See all stories
28 Feb 2023

Crathes Garden blog #22: 1066 and all those rabbits

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate and author of Notes from Crathes blog
A rabbit peeks out of a hole in the ground.
Image: NTS Photo Library
Our expert garden guide has been sharing a blog offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what the team are working on in the garden at Crathes. This month, she talks about how rabbits are causing significant problems in the walled garden.

Problems regarding invasive species is a recurring theme at Crathes and the recent works on the entrance building (with its alternative access), the Rose Garden (with a temporary hole in the wall), and the current replacement of the Croquet Lawn wall have created openings for one of the most opportunistic of mammals: rabbits. The yew hedges provide ideal hiding places during the day. When night falls, the growing rabbit population emerges to feast on a buffet of impressive proportions. Last year, much of the annual bedding suffered and just now they are enjoying a banquet of tulips; almost all of the hundreds of bulbs, carefully planted by Steve in autumn 2020, have been dug up and eaten.

Rabbits have, for centuries, been a world-wide problem, causing massive damage to ecosystems and economies from Australia to Argentina. We may be delighted by the adventures of Peter Rabbit and Watership Down when we read to our children, but the reality is far harsher. The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) can breed throughout the year and produce up to 12 young in each litter. It’s time to take Mr McGregor’s approach in the walled garden, but first the walls have to be secure.

The Romans are known to have bred and eaten rabbits, which are native to northern and central Europe, but there is no evidence that rabbits were feral in Roman Britain. It seems likely that we can blame the Normans for their arrival. In medieval times, grand estates built enclosed sandy mounds called warrens to encourage rabbits to breed, thus providing fur and food for the household. In Scotland, royal warrens were protected from poaching on pain of death in the reign of Alexander II (1214–49), but it seems to have been some centuries before rabbits became troublesome.

At Crathes we can see from the household accounts of November 1697 that ‘rabbetts’ were sometimes on the menu. A ‘cupple of Rabbitts’ cost eightpence on ‘Satterday’ 13 November and later in the same week ‘3 rabbetts’ cost a shilling (all items seem to be costed, even if supplied from the home farm). Whether the name Warren Field is an old name is not clear. This field (where the Highland cattle browse today) is not named on the 1838 estate map; if warrens were built there, no remains are visible today.

By 1827 game books record the shooting on the whole of the Leys estate – at that time including parts of the Hill of Fare and Trustach, west of Banchory. In the 1827–28 season 282 rabbits were killed compared with 194 grouse, 474 partridge and 1 pheasant. In the 1840–41 season the tallies were: 1,392 grouse, 13 snipe, 22 woodcock, 59 wildfowl, 100 hares and 1,516 rabbits – with the beagle taking 2 red deer, 28 roe and 2 black grouse.

Rabbits were always recorded as game, but seem to have been regarded as a nuisance by December 1864 when Sir James Horn Burnett (10th Baronet of Leys), Thomas Burnett (his son) and Robert Rintoul (the gamekeeper) shot 50 rabbits at Rockheads (Caroline’s Garden) on the eighth of the month. Helped by J Adams and J Davidson, the next week they got 41 more rabbits and a fox in Rockheads and nearby Milton Wood. 141 rabbits were killed that week on the Crathes estate. [1] In the 1914–15 season, when many men were away fighting in the First World War, the keepers shot 4,326 rabbits, but they were still recorded as game. The vermin for that year were listed as: 626 squirrels (133 at Cairnton), 105 stoats and weasels, 8 hawks and 7 magpies – some of these ‘vermin’ would have helped to keep the rabbit numbers under control. An entry in 1928 states ‘Rabbits were allowed to get completely out of hand while Sir James was in China’.

A rabbit sits side-on to the camera, among green grass. Its long ears are straight up.
Rabbit | Image: Laurie Campbell

Rabbits were ‘completely out of hand’ all over Britain by this time – it was estimated there were 60–100 million rabbits in Britain by the 1950s. [2] However, in the 1950s the horrific disease of myxomatosis, spreading from France, caused a dramatic reduction in population numbers. It has been illegal in Britain, since 1954, to introduce this disease, but it has been used in other countries to control rabbits. Because of this disease the IUCN now classifies the rabbit as ‘near threatened’. When myxomatosis was at its peak, some areas really suffered, such as the South Downs on the south coast of England, with grasses crowding out rare flowers, thus putting at risk some insects that were dependent on these flowers. Rabbits have become an important part of some British ecosystems.

