Serendipity and the Private Life of Rabbits

100_0379I don’t know what made me ask. Serendipity. A visiting friend had said his wife hadn’t come with him to see us because they had guests from overseas – a palaeontologist and partner.

Out popped the words, “Not Ronald Lockley’s son?”  I’d once been told that his son was a palaeontologist. It was, and he came, and we were a mutual admiration group for his father. Synchronistically I had just been re-reading his father’s autobiographical book ‘Orielton’. Mostly because I wanted to refresh my mind about rabbits!

Ronald Lockley was the brilliant naturalist who did the research on rabbits which was the basis for Richard Adams’ famous book: ‘Watership Down’. Richard Adams made millions out of this book which has never been out of print, while Ronald wrote over sixty five books to keep the wolf from his door!

But in ‘Orielton’ he tells not only how he organised his amazing research into the life and domestic habits of wild rabbits, but how he also gained an insight into rabbit psychology, when he adopted an injured baby rabbit. His son – the one who came to talk – helped to keep it alive overnight and then That Rabbit, or TR as she was called, became part of the household.

The household lived in a remote and rambling beautiful Georgian manor surrounded by parkland of lakes, woodland, farms and gardens in Wales. A succession of other famous naturalists, Spanish domestics and would-be students and helpers passed through it, and the family and its animals lived a rich and lively life. Ronald’s interests and observation ranged over the private life of the large spiders inhabiting his home, to the badgers, birds, bats, rabbits, hares, and stoats, otters, ants and bees ranging the estate. This house which had rung with laughter, music, wit and brilliance from the likes of Ronald and Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch, he finally handed over to the Field Studies Council, before leaving England.

Ronald was already well known among naturalists before he published his four year study of “The Private Life of the Rabbit”, having lived on, and written about the uninhabited island of Stokkum, off the Welsh Coast. Here  from 1928, he pioneered studies of migratory birds, established the first British bird observatory in 1933, and carried out extensive pioneering research on breeding Manx Shearwaters, Atlantic Puffins and European Storm-petrels – wonderful names… In the thirties he had made an Oscar winning film on gannets with Julian Huxley, but here at Orielton it was rabbits that took up most of his attention.

That Rabbit – TR – slept in the cat basket by the fireside, and when she was awake was “excessively playful” according to Ronald. She invented a version of hide and seek which she played on the stairs with anyone who would join in, and would chew through the string of s cotton reel Ronald used to roll around for her, seize the reel in her mouth and rush off dodging through the furniture as though playing rugby, enticing Ronald to chase her. If he was busy, she’d chew through his slippers, wreck his socks, and if all else failed, leap onto his type writer and push her face into his to get his attention.

After an unfortunate incident with a stoat, Ronald devised a system of In and Out doors which closed behind TR so the stoat couldn’t chase her inside. She learned immediately how to work this system, just as she had instantly worked out how to organise her toiletry, and never messed inside.

For afternoon tea in the garden with the rest of the family, she enjoyed weak tea with milk and a little sugar … and as time went by, Ronald realised that if he had not had this relationship with TR, he would never, as he said, have understood the soul of a rabbit. Even as an adult, TR sought out his company and showed a deep attachment to him.

The end of the story came when on one of their walks together, TR encountered a young buck rabbit… and then again. She left home and set up house with one of her own kind. But this was not the end of the story.

One night when everyone was sitting round the fire they heard the In-door, and TR came hopping through. She went straight to the cat basket, and grabbed in her teeth the dolls blanket which she used to cuddle up in, and then made a dash for the Out- door.

She had remembered as she prepared her burrow for her first litter of babies, that soft warm rug by the fire-side that she had always used!

Ronald had given me ‘Orielton’, with several others of his books, and I was such an ungrateful insensitive person in my younger days that I’d never got round to reading them. Natural history just didn’t do it for me then, and I was too wrapped up in my teenagers and complicated life generally.

I used to meet him when I was delivering my weekly column to the newspaper, and Ronald was delivering his naturalist column. (no e-mail copy then!) He had come to this country to live, because he felt that the UK was not committed to looking after the environment. We loved each other, and yet when I left Auckland to live in the country, we lost touch. It makes me sad now, Ronald was never really appreciated in this country – no-one really knew or recognised  his work back then in the seventies and eighties.

But as usual he made his mark on the place. He was involved in setting up the bird sanctuary at Miranda where every year, hundreds of thousands of godwits gather to begin their stupendous flight to the other side of the world – Siberia – to breed. He also created a little protected reserve around the house on the cliff where he lived, overlooking the sea on the edge of Auckland. I still have the book he gave me about his life in that: “House Above The Sea”, as it was called.

