Rabbits hit the headlines earlier this year. A fragment of tibia, unearthed in the 1960s during an archaeological dig at Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex, was radiocarbon dated by researchers at the University of Exeter. The analysis showed it to be almost 2,000 years old, suggesting its owner was last hopping during Roman times. This remarkable discovery pushes back the presence of the European rabbit – a native of the Iberian peninsula – in Britain by more than a millennium. But the question remains: were the Romans responsible for introducing rabbits to Britain, rather than the Normans, as was previously thought?
The Exeter research now shows that at least one rabbit was brought to Britain during the Roman occupation, but the species does not seem to have established in the wild. It seems most probable that the Fishbourne rabbit was a cossetted and likely short-lived pet, rather than the outrider of a mammalian invasion.
Yet there is no doubting the profound impact that the Roman occupation had on Britain’s fauna and flora.