We have studied animal life in the UK for more than 200 years, so you might think we know pretty much all there is to know about the creatures of our islands? Far from it. Just a few metres beneath our feet lies a whole subterranean world that we have very little idea about.
Badgers, moles, rabbits and voles are all busying around and we’re as much in the dark as they are.
There have always been so many unanswered questions. For example, we don’t know whether or not these animals have separate burrows that are used for different purposes, such as a latrine or a food store or a place where they give birth to their young. We also have, or at least had, no real idea how extensive a warren is and how many rabbits live in it. We could count the entrances but didn’t know how many chambers the warren contained or the width of them.
Fortunately, we found an abandoned rabbit warren that we could use as a model for the full-scale replica we wanted to build on Dartmoor. We poured concrete into the burrow and let it set so we could see the chambers. There were many more than we thought there would be.
Making our own burrow was a vast and painstaking project and we used specialist builders and lighting experts as well as wildlife behaviourists. It had to be large enough to observe the animals, yet as unobtrusive as possible so as not to disturb them.
While we were doing that, we started observing wild rabbits. We soon realised we couldn’t use wild ones for our burrow because their behaviour was so skittish and they were easily frightened. So we found a pet breeder who produces a semi-domesticated rabbit. It has the same colouring as a wild rabbit but is less easily disturbed and is more tolerant.
Our big test was whether the animals would breed – and I’m delighted to say that they did! We put 15 rabbits in per burrow; by the end of summer there were 60 or 70 living there.
Rabbits proved to be fascinating. There is a strict hierarchy in the burrow. We had a leading lady rabbit, Hazel, and Thumper the lead male. We saw subordinate female rabbits dropping their young into Hazel’s nest to be raised with her own kittens. Interestingly, a fair proportion of these rabbits lived. We assumed the smaller kittens would die but they didn’t. They were pretty effective at being looked after.
For the voles, we created a burrow with its own riverbank. These voles were in the process of being repatriated into the wild; we merely relocated them. What we found out was fascinating. For example, the male and females sleep separately and are fastidiously clean. They separate everything out so they have a latrine and a food area and they rotate the food stuff so it doesn’t go mouldy. They are very OCD are voles!
The badgers were orphans rounded up from all over the country and brought to our purpose- built sett in Somerset. I could have watched them for hours. It was the most exciting thing. They are lovely creatures, they look like glove puppets. They are highly sociable and behave like puppies, playing all the time. It’s well known that badgers thrive in groups. We watched them dig, eat, socialise and, in a way, they were better off because they were put in a place where there was no threat to them as they were monitored so closely.
We also learnt a lot about the way young badgers use vocalisation. We saw them demonstrating skills we assumed their parents taught them but in many ways they are self-taught. They play, explore, make nest, groom and do all the things young badgers should do.
But as many questions were raised as were answered. It’s still very difficult to find out about moles. They are the least known of all the animals as they never come out of the ground. We did see them incapacitating and storing worms, which we didn’t know they did. We saw how long their tunnels are, how fast they move, their skill at capturing live prey. We saw the way they utilise their sense organs as they have very poor sight. And we know that, at some point, the mother mole forces her adolescent young from her home but we don’t know how.
The burrowers are almost finished now as the animals have had their young and moved on. It’s a process of natural dispersal. The rabbits have gone back to the breeder and will be re-homed, and the badgers returned to a rescue centre. As for me, I feel very privileged to have watched such rewarding moments. It’s important to see how the animal world is interconnected. We have a tendency to think of animals in isolation but this shows we need to think of them as communities.
These animals all have a part to play in the landscape of the future. If we remove them from their natural habitat we face dire consequences. We are all part of one big interaction between science and nature and maintaining the balance is very important.
As told to Lucy Cavendish
The Burrowers: Animals Underground is on Friday at 9pm on BBC2