If fame means having an obituary in the New York Times, an entry in Wikipaedia and in various biographical tomes, Ronald does have fame. But I actually feel that the words from Ecclesiasticus describe him best: “and some there be which have no memorial…. these were merciful men, whose righteousness has not been forgotten.”

Richard Adams, who made a fortune out of Ronald’s research – which he acknowledged – said of Ronald that he was a “sensitive and clear-sighted lover of this beautiful earth.” The gentle humorous man I knew was also a lover of all beauty. He died in 2000 at ninety-six, and as I wrote this, these words came into my mind: “Swim with the dolphins deep in the sea, Soar in the sky with the birds and be free…”


Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a cake in a hurry the other day, and it was serendipitous too, because there was enough left for coffee when my expected visitors arrived the next day to talk of Ronald Lockley.

For this easy lemon cake you need 225 g each of soft butter, caster sugar and SR flour, four eggs and a lemon. Just beat the butter, sugar, eggs and grated lemon rind. When creamy, add the flour and beat gently. When blended pour into a medium sized greased and floured loaf tin and bake for fifty minutes at 160 deg C. I make a glaze of the juice of the lemon, a tablesp of caster sugar, and a teasp of butter. Melt and stir together and brush over the loaf when cooked.


Food for Thought

In a Bath Teashop

“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another –

Let us hold hands and look.”

She, such a very ordinary little woman;

He, such a thumping crook;

But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels

In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

John Betjeman  1906 -1984  Much loved and much read Poet Laureate, and eccentric. As an under-graduate he took his teddy-bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore to Oxford with him, which was immortalised in the book: ‘ Brideshead Revisited’  by Evelyn Waugh.








Filed under animals/pets, birds, books, cookery/recipes, environment, great days, life/style, poetry, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, wild life

64 responses to “Serendipity and the Private Life of Rabbits

  1. Serendipitous, indeed, Valarie. What a lovely story about TR. Ronald had the naturalist’s soul and listened to their heat beat. By the way, I do hope your sore mouth has healed and the dentistry is over.


    • Lynne, so glad you enjoyed the story about the little rabbit- who taught Ronald, and so all of us, so much about the soul of a rabbit!
      Thank you for so kindly remembering my dentists’ dramas! I’m trying not to think about it, but since the pain is there all the time, I’m going to have to go back again on Monday to endure him crashing around my tender jaw again !!!


  2. Valerie, you keep my mind so well nourished. I love these serendipitous stories of rabbits and writers and marvellous people you know.


  3. Thank you Gallivanta ( do you prefer that to using your own beautiful name?) So glad you found it interesting… I always wonder if I’m not just indulging myself !!!


  4. Pingback: ……..And They Sneak in Behind You…. | barsetshirediaries

  5. Anonymous

    I have just sat down from a busy day at work and I found myself riveted by your gorgeous rabbit story, I could see it all happening as I read with a real warmth flooding through me, and to finish off I could almost taste the delicious lemon cake , thank you for 5 minutes of shear pleasure.


  6. Valerie, I’ve been in Bath and I have seen the ‘John Betjeman’ couples (also elsewhere in England). You have to visit a pinkish teashop with floral wallpaper, and see who is served tea with scones and marmalade; most couples will fall still for a while and some of them are too old to start up the conversation again. Utterly sweet.


  7. Full of fascinating facts! I hadn’t registered that Watership Down had more than an active imagination at the base of bunny behaviour.
    TR blows my theory that rabbits are too dim-witted to be pets, and therefore are the ideal prey for carnivores and food source for humans.


  8. Sorry to have disturbed your peace of mind!!!
    But glad you found the facts interesting, good to hear from you.


  9. Love the rabbit story!


  10. What a great story, fabulous man and amazing rabbit! 🙂


  11. Luanne

    Ah, Valerie, what a wonderful story of a wonderful man and a charming rabbit. We have a lot of rabbits on our property, and at this time of year they are particularly active and act quite tame. I will always now think of that cat-doll blanket going out to the nest. It’s time people realized that rabbits and other wild animals are smart and have memories. Do you know of Koko the gorilla who uses sign language? The gorilla who lived with her who passed away–Michael–used sign language to tell of how his mother was killed by poachers several years after her death. It’s so wonderful to know of another beautiful human who lived on our planet.


