It is a May evening in the lush English countryside. Several rabbits nibble at the grass and flowers which grow on the hill outside their warren. All is calm, quiet, and tranquil. Two smallish, ordinary rabbits—both yearlings—make their way over the sloping hill. The larger of the rabbits has a “shrewd, buoyant air” about him; his companion is a good deal smaller and “less at ease” in the world, and has wide, nervous eyes. As the two rabbits prance by, two other rabbits gossip about them: the small, nervous rabbit, Fiver, was the runt of his litter; the larger rabbit is his brother Hazel.
The novel opens on a tranquil note as the lush English countryside is vibrantly described. This creates a sense of peace and safety—a feeling soon to be interrupted as the catalyst for the rabbits’ grand journey into the unfamiliar is set in motion.
Fiver suggests to Hazel that the two of them go down to the brook. He senses a “queer” energy about the warren this evening. Hazel agrees, excited to look for cowslips, a “delicacy” among rabbits. At the brook, the two happen upon some cowslips and begin eating them when two members of their warren’s Owsla, a police-like guardian force made up of the strongest rabbits in the warren, approach and remind them that good food and flowers like cowslips are for the consumption of Owsla only.
This passage establishes that despite the tranquil appearance of things, there are parts of life in this warren that are harsh and even disagreeable. There is a hierarchy of rabbits, and dynamics of violence and power are on the periphery of all their interactions with one another.
As Hazel and Fiver hop away, Hazel expresses his dissatisfaction with life in the Sandleford warren. He swears that if he ever joins the Owsla, he will treat his fellow rabbits with decency. The two head across a culvert to the other side of the brook and look for some food there. Hazel sees that two heavy posts have been erected on the other side of the brook—at its foot is a stamped-out cigarette. Fiver begins whimpering with fear, telling Hazel that he knows now what his “queer” bad feeling has been—something terrible is coming, and this sign proves it. Fiver looks out at the field and declares that it is covered with blood. Hazel assures Fiver it is only the light of the sunset and urges Fiver to pull himself together.
Things are not as peaceful and perfect as they seemed just moments ago—Hazel reveals that he has long been dissatisfied with the way things operate within the warren, and the sensitive Fiver is deeply disturbed by a new, horrible vision of violence and destruction.
Hazel suggests they head back to the burrow, but Fiver is afraid to. Hazel promises Fiver that he will protect him from any danger. The two return home and head underground as the sun sets. Though they could not read the sign, the narrator reveals what it said: a construction company is soon developing six acres of land surrounding the Sandleford warren into “high class modern residences.”
A sense of foreboding which directly contrasts with the sense of peace and harmony established at the start of the chapter warns readers that this will be a book about the underbelly of things, hidden appearances, secret mechanisms of violence and authority, and the search for a place free from danger.