bells, “because so many rare and unique species rely on them as ecosystem engineers”.
Without the rabbits keeping the grasses down, the landscape so memorably brought to life by Adams might cease to exist too.