Walking in Glamorgan, South Wales. Guided walks, routes &
Last updated 30.3.10
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Rabbit Warrens and Pillow Mounds
Near Ystradfellte, the clear rectangular shape of a rabbit warren or pillow mound, set on a sloping hillside
What do the following have in common - Merthyr Mawr Warren, Coney Beach and Pillow Mounds? The answer is that they are all linked to rabbits. A warren describes an area where rabbits live in burrows. Coney is the original English word for a rabbit, and Pillow Mounds refer to areas where rabbits were kept as a source of food and clothing. The Dovecot or Columbarium section of Bygones describes how pigeons were used as food by our ancestors. Another important food source was the humble rabbit and you will come across relics of rabbit-farming on many of the walks in South Wales. Better still, you can even see some structures consisting of walls and pits along with the more common humps and bumps on the ground.
Unlike the hare, the rabbit is not a native species to Britain. The first evidence for it here is in Roman times where it is believed to have been brought in from the Mediterranean as a domestic animal but probably did not survive the departure of the Romans. The Norman invasion many centuries later saw rabbits introduced on a large scale and by the twelfth century there are documented references to farmed rabbits from different parts of Britain.
In the Middle Ages the rabbit was considered a valuable food source. The female rabbit or doe can give birth up to 6 times a year producing between 6 and 8 offspring on each occasion. The young would be independent in 6 weeks. So prized was their meat that in the 13th century a single rabbit was worth more than a labourer would be paid for a day's work. The fur was also used for trimming clothes and as late as the 20th century for hat-making. From being a delicacy for the rich, by the 18th century rabbit was a food for the poor and rabbit warrens were starting to be abandoned although they could still be found in East Anglia and the Welsh hills well into the 20th century. In the 1930s there were about 50 million rabbits in the wild in Britain but the introduction of myxomatosis killed around 99% of them. originally the rabbit was described as a 'coney' and the word 'rabbit' referred to the young. Many placenames contain 'coney' as part of the word such as Coney Beach at Porthcawl.
The rabbit dislikes damp conditions preferring dry, sandy or peaty soils. They need little water to drink and can cope well on land that has limited agricultural value. Rabbits were kept in special areas which provided them with cover but were walled to prevent them escaping. A warren would be constructed initially with a series of channels, usually capped with stones and earth was then piled over the top. Once introduced, rabbits would then add their own tunnels to the existing ones.
Although these sites confused archaeologists for some years it was eventually concluded that these mounds and hollows in the landscape were used for rabbits. They are referred to as 'pillow mounds' although the shape of many is more like an old-fashioned bolster. There are around 2,000 pillow mounds in Britain and you can find them clearly marked on OS maps all over South Wales. These might be anything from 9 to 200 metres long. many of the earliest ones are to be found in the sandy coastal areas such as Merthyr Mawr and Pennard although offshore islands were also well-used. Later they were introduced to private estates such as at Ewenny.
On the left, a typical rectangular shape of a hillside warren. On right, the deep stone-lined pit that distinguishes it from being a sheep-fold
Whilst most of the examples of pillow mounds in South Wales just reveal themselves as bumps on the ground, if you walk on the upper moorland areas you may well come across warrens where the walls are still standing. The area around Ystradfellte is a case in point. There are around 90 here spread over 1,700 acres and dating from around the 1820s - much later than the mediaeval warrens of the Glamorgan coast. But why here? Rabbit warrens made good use of land that was of poor agricultural use and there is a good supply of heather and gorse for the rabbits to feed on. Note also that most of the warrens are on sloping ground which ensured that it was well-drained. Most walkers would take the tennis-court shaped and dry-stone wall constructed features to be sheep-folds but the walls have no gaps for gates or hurdles which would have allowed the farmer to get his sheep in and out. The other distinguishing feature of rabbit warrens is that there will be a deep pit within the enclosure that is lined with stones. When it was time to cull the rabbits, dogs and/or ferrets would be sent down the tunnels and the rabbits would bolt into the pit where they could be more easily caught and killed.
A Google Earth image showing a pillow mound near Ystradfellte. Look around Grid ref: SN 903152 and you will see several pillow mounds on OS maps and rectangles on Google Earth.
So the history of the rabbit in Britain has seen it shift from being an introduced and semi-domesticated animal kept in enclosures to the ubiquitous wild species we have today as it adapted over many years to the damper and colder climate of Britain. Most rabbits you see in the countryside are of the normal grey variety but in the past a black-coloured rabbit was also kept and prized for its fur which was used for trimming clothes as was a silver-grey or silver-blue version. You may still see descendants of these in the wild today.
CONEY - Original English name for a rabbit, derived from the Latin cuniculus
MYXOMATOSIS - Virus from South America, introduced to Europe deliberately to reduce rabbit populations, then spreading to Britain and wiping out 99% of the country's rabbits
PILLOW MOUND - Term used by archaeologists to describe the structures in which rabbits were kept.
RABBIT - Oryctolagus cuniculus - the rabbit. Originally used to describe a young rabbit, later to cover all ages.
WARREN - Originally a term used to for land where any game could be taken; later for an area where rabbits were kept commercially and later still for any area where rabbits, domesticated or wild had their burrows.
WARRENER - One who looked after the rabbits or one who managed a rabbit-farming enterprise.
Rabbits, warrens and archaeology by Tom Williamson. This includes an extensive bibliography.
For coverage specific to Wales see articles published by the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales.