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Season puts a spring in our step... and that of rabbits

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Rabbit - serious agricultural pest

Rabbit - serious agricultural pest

Rabbit - serious agricultural pest

The flashes of bright, fresh, warm weather of the past few weeks surely show spring has finally sprung. What a lovely time of the year. As an old man I met one morning last week said: "It'd make you glad you didn't die over the winter."

The natural world is bursting back into action, confirmation that the cycle of life continues. The days are getting longer and colour is creeping back into the vegetation. Smiles of salutation spread readily across the faces of strangers. Fertiliser spreaders, which have been in hibernation since September, are back on the country's roads and stock are being returned to the fields.

Irish is a beautiful language in many ways and one is how it has words for common traits or behaviours, such 'citóg', which is far more appealing than the rambling left-handed person, and 'macnas', the madness of a young cow, set free into the field in spring.

Like the butterfly's escape from a net, the cattle are ecstatic. But they are so excited, they don't know quite what to do; grass or gallop, eat or stretch their legs. They love both. Blinded by sunlight and tanked with excitement, they want to do it all at once.

They are not really hungry, but this is grass after all. And it's not just any grass - it's the first grass of the year and truly the sweetest. But look at all the open space, as far as the eye can see. They could run and jump and buck and maybe even jive. Oh, such joy!

Sarah has been checking the soil temperature regularly since Christmas, when it was 6°C. At one point it hit -1°C. It is just now starting to settle above 7°C, when grass growth should take off in earnest. So it's a later year than others.

Hopefully, this week will bring the start of the great annual release, as the only stock we have out yet are those close to the yards, who can walk to the fields and, by the time they get there, a fair bit of their madness has worn off.

Speaking of madness, this word is sometimes used in connection with the hare, as in 'as mad as a March hare'. This refers to strange and excited behaviour of hares this time of year during the breeding season and includes boxing at other hares and jumping vertically for no apparent reason.

But whatever about the behaviour of hares, I think it would be fair to say we are the ones who are hopping mad this spring, due to the proliferation of rabbits, so much so that we are thinking of coining our own phrase, 'as plentiful as March bunnies'.

Rabbits were brought to Ireland by the Normans, for sport, food and fur. Very few go down any of these routes nowadays, so they are flourishing.

The introduction of the myxomatosis led to a sharp reduction in numbers from the 1950s on, but increasing resistance to the disease, lack of natural predators and a fabled capacity for reproduction - one doe produces an average 24 offspring a year - are contributing to their current resurgence.

There are rabbits - black as well as brown - and rabbit holes everywhere. In the corner of a field in which we often walk, there are so many holes in the bank under the hedge and in the surrounding ground that it resembles a giant Emmental cheese.

It is ironic that an animal that's so cute and cuddly when they're little, like Peter Rabbit and his equally endearingly named siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton Tail, is such a real and serious agricultural pest.

Because, while cartoon character Bugs Bunny always only seemed to eat carrots, any farmer or gardener will readily confirm that real rabbits are far less discriminating. All vegetation is fair game. They graze systematically from the burrows outwards. There isn't much grass about, but there is an even barer strip around the headlands. I read somewhere that seven rabbits eat as much as one sheep.

As for the dear dog, the rabbits have become so used to him and, in particular, so used to his particular lack of rabbit-catching skills, that you can almost see them sit back on their haunches, touch their nose with one digit while wriggling the others and say "Nah, na, na, nah, na". A bit like singer Michael Jackson's claim of being more a lover than a fighter, our Timmy is more a scatterer than a grabber.

It may seem a bit curious today but a rabbit's foot has long been considered lucky in much of the world. In many cases, it is only the left foot which is considered lucky. Indeed, one tradition is that they're only lucky when taken from a cross-eyed rabbit in a graveyard, on the night of a full moon, shot with a silver bullet. Pardon the mixed metaphor but if you manage to line up all those ducks, you don't need a rabbit's foot.

However, whatever about the rabbits, they are like four-leaved clovers compared to starlings, or Sturnus Vulgaris, a thrush-sized bird which is common here year-round, but in winter, they are joined by huge numbers of migrant birds from Europe.

Now these are primarily invertebrate eaters and, as such, have a beneficial role for agriculture. But at some point, they realised they enjoy a bite, or maybe more, of ruminant feed, especially the likes of (the most expensive) maize meal.

But, away from the yard, at a distance and at dusk - that's when they form huge flocks or murmurations, as they are correctly and alluringly called.

They form impressive nattering roosts on every inch of branch on bare deciduous trees. But it is when they take to the air in these numbers that they create one of the nature's most extraordinary sights - giant moving dark clouds, constantly changing in shape, as individual birds soar, spin and sweep with amazing speed, skill and grace. What makes possible the co-ordination of this magical aerial ballet?

This flight pattern is apparently to protect themselves from predators. But, given the shortage of same in this area, except for the neighbourhood buzzard that has more than enough on his plate with the rabbits, I wonder whether there might be an element of doing it just for fun.

Indo Farming