Keeping rabbits in designated areas known as warrens did not exist in Britain until sometime after the Norman Conquest when this practice was introduced. There were no wild rabbits and instead the rabbits were farmed for their meat and their fur and each warren was managed by a warrener. Both the meat and the skins were considered luxury items, available only to the upper classes, with the value of one rabbit being more than a daily working man's wage.
The origin of the names 'rabbit' and 'warren' pose us with interesting conundrums. The word 'rabbit' does not exist in English until after the Conquest and it might come from the Flemish word robette which is the young of the coney. Adult rabbits were 'coneys' from the French 'conis'.
The origins of 'warren' are also unclear but a possible derivation is from the French word 'garrene', meanin'land set aside for breeding game'.
So how does this all tie in with High Lodge? From archival records, we know that High Lodge was one of many warrens in this area. High Lodge was known as Downham Warren and was surrounded by five other warrens: Santon to the north, Santon Downham to the north east, Thetford to the east, Elveden to the south west and Brandon to the west.
The earliest records show that a warren existed at Downham in the 1400s and it was probably owned by Ixworth priory. Owning a warren was very much a status symbol, similar to owning a carp pond or a dovecote.
We don't know the names of the warreners in the 1400s. The earliest record for a named warrener is that for Edmund Caps who was working on Downham Warren in the 1700s.
We know of others because they made Wills which can be read in the Record Office, Bury St Edmunds (WSRO):
An interesting insight to the tools of the warrener's trade is found in William Curre's 1778 Will:
I give and bequeath to my beloved son William my rabbit cart and black horse and all and every my Traps, Netts and all my ingines for taking and catching of the rabbits. ('Engines' meant mechanical tools).
The warrener had to judge the condition of his stock, regulate the number of bucks to does, organise extra labour for the autumn and winter culls, protect the coneys from extremes of weather and consider the economics of the market for his produce, once the needs of his manorial master's household had been met.
At culling time, normally between October and February, the warrener hired seasonal labour to help trap the rabbits. Prior to the 1900s large numbers of people were employed on the warrens. There is photographic evidence showing as many as 20 “so-called” warreners working a single warren. It is unlikely that these fellows would all be supported and the vast majority of these were probably seasonal workers who may even have shared their time across the various warrens in the locality.
Ferrets, nets, lurcher dogs and terriers were used; the ferrets were released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits to the surface and into the nets. Purse nets went over individual holes and long nets would cover an entire area, with the lurcher dogs driving the rabbits rather as sheepdogs do sheep.
The warrener also used a system of parallel 'trapping banks' and you can see these close to High Lodge on the heritage trail. Four banks have been constructed parallel to each other. At regular intervals, two banks converge and make a funnel and into this funnel the warrener would corrall the rabbits for trapping.
In his book “In Breckland Wilds” published in 1925, W G Clarke mentions
several large banks some thirty feet wide, said to be trapping banks for the rabbits .
A warrener left instructions that t
he earth-mounds … must be laid out with some degree of order … to make the catching up of the rabbits in large numbers easy and convenient… artificial mounds must be thrown up in parallel lines about 100 yards apart.
The rabbits were taken back to the warren lodge and hung until they could be taken to market or to the manorial household.
In addition to protecting the rabbits from natural predators such as foxes, weasels, stoats and birds of prey, the warrener had to protect the warren and rabbits from poachers and even gangs of poachers.There are numerous records of these miscreants being pursued and caught and punished with fines or prison sentences.
One such fight took place here on Downham Warren on 19 September 1445. A gang of poachers from Thetford decided to raid the warren that night, but unfortunately so did a gang of poachers from Elveden. The Thetford gang wounded three of the Elveden poachers and
carried them without licence to the town of Thetford and there unjustly imprisoned them keeping them locked up so that they could go back to taking the rabbits from Downham Warren.
One of the earliest newspaper records we have on this describes a warrener being armed and shooting dead a poacher's dog and horse. The poacher himself just suffered a broken arm, but then it also turns out horse was not the poacher's, but 'borrowed'. How that part of the tale ended we do not know.
By the 1900s, as other food sources increased and the demand for rabbit skins diminished, and indeed the need for the land to be used for other activities such as arable farming and tree planting, the strict management of the warrens started to break down and the job of the warrener began to change too.
Richard Dickerson and Charles Gee were named as warreners in the 1901 census but in the 1911 census , the word 'warrener' has been crossed out and 'gamekeeper' inserted beside Richard Dickerson's name.
It is hard to imagine that some rabbits had not already escaped the confines of these artificial warrens, already, but these were probably kept in check by natural predators including the odd poacher. However, once the importance of the warrens started to lessen and the control to relax, more and more rabbits escaped. Being very prolific breeders it did not take the rabbits too long establish a foothold in the countryside and to become a pest in certain areas. When the Forestry Commission, now Forestry England, took over High Lodge and the surrounding area in the early part of the 20th century they employed 36 warreners to kill the rabbits as they were a threat to the young tree seedlings being planted. The team of Wildife Rangers still controls rabbit numbers today.
Though rabbit numbers may be extremely low when compared to the thousands on the medieval warrens, there is archaeological evidence of banks and lodge sites beneath the trees and the lives of the warreners are remembered in archival records.