A continuing tale of life in the boonies
Save those bunnies -- hop to it!
FARMINGTON — Penguin Books’ best-selling novel of
all time, called Watership Down, is the endearing tale of a small family
of rabbits. So popular was it, back in the 1970s, that it spawned an animated
film of the same name, plus a TV series and even a theatrical production.
This was all too syrupy for some cynics, who, for shock effect, would say, “Watership Down! You’ve read the book, you’ve seen the movie, now eat the pie!”
Rabbit pie, in the British meat-rationed years of World War II and the decade following, was regarded as a delicacy by some hungry families, including mine. But even then, rabbits had their emotional supporters, as the lyrics of this wartime hit song suggest:
Run rabbit — run rabbit — Run! Run! Run!
Don’t give the farmer his Fun! Fun! Fun!
He’ll get by
Without his rabbit pie
So run rabbit — run rabbit — Run! Run! Run!
Nowadays, with chicken, pork, beef and wimpy tofu abounding in the supermarket, and rabbits largely off the menu, bunnies, as they are widely called in America, tend to evoke sympathy and tenderness in the human breast.
Thus, it may come as a surprise to many that the once abundant New England cottontail is on the verge of being wiped off the map, not because lapin au pruneaux is all the rage in restaurants, but due to its favorite hangouts being steadily replaced by subdivisions and shopping malls.
The website newenglandcottontail.org notes that “... today this unique native mammal faces possible extinction.” Boo hoo!
“The most critical threat to the cottontail is a loss of habitat — the places where rabbits can find food, rear young, and escape predators,” the website continues.
A regional technical committee now exists to try and restore the bunnies (of which there are only around 100 or so left in New Hampshire) to viable numbers, and this state’s committee member is Heidi Holman of NH Fish and Game.
That very Heidi Holman was in Farmington,
recently, at the request of Moose Mountain Regional Greenways and Farmington
Conservation Commission, and gave a talk and PowerPoint presentation to an
astonishing number of bunny lovers.
Up until 2006, hungry folks with hounds and a pot to fill would hunt New England cottontails, but now this federally endangered creature has legal protection, something ignored, though, by coyotes and red foxes, who are now the bunnies’ chief persecutors.
“New England cottontails need brush, shrubs, and densely growing young trees, habitats described by the general term young forest,” explains the cottontail website
Holman noted that in the past, such habitat was created by wildfires and beaver dams and, more recently, until it became an anathema to tree-huggers, by clearcutting.
Clearcutting is the rabbits’ savior, it seems, for just a few years after such logging, a tumult of saplings springs up, ideal for rabbits -- sorry, bunnies -- to feed, frolic and fornicate in, but too dense for coyotes and foxes to chase and eat ‘em.
Thus, in a behind-the-scenes tree-huggers vs. bunny-lovers environmental tussle, the latter seem to be coming out on top, at least in some spots.
Fish and Game, said Heidi Holman, is working with
landowners to restore the type of habitat in which the New England cottontail
can shelter from predators, raise its young, and find food in the winter.
“They need shrub land and thicket. Their food in summer is grasses and herbs and in winter, seedlings, bark, twigs and buds. A two or three acre patch may support one male,” Holman told Farmingtonians, and from the sympathetic nodding, any hitherto opponents of clearcutting were converting en masse to bunny lovers and flocking to her banner.
The goal, said Holman, is to have a minimum of 500 New England cottontails, with 1,000 being a healthy population. A breeding program has started, and she revealed that 30 rabbits may be released this year, and it will ramp up from there.
(Hunters…hang on to those hounds…I sense you are
all in this together, somehow.)
“Bellamy River Wildlife Management Area, just west of the tidal river of the same name, is the site of the largest New England cottontail habitat project on state lands in New Hampshire,” reveals the cottontail website. “As an early step in transforming this area into prime New England cottontail habitat, in the winter of 2011 loggers clearcut 30 acres of low-quality old-field pines and hardwood trees on the 428-acre property. (Hooray, cheer the bunny lovers, glaring at the tree-huggers).
At Bellamy River, habitat managers sited the
clear-cuts next to a patch of cover where cottontails already live, so that the
rabbits will spread into the new young-forest habitat and their numbers will
Holman is optimistic that private landowners will get on board with the restoration project.
“Professionals are available to help landowners,” she said, naming Fish and Game, UNH Cooperative Extension, the County Conservation District, the natural Resources Conservation Center and other entities.
There are cost share grants available, Holman
added. Not just bunnies appreciate young forest habitat, she said, trying to
broaden the appeal to taxpayers, and mentioned towhees, whippoorwills, cedar
waxwings, yellow warblers and other stuff.
During a question period, Holman said that hunting snowshoe hares, which turn white in winter, and whose range tends to be further north, is indeed still legal, but there are some restrictions on hunting Eastern cottontails — a rabbit a little larger that the New England cottontail, and with bug eyes to spot predators the sooner.
For more information, Heidi can be reached at (603) 271-3018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the expectation that the restoration program will have the New England cottontail breeding, well, like bunnies, in the coming years, the website www.bonappetit.com/ideas/
April 14, 2013
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