Adams did not begin writing until 1966, when he was 46 and working for the civil service. While on a car trip with his daughters, he began telling them a story about a group of young rabbits escaping from their doomed warren.
In an interview with the Guardian two years ago, the author recalled: “I had been put on the spot and I started off: ‘Once there were two rabbits called Hazel and Fiver.’ And I just took it on from there.”
It was made into an animated film in 1978, and the following year the film’s theme song Bright Eyes, sung by Art Garfunkel, topped the UK charts for six weeks.
The book, which critics have credited with redefining anthropomorphic fiction with its naturalistic depiction of the rabbits’ trials and adventures, won Adams both the Carnegie medal and the Guardian children’s prize.
The statement announcing his death quoted a passage from the end of his best-known work. It read: “It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“‘You needn’t worry about them,’ said his companion. ‘They’ll be alright — and thousands like them.”’
A spokesman for Oneworld publications, which brought out a new edition of Watership Down with illustrations by Aldo Galli, said: “Very saddened to hear that Richard Adams has passed. His books will be cherished for years to come.”
A new animated TV mini-series of Watership Down, co-produced by the BBC and Netflix, is due to air next year in four one-hour parts.