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Tree Rabbits

During an interesting conversation with local writer and broadcaster Richard Stone & LANDshapes author James Parry, our project coordinator Rhiannon Harte was told a story about the possible existence of a new species of rabbit, known as Tree Rabbits. Raising a sceptical eyebrow or two, Rhiannon asked for further information about this fascinating species and was given the following article. If you’re lucky enough to have spotted a Tree Rabbit in The National Forest please send us your account of the sighting to enquiries@landshapes.org
Conservationists and animal lovers throughout the country are waiting with baited breath for a new publication on a hitherto undiscovered species. The Tree Rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus arborealis, has been sighted in the Donisthorpe area in several locations including the Old Brickyard Chimney, The Willesley Lake area, The Moira Furnace Complex and the Donisthorpe Trail. The animal appears to be unique to this part of the county, inhabiting a ‘triangle of land’ bordered by these local landmarks.

Speculation as to their origin draws on the fact of the proximity of the sightings to two former mines in the South Derbyshire Coalfield at Donisthorpe and Oakthorpe. Scientists believe that the species evolved from a breeding pair of rabbits who burrowed into the coal workings at the turn of the century. Whether this happened by accident, or was a deliberate action by the pair to avoid poachers and predators can only be guessed at. Isolated from their field dwelling relatives, their high birth-rate led them on a different evolutionary path from the mainstream species. Within a few generations they were born with black pelts and a retractable claw on their forelimbs which enabled them to cling on to vertical surfaces. Their colouring acted as a ‘cloak of invisibility’ enabling them to steal food from miners’ ‘snap tins’ with impunity. When these delicacies were not available their sturdy digestive systems allowed them to gnaw at the wooden pit props of the older workings. As the subterranean population of rabbits increased it is thought that the consequent destruction of roof supports led to wide scale subsidence on the surface.

Whilst it is within the bounds of possibility that rabbits escaped from time to time and resumed the habits of surface dwellers, the first sightings correspond to the closure of Oakthorpe Colliery. Whether or not the rabbits sensed the lack of people, or the rising water levels in the workings triggered their highly developed survival mechanism, cannot be known for certain. For whatever reason, however, it is clear that they quit their underground habitat and sought a new life on the surface.

Conjecture has it that finding themselves once more at risk from predators and poachers, they found sanctuary in trees and disused high buildings. The retractable claws that they had evolved underground allowed them not only to climb, but also to cling to vertical surfaces.

The closure of Donisthorpe Colliery led to the most recent wave of sightings. Since the mine closed in 1991, local enthusiasts and researchers have pieced together information regarding this most interesting study in the science of evolution.

The following facts have been pieced together:

1: The Tree Rabbit is a separate species of rodent whose origin can be traced back to the wild European rabbit, ‘Oryctolagus cuniculuc’.

2: It is indigenous to a small triangular section of the former South Derbyshire Coalfield.

3: The natural fecundity of the species has allowed it to evolve rapidly to cater for changes in its environment within a small locality.

4: This new species is the subject of a growing body of research.

5: Local conservationists are ken to find out more about this special animal that is unique to their area.

What we know so far

Opinions and reported sightings have varied in the data they have produced. However, since 1991 the consensus of these reports is as follows:

1: Tree rabbits are masters of camouflage. They are nocturnal and their dark colouring ensures that they are least visible when at their most active. Most recorded sightings occur in bright moonlight.

2: Although there is only one reported instance of this, the source, attests that he saw an albino version clinging to a white sheet that had been left on a washing line overnight. This could perhaps be chance mutations or a further indication of Tree Rabbit adaptation.

3: Whilst the phenomenon of the Tree Rabbit appears to be confined to a small locality, there is speculation that other examples of lapine adaptation might be found throughout the globe. It is proposed that research on this can be done using the internet.

4: With the latter in mind a Tree Rabbit Association (TRA) has been formed to study this unique creature. All information will be disseminated on the soon to be formed website. In the meantime please address all email to ray@morris-chapman.freeserve.co.uk

5: Scotland may have its monster in Loch Ness, Donisthorpe now offers a rival claim to fame with the discovery of this milestone in the theory of evolution development. All well wishers to this project are invited to become a certificated member of the ‘Tree Rabbit Association’ and will receive a certificate of membership.

Author: Ray Morris-Chapman.