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Back Then: Why rabbits run riot on the Skerries

A mischievous tale of how fecund species came to colonise the barren isles

Alan Simpson (right) with Mac O'Neill who helped introduce rabbits to the Skerries
Alan Simpson (right) with Mac O'Neill who helped introduce rabbits to the Skerries

By Eddie McIlwaine

It's 40 years almost to the day since rabbits first nibbled the grass on the Skerries, a picturesque group of tiny islands off the White Rocks of Portrush.

They didn't swim out there – like I suggested tongue-in-cheek – broadcaster Alan Simpson, who researched the history of the rabbit population out there in the Atlantic, informs me.

Alan, a native of the port, is one of the few people who has actually set foot on the uninhabited Skerries.

He went out on his paddle board to have a look at these slabs of rock and their bunnies for his BBC Radio Ulster series North Coast Tales.

"Those adventurers lucky enough to have ventured on to the Skerries have the company of the occasional seal, families of cormorants, hundreds of gulls – and a multitude of rabbits," he tells me.

So how did they get there?

There's a story around Portrush that the rabbits were parachuted in during the war fitted with surveillance equipment.

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"Very funny," chuckles Alan who has come up with the truth.

Veteran sea dog Mac O'Neill and another local legend, boatbuilder Willie Gregg, decided 40 years ago that they would love to attract puffins to the Skerries. Puffins, it seems, lay their eggs in rabbit holes.

So Mac and Willie rowed out one balmy August afternoon with one male and one female rabbit, deposited the furry friends on the island and left them to it.

"Alas, as the seasons passed not one puffin was spotted in spite of the labours of these two old-timers," says Alan, "but the rabbit population grew and grew."

Which is hopping, jumping proof that rabbits do indeed breed like rabbits.

Tyrone gold-diggers and alchemists not a winning formula

There's been a lot of chat recently about the possibility of gold mining in Co Tyrone and elsewhere in the province being extended, which prompts Claire Brown of Comber to raise the subject of alchemy.

Claire reminds me that alchemy in the Middle Ages was a quest for a magic or scientific formula that would seemingly turn ordinary base metals into that most prized of metals – gold.

"A scientist called Cornelius Agrippa claimed way back in September 1486 to have found such a recipe," says Claire.

"But I've never heard of alchemy actually working although Agrippa claimed in his day to have paid his bills with homemade gold."

However, what worries Claire and me just a little bit is that all this digging around the countryside here by gold-thirsty folk could spell trouble for the environment.

Belfast Telegraph


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