Mention the word rabbit to most gardeners and they bare their teeth with rage! However, the animal we now consider a pest was a deliberate introduction and very delicate so needed specialist protection. The Normans are usually ‘credited’ with the introduction of rabbits to this country but archaeologists have found butchered rabbit bones at Beddington Roman villa in East Sussex which prove they were introduced on a small scale by the Romans, but then died out - there is no Old English word for rabbit. Rabbits were then re- introduced by Normans who prized them for their meat and fur and the first documentary evidence mentioning rabbits is from 1135. Rabbits at that time were poorly adapted to the UK - the damp climate made them prone to foot rot. They needed light soil on a sloping site so the excavated earth would fall away.
To accommodate these needs Pillow Mounds were constructed. These are typically low, flat topped mounds about 1.5m high, 9m long and 4 – 7m wide - although one measuring 234m long at Hartfield in Sussex has been found – more like a bolster in fact! Some mounds are simple dumps of earth with no internal features, others have burnt layer at ground level from clearing the vegetation. More elaborate examples have artificial rabbit runs made of stone tunnels laid out systematically then covered with earth. In some waterlogged areas stones were scattered on the land surface to aid drainage. The mounds made harvesting the rabbit easy since a ferret was put in on one side and the other side was netted making it easy to club the creatures as they emerged. The ferret would wear a muzzle since if it killed a rabbit within the mound the ferret would eat the rabbit and then probably fall asleep.
The Coneygarth was often sited within the park pale to keep poachers and predators out and moated to keep the rabbits in. It is interesting to note that Coneygarth rather than ‘Warren’ was used to describe rabbit housing until the 14th century. Until the 18th century rabbit meat was an esteemed food which would explain why an area containing up to a dozen pillow mounds was a desirable addition to Woodstock Park (now part of Blenheim Palace Park) in 1660.