Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Industrial Revolution Rabbits

The navvies that dug canals, hewed coal and generally powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution with elbow grease had an awesome reputation.  They each excavated an average of 20 tons of earth a day, just using picks and shovels.  Human endeavours are often mirrored in nature if we care to look, and one such smacks us in the face at Draycote Reservoir.
On the occasion of Nuneaton Birdclub’s Christmas walk there we were introduced to the amazing power of rabbits.  Rabbits can reputedly dig at a rate of up to two metres an hour, but at Draycote it is not the speed but the substrate that is impressive.  The bank at Draycote was clearly built of rubble topped with good stone hardcore, and finished with turf.  Presumably not the easiest place for rabbits to dig, but look at the pictures below.  Great mounds of stones lie like cairns around burrow entrances all along the bank.  It almost defies belief that two of those wee lucky charms some people have on their keyrings were all that were used in making these mounds.  The hole size, proximity of each, and the tell-tale piles of rabbit raisin droppings on each one reveal their makers identity though - Oryctolagus cuniculus, the humble rabbit. 
There is the adage about if a flea was the size of a human it could jump over a house.  Well looking at these rabbit cairns I wonder if a rabbit was the size of a human what could it do.  Shifting twenty tons of earth a day, without sissy picks and shovels, would be just the start of it.  I imagine a few human sized rabbits, fuelled with sufficient carrots, could have blasted out the Grand Union Canal in a couple of days – the hard part might have been getting them to stop!
Anyway, it continued to be a day of surprises with the birdwatching.  The first was that the ticket machine had broken down, so we were forced to keep our £2.50.  Our second surprise surfaced in front of us along the bank in the shape of a fine male smew.  Its black and white plumage made it look like a sort of water skunk as it dived repeatedly, smoothing all its feathers back.  I almost regretted year-ticking a redhead two weeks earlier as the male really is one of our most striking birds.
There was not a high species count but high counts of some species.  It was a coot-lovers paradise, and I counted 512 altogether.  There were also 278 tufted ducks, and a very pleasing 164 lapwings.  My favourite spot , and third surprise of the day though was a bird numbering only one.  On the boardwalk I heard a pig squealing, and then remembered that Draycote doesn’t have pigs roaming about, and so that this was surely a water rail.  Homing in on the noise I caught movement in the reeds but was disappointed to see a moorhen reveal itself.  Then it ran at another bird and I got a classic glimpse of a water rail, a thin bird with long blood-red bill darting between reeds and it was gone!  Bob Wale appeared and I whispered what I had seen.  We both looked for about 10 minutes and enjoyed some cracking views …of the moorhen!  Then moving around some scrub and looking back we were almost about to give up when it squealed again.  This time we both had a brief good view as it sprinted back into deep cover.
After circumnavigating the reservoir, a tidy walk of 5 miles, we sprinted into deep cover too, the lounge of the Bull Inn at Brinklow for a feed and a pint.  A fine end to the day, and out of respect for their impressive stone-shifting endeavours everyone resisted ordering the rabbit pie!  
Stone creations by Isambard Kingdom Bunny...

...and Thomas Thumper Telford
Rabbit raisins, and the odd sultana

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