Country diary: rabbits pose for a classic Easter scene

Langstone, Hampshire: Rabbits may be seen as symbols of fertility, but they are also linked to the idea of the immaculate conception

It’s one of those tranquil early spring evenings, the sky blushing pink as the egg-yolk yellow sun begins to slip below the horizon. Standing on the bridge that spans the Langbrook stream, I watch a pair of courting mute swans, the territorial cob raising his wings in full sail, as he busks an encroaching drake mallard, driving it upstream. In the thicket, two duelling song thrushes are in full voice.

In a matter of weeks, the bones of the landscape will be clothed in verdant green leaves, but today the bare branches are covered with greenfinches. As I watch the chattering, 53-strong flock take flight, I hear scuffling in the hedgerow on the opposite bank – my eye is drawn to a flash of white tail, glimpsed low through the tangle of brambles.

The hedge encloses a field, the entrance blocked by a five-bar gate. Leaning over the top rail, I scan with my binoculars. A plump of moorhens are grazing on the recently mown grass, while two rabbits forage beneath the primrose-studded bank. They pose next to a clump of daffodils, their backlit ears aglow in the golden light – it’s the quintessential Easter tableau.

The folkloric character of the Easter bunny, or Osterhase, was first mentioned in a German publication during the 1500s, but the true identity of the mythical egg-laying lagomorph has been lost in translation, as hase means hare, not rabbit.

Both species are associated with Ēostre, the pagan goddess of spring, and are viewed as symbols of fertility and prolific copulation.

Conversely, rabbits are also associated with virgin birth – for example, in Titian’s Madonna of the Rabbit, where the presence of the animal is an allusion to Mary’s virginity and the immaculate conception – though it is the hare, rather than the rabbit, that is capable of superfetation, conceiving a second litter before the first has been delivered.

Rabbits may be renowned for their fecundity, but this warren is far less populous than it once was, so I’m delighted when there’s more rustling of movement through the undergrowth, and a kit bounds into view. Turning towards me, the youngster stops and stands up on its hind legs, nose twitching as it scents the air.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Claire Stares

The GuardianTramp

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