As I write, the rabbits have free reign in the walled garden at Crathes because of the repairs to the Croquet Lawn wall. The wall was slowly falling over; although it looks substantial, it has little in the way of foundations. Contractors have been brought in to make the repair, which necessitates another hole being made in the wall to give access for a small digger. Once the wall is complete and all the gaps in the Woodland Garden are dealt with, pest control will be called in. It is not a pleasant thought, but without control the garden would be devastated. Outside the wall, the rabbits are left to their own devices, where they provide food for buzzards, foxes and other wildlife.

A small digger is parked beside a stone garden wall in front of Crathes Castle. The wall is very low, but is being rebuilt.
The wall to the north of the yew topiaries was dangerous and had to be repaired.

James and Steve have been planting Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) on the west border of the Rose Garden. This border, once hidden under the hedge but exposed since the cutback of yew about 20 years ago, has been a problem area for some time. The plastic weed barrier has now been removed and the lilies have been planted along with camassias. Both are toxic to rabbits and should therefore be safe from nibbling. James is hoping that the bulbs might naturalise. They have been given a good start, with a handful of bonemeal added to each planting hole.

The Dee salmon season started on 1 February, and the chat in the bothy turned from rabbits to the dearth of fish in the river. Some of the ghillies think they won’t have a job for much longer. The recent floods shifted large amounts of sand and gravel, which may not have helped the situation. However, I heard a programme on the radio about the continuing management of the Beltie Burn, which gives a little hope. Some of the large trees, including their roots, that fell in Storm Arwen are now being placed in the Dee tributaries to provide shelter for the young salmon. Along with the initial re-meandering of the Beltie Burn, and the tree planting which will help keep the burn cool in summer, this may help to revive the prospects of this important keystone species (see The Cycles of Life). It was reported that 700 fallen trees have been added to the Dee river system in this project. Another hopeful sign for our ecosystems is an advert for a beaver project manager in the Cairngorms National Park.

A view of a grassy field with rolling hills behind, and a small burn meandering through it.
The Beltie Burn

Back in the garden Andy is pleased to be able to get on with pruning. Mike and Steve have been tackling the roses. When the arbutus fell in Storm Arwen, the trellis was broken. They are using wires to support the Madame Alfred Carrière – a vigorous white/pale pink rose.

Dave (one of our volunteers) has been working hard on the tree labelling. He is now considering all the champion trees designated by the Tree Register of the British Isles (TROBI). Look out for the blue labels which tell you that it is a champion tree for either the whole of Britain and Ireland, or for Scotland (denoted by ‘Country’), or for Aberdeenshire (denoted by ‘County’).

In the glasshouses Joanna has been dealing with another pest: a root mealybug (fortunately not the invasive golden root one). The bug is getting into the succulent roots and is thought to have spread by means of the capillary matting that enables easy watering. Soft soap is used to reduce the mealy bug, and all the pots have been given an individual saucer so that each plant is isolated from its neighbour. The capillary matting has been replaced by sand, which has been sprayed with a natural citrus disinfectant.

The hyacinth bulbs which were overwintered in the boiler room below glasshouse six were flooded in the January floods, but have survived.

Whilst there seems to be an overload of problems just now, there is lots of promise for the coming season. Weeding is going well, with volunteers Judy and Gill tackling the thale cress (a hangover from lockdown days), and Kiran and Jenny tidying up the Trough Garden.

There are signs of spring everywhere: the birds are suddenly singing with new purpose; woodpeckers are drumming; snowdrops are plentiful; the rangers report lots of squirrel activity on the trails; the older hazels are covered in catkins, and those planted in 2020 are also doing well. After a winter of hard work in the garden, it’s time to celebrate nature’s yearly renewal.

A close-up of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ in the Trough Garden at Crathes Castle. The shrub is covered in pink buds.


  • The lily of the valley have flowered successfully. The smell really is exquisite, but is more elusive than the paperwhite narcissi.
  • In the Rose Garden the gardeners have been working hard placing the outer edges, made by a local blacksmith. There is still some work to be done on the paths. The central sculpture is to be lifted into the garden by crane sometime in March. The rabbits will not eat the roses, but much of the planting will have to wait until the rabbits are gone.

[1] University of Aberdeen Special Collections, AU/MS/3361/4/ 67 and 68

[2] Christopher Lever, The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles, Hutchinson, 1977

Explore Crathes Castle

Visit now