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Watership Down | Context

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The Real Watership Down

Richard Adams used details from his own life to develop the story in Watership Down, including the settings, which are located in West Berkshire and Hampshire counties, in England. Sandleford Park, where the rabbits' original warren is located in the novel, is a park near Newbury in West Berkshire County; Adams grew up exploring the park and its surroundings. In a reality-follows-fiction twist of fate, Adams ended up having to fight alongside residents of Newbury against a housing development slated to be placed in Sandleford Park next to his childhood village of Wash Common. Development is the reason for Adams's fictional rabbits having to flee Sandleford and find a new home.

Watership Down is located in Hampshire County, south of West Berkshire County in England. The area includes a walking path through the down and past Nuthanger Farm, also a real place and the scene of the hutch rabbits' escape to join Hazel's warren. Part of the draw for tourists, in addition to seeing the places that are featured in the novel, is the fact that rabbits still live there and can be spotted along the walk.

The Lives of European Rabbits

Richard Adams credited the influence of English writer Rudyard Kipling for his technique of writing in the voice of animals while retaining their natural behaviors, including fighting for dominance, digging warrens, mating, eating, and even defecating. Adams used Welsh naturalist R.M. Lockley's scientific study The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964) to get correct the details of the European rabbit's life cycle, behaviors, and habitat in Watership Down.

The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is considered an invasive pest in some areas, such as Australia. The rabbits' grazing habits and ability to reproduce rapidly have destroyed native plants in many areas. This destruction encourages harmful nonnative plants to take over. The presence of such a large rabbit population might also bring in a predator population that endangers other small, less problematic species. Introducing any animal outside its natural habitat can have detrimental effects on the biodiversity (variety of plants and animals in an area), and the European rabbit is an example of this phenomenon.

However, the European rabbit's habitat within its natural range in western Europe continues to be reduced. This type of rabbit is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Its population has decreased by 95 percent since 1950. The decrease in habitat is the crisis that begins the story of Watership Down, when the rabbits' original warren in Sandleford Park is gassed and then bulldozed for a new housing development.

Habitat, Territorial Behavior, and Mating Rights

European rabbits dig their warrens in soft soil, but if possible, they prefer to occupy abandoned warrens to avoid having to dig new ones. The rabbits in Watership Down take shelter in abandoned warrens where they can. Rabbits are also territorial animals and tend not to have more than 20 adults at a time in any given colony. They will disperse if overcrowding becomes a problem, just as Hazel encourages the rabbits of Efrafa to do. Rabbit colonies live near grassy areas but also require scrub or forest nearby to hide themselves from predators. Over 40 species in their natural habitat feed on rabbits as part of their diets. In Watership Down a number of predators are noted, such as the fox and the stoat.

Warrens serve as breeding and nesting areas, which are dug and defended by dominant does (females). Hazel's group is forced to dig only because they have no does to do it for them. Dominant bucks (males) defend the larger territory in order to have mating rights with the does in a colony, which becomes a problem for Hazel's group when there are only two does for a large group of males. Rabbits do, however, protect one another from outside danger. If they sense danger nearby, rabbits will freeze, flatten themselves to the ground, or make a run for their warren. They may also flash the white of their tails to warn other rabbits and may stomp on the ground with their hind feet to alert others danger is near. General Woundwort and his subordinates raise the alarm by stamping on the ground. They then chase Bigwig's group

Feeding Habits and Digestion

European rabbits feed on grasses and grains. They come out of their warrens to feed a few hours before sunset, but stay near the warren entrance until the sun goes down. Then, they move farther away but generally don't go more than 200 to 300 meters from their warrens to feed unless there is a food or water shortage. This is referred to as silflay, going outside to feed, in Watership Down. Rabbits digest their food partially, passing what is not digestible through the intestines and out as excrement. The parts of the plants they eat that still contain nutrition after being digested move to a sac called the cecum, to be processed into pellets. These pellets are excreted separately from the rabbits' excrement; the passing of these pellets sends a signal to the rabbits' brains that they should immediately eat the food pellets. This unique digestive process, which is called cecotrophy, lets rabbits gain nutrition from plants that are too high in fiber for other animals to process. Adams's characters refer to "chewing pellets" as part of their daily activities.

Mating, Reproduction, and the Life Cycle

Dominant bucks (the Owsla in Watership Down) will mate with does in the colony and can do so throughout the year, but mating capability is often determined by availability of food and nesting resources. Does are ready to mate at about three and a half months of age and produce three to six kittens (baby rabbits) in a litter. The kittens leave the warren at one month of age. Bucks are ready to mate at four months of age. European rabbits have a high mortality rate for kittens, however, and only 10 percent of kittens survive to adulthood.

In addition to predators, rabbits are prone to myxomatosis (white blindness), which, as El-ahrairah finds out when he loses his ears and tries to catch and spread the disease, is impossible to spread without ear mites and fleas. Domesticated European rabbits in their natural range can live nine years, but most do not live that long because of disease, predators, and loss of habitat.

The Lapine Language

One of the features of Richard Adams's Watership Down is the Lapine (rabbit) language, a language the author created for the rabbits in the novel, complete with singular and plural forms of nouns as well as verbs based on nouns. The Lapine language is used to describe the actions of the rabbits, as well as the surroundings they note and the predators they fear. Because the rabbits' lives revolve around food, housing, and safety of the colony, the language is dominated by descriptions of the rabbits themselves, bodily functions, descriptions of types of food, names of different types of danger, and other aspects of the natural world. For example, flay is food, flayrah is extremely good food, like the type rabbits steal from a garden, and silf means "outside." By extension, silflay means to go outside to feed. Other Lapine vocabulary includes the following:

  • hraka: droppings
  • hrududu: a tractor, car, or other human mother vehicle
  • marli: a doe as well as a mother (the main function of does in the colony)
  • elil: enemies of rabbits
  • zorn: a disaster, usually leading to the deaths of rabbits.
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