    • Luanne, lovely to read your comment and know that you enjoyed that little treasure, TR… yes, the doll’s blanket always gets to me… there’s such a wealth of meaning behind that action, isn’t there?…,
      , I’ve heard of Koko…and find it quite hard to read about her.. it’s unbearable to know that such acute intelligences suffer such pain at our hands… but also wonderful to know how many people do care these days…
      I envy you your rabbits…!!


  12. I love that story about TR. Rabbits are obviously a lot smarter than I thought! And I think it’s adorable that she drank tea! I admit I had never heard of Ronald Lockley until your post, Valerie. He sounds like such an interesting man. It’s a shame that only Richard Adams reaped the financial rewards from all that work.

    My recipe for lemon cake is very much like yours–a slice of that cake is perfect with a cup of tea, isn’t it??


    • Hello Madame… yes, the idea of her enjoying afternoon tea on the lawn really appealed to me… weak please, with a little milk, and two sugars!!!
      So glad you enjoyed the blog… Ronald was a lovely man…
      you’re right about the lemon cake with a nice cup of tea!!!


  13. I too relive all the living things in our world have souls and minds and memories…it is the humans that are blind to such thoughts. I loved this post, as I love all your posts! Since we can’t sit down to a cup of tea and a visit then I cherish my time here.



    • Hello dear Linda, I knew this story would definitely be your cup of tea!!!
      When I sit down to my next cuppa, I will think of you, and know that the conversation goes on, regardless of distance.. XXX


  14. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

    I have been watering, weeding and cleaning the geese swimming pools, I have 3 small fawns that came to eat with me this morning, kittens running around….*sigh* and after a shower, I sat down to catch up…your rabbit story is wonderful! made me want one….LOLs…
    I always enjoy your post Valerie….Thank you for sharing another great one
    (and I will have to check out your friend/authors’ writings…)
    Take Care…


  15. There is so much that I want to say every time I read one of your posts!

    I love the story of the rabbit, especially dashing in to get the blanket for her own little ones! Ronald sounds like such a lovely man and Hardy’s poem ‘Afterwards’ comes to mind, especially the line
    ‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?

    and the verse:
    ‘If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
    When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
    One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
    But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’

    A beautiful poem for a beautiful man.

    I love John Betjeman too – and your cake sounds delicious. 🙂


    • Sally, I was blown away by the beauty of your comments, and what an exquisite poem from Thomas Hardy, one of my favourite writers and poets.

      I would love to have been one of your students to have my eyes opened to language and literature and the beauty of all things, by you.

      ‘Your beautiful things’ paint a thousand words, but I really value your words too..
      Yes, John Betjeman was delicious too, wasn’t he… have you been to his last home in Cornwall… is it open???


  16. REading one of your blogs always means a time of total concentration and enjoyment. You are a born story teller and a gifted writer; I’m so glad you came back to blogging.


  17. Dear Ronnie, lovely to hear from you., and so glad you enjoyed the story. Thank you for the lovely things you say, our connections with each other (and the creatures) are so precious…


  18. elisaruland

    Oh the rabbits! They treat our landscaping as though it were a banquet of favorite foods, but after all the destruction, I’d still be thrilled to share a blanket with them by the fire.


  19. Michele Seminara

    Delightful Valerie! We are lucky to have you. Take care


  20. What a funny and indeed bit of serendipidy. This morning as I sat with a cup of coffee and a book on Katherine Hepburn (one of my great loves) my alpha cat set up a great howling at the window. I glanced up, mainly to ask him to quiet down only to discover two wild rabbits on my back porch, resting and perhaps teasing.

    What a wonderful story Valerie.


    • Hello Val, I call that synchronicity to have been reading about rabbits, and look up and see a couple on your porch – lucky you !!! We don’t have any round here, and so not problem with lettuce’s in the garden !
      Glad you enjoyed it, good friend ….


  21. Richard’s words about Ronald are beautiful. The bird sanctuary sounds lovely and you must miss him.


  22. Dear Valerie,

    That rabbit story is so sweet and something I needed to savor and enjoy this evening. I envisioned her fluffing the blanket for her little ones. I find myself smiling at the picture in my mind. Thank you for putting it there.




  23. Hello Rochelle,
    How lovely to have made contact… I’ve followed you from afar, as it were!
    So glad you enjoyed the rabbit story – adorable, isn;t it !!


    • Dear Valerie,

      I’m warmed and honored by the fact that you’ve followed me from afar. A precious mutual friend has expounded many times on his admiration for you. I, too, am happy to have made contact at last.


