Rabbits come and go on the farm. Five years ago, we had a plague of them settling in the deserted garden of the old crumbling barn. The hillsides were hollowed out over a few short weeks, and the rushes were filled with scrambling bodies. They spread and spread until that open area of pasture and bog was swamped in rabbits and it was time to take action.
My cousin and I took a .22 rimfire and a 20 bore out for a walk one afternoon and shot thirty. We returned a week later and took twenty eight. There are few things more exciting that shooting running rabbits as they dart through tussocks of long grass, and I was thrilled to send half a dozen somersaulting to a standstill as we walked down towards the ruined buildings. When the winter came, I returned with a ferreting friend, and we did fantastically well. There is something magical about working ferrets. It is one of the few country sports that I think is spoiled by using a gun. Firing at the rabbit as it bolts seems out of step with the totally natural build up, and I would always rather net the holes and sit amongst them, feeling the thumps vibrating the seat of my trousers and seizing the bunny as he bursts into the hemp pouch. There is a certain poacher’s pleasure to operating silently in the countryside, disturbing nothing but your quarry.
With the addition of a few trips up with the lamping torch, it was obvious that we were making a huge difference on the rabbit population, so we laid off them for a while. Their numbers continued to fall and fall until this year, and several abandoned warrens are beginning to look occupied again. The first baby rabbits are beginning to poke their ears above the surface and the population seems to be growing again in leaps and bounds (quite literally). This is all part of the natural order of things, but I am now wondering what, if anything, I should do about it. What I am starting to learn is that every wild animal on the Chayne is linked together, and it is vitally important to work out how rabbits fit in to a food chain which includes grouse, snipe and woodcock. The more thought I put into these relationships, the more confusing the situation has become.
Rabbits provide food for predators such as stoats, foxes and buzzards. On the face of it, their presence encourages vermin, so it seems that they should be removed. Without a staple diet of rabbit meat, predators would not be able to rear as many offspring, thereby cutting down their numbers and reducing the threat to grouse… or would it?
Without rabbits, who is to say that the vermin won’t start to take grouse instead? Rabbits could be acting as a buffer between predators and grouse, and taking them out of the equation could be a silly move. I have been asking around on the subject, and it seems like this is an irregular situation. Normally, rabbits stay to the low ground and grouse to the high, but the Chayne has collapsed in such an unusual way that farmland runs into moorland and the two species live side by side. It looks like I’ve got more research to do…