      • Dear Rochelle,
        I think I can guess the beautiful person who is a mutual friend… so good to be connected…Valerie


      • Dear Valerie,

        If the friend in question lives in Hawaii then we’re talking about the same person. I “found” him through Friday Fictioneers and then through Facebook. A shared passion for writing connected us and has led me to one of my most cherished friendships.

        (I’ve let him know we’re talking behind his back. 😉 )


      • Good morning Rochelle,
        Wouldn’t it have been awful if I’d been referring to someone else, and it wasn’t who you’ve told at all!!!

        Do let him know that he can catch up on the correspondence in the comments on these pages if he’s curious !!


      • And a good morning from my end of the world to you, Valerie,

        I’ve kept Doug abreast of our connection. He’s quite pleased, I might add. It’s apparent that he holds the utmost admiration and affection for you.


  24. I do agree that reading your essays is nourishment for my mind and my soul, how wonderful that you knew this glorious man and have some of his writing with you. Glorious stories of his rabbit. It does not surprise me at all that he established a sanctuary around his house in Auckland, is it still there? What a stunning connection. Have a lovely day and stay warm, i hear it is very cold at this time!


  25. Hello Celi, how lovely to hear from you.. it always makes my day to hear from you when I know you’re so very busy… piggle-lets an hay an’ all….
    Yes, the reserve is still around his old house in Glendowie, and the sanctuary at Miranda has become a place of pilgrimage for twitchers ( bird watchers) especially on various dates in March and April when the godwits gather in their millions to take off together… i promise myself that one day I’m going to get there to see this miracle, as they all rise in the air… can you imagine the sound of the whirring of wings????…I think I’d cry my eyes out as they headed off and faded into the dim horizon…
    I’m so glad you enjoy my blog the way you do, because yours does the same for me- gives me a dose of joy and beauty every morning…
    Yes, it’s freezing, and the fire is piled with pine logs…Love from Leigh XXXX


  26. Oh Valerie, this is exactly what I have been feeling over the last few weeks. What a marvelous legacy Ronald Lockley gave to our world. I have already ordered one of his books through the Vancouver Public Library. You have given me some food for thought that I will be mulling over. It really speaks to the value of human effort and engagement within our world. We measure value mostly via monetary means, however that it so limiting, so shallow. As I read your post, I immediately thought of Fahrenheit 451.

    “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies . . . Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die . . . It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”
    ― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


  27. Oh Rebecca, what a beautiful comment… and I loved the words of Ray Bradbury…which underlines for me that all matter is spiritual, and we are all part of that spiritual connection.;.. and thinking as he describes makes everything we do, think and feel, so meaningful, and sacred…
    Thank you so much for your messages from across the world !!..


  28. I can just picture that little rabbit coming in to steal the blanket! What a delightful illustrated tale that would make 🙂


  29. Sandy

    I love your posts! thanks ❤


  30. My dear friend, Thank you for visiting often and leaving inspirational comments on my blog. It really means a lot to me. Please accept The Loyal Reader Award!


  31. Dear Valerie,

    You weave worlds into your words like the honeysuckle vine weaves its blossoms into a summer’s day. So beautiful.

    You and I are going to have a chat in person one day. i’ll send you a note when I’m in town. (Not stalking. Just an ardent admirer of stellar writing born of careful observation. You are a masterful writer.



    P.S. I could not be more delighted to note that you and my dear friend Rochelle have struck up a conversation. Kia ora. D.


    • Dear Doug,
      You are a magic weaver of words yourself, What a beautiful sentence that only you could have written..Thank you, thank you.
      I would simply love to see you when you come this way – no, the word stalker would never enter my head – I already have my very own mad malevolent one, who’s caused untold grief and mischief in my life ever since I began blogging – one of my nettles !!!
      Yes, isn’t it fun the way friendships ricochet around this wonderful world of blogging – I’m looking forward to knowing more of Rochelle…
      With love, Valerie


  32. This touches me deeply, Valerie, for many reasons…some read between the lines. You broaden my world and I love every word of it!

    And now I have to wrestle the conflict with regard to rabbits overpopulating our small island, decimating our veggie gardens and mainly having cats as natural predators. Oh, my heartbreak when Duc brings home yet another baby… Now? There will be Ronald Lockley delivering conscience.


  33. Hello Amy – ;lovely to hear from you – yes, I know what you mean about living cheek by jowl with the little darlings ! Beatrix Potter never goes away… Mr McGregor and Peter Rabbit are eternal symbols of rabbits versus lettuce !!!


  34. Amy

    Thanks you so much for introducing Ronald Lockley. I’m sorry to hear you are still dealing with dental pain…


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