It was a pleasant walk down memory lane last night to shoot some rabbits on my parents’ farm overlooking the Solway. I was brought up on these rough, tumbling acres overlooking Palnackie and Auchencairn, and for many years I did little else there but creep through the long grass in pursuit of rabbits. Now that I am physically larger than my eight year old self and I’m more accustomed to life in the hills than I was, this farm now feels absurdly cramped and small. The fields lie as close to one another as fish scales, and the ground slides by so easily underfoot that I had walked half the planned loop in five minutes. But what it lacks in enormity, this farm makes up in the steep edges and close contours of rocky knowes and sudden, precipitous gullies, all set about with bristling walls of gorse and broom and rocketing spires of foxgloves.
This was my stamping ground throughout my very early teens, and I prowled the turf with an old bolt action BSA .22 rimfire and my indulgent father in tow. The BSA’s action was so bizarre that it could not be made to work with a telescopic sight; when opened, the bolt stood vertically above the breech. Having never known telescopic sights, I struggled with iron sights until I realised that this rifle was a particularly awkward beast in more ways than one. In an attempt to make the comically enormous metal sights clearer and easier to use, the rifle was zeroed to fire an inch or two high at fifty yards so that the target would not be totally obscured by the massive V-shaped rear sight. This force-fed habit of firing low caused incalculable damage to my shooting abilities over iron sights in latter years, and I broke the hearts of my NCOs during my brief stint as a cadet in the Shropshire Light Infantry.
By the time this rifle was scrapped around my fifteenth birthday, it had been implicated in the deaths of thousands of rabbits; tens of thousands in all probability. I moved on to use an absurdly long-barreled Brno rimfire (complete with an absurdly long sound moderator) with which I finally shot my first fox. Still under the amused supervision of my father, who smoked his pipe in the sunshine, I pretended to be James Fenimore Cooper’s “Natty Bumppo” through the honeysuckled hedges, picking off rabbits as if they were marauding Huron. It is only now that I look back on those days with a touch of nostalgia, if only for the huge quantity of rabbits there once were.
I could shoot ten, twelve or fifteen rabbits in an evening on the same short walk, night after night. Lamping with a friend, we shot sixty rabbits one night, then fifty the next from the back of a pickup. Rabbits were there for the taking in frankly immodest numbers – the possibilities were endless.
As an eight or nine year old, a van pulled up to the house one Saturday morning when my father was fixing the tractor up in the steading. The door opened to release a pall of cigarette smoke, and two gypsies stepped out into the yard. They wanted to go ferreting and, unlike many of their peers, they wanted to ask the landowner’s permission first. In retrospect, it was a breathtakingly cheeky child who offered these men permission to ferret on the condition that they would have to take me with them. They agreed, and I pulled on my wellies as quickly as I could. Thinking I was doing the right thing, I left a note on the kitchen table for my parents explaining: “Have gone with men”, then leaped into their van. I didn’t know it at the time, but my totally unexplained absence would have been infinitely less alarming than that note.
I don’t remember how many rabbits we caught, but it was well over two dozen. The men let me feed the pink-eyed ferrets on still-warm rabbit liver, and I was allowed to run in and grab the bulging, rigid nets when the bunnies bolted. I don’t know who these men were and would never recognise them again, but for me it was a red-letter day. On the way back to the house, I bumped around in the back of the van, which stank of diesel and ferrets, avidly wishing that one day I might grow up to be a gypsy. We had scoured the farm, and the best warrens had been wriggling with life. By comparison, it is extraordinary to think that they are dead and quiet today.
When there are no rabbits to keep the holes open, the cobwebs come. Then moss pads the soil and roots creep in like the spokes of a wheel. For some reason, the sheep rub their hips and paw at the mouths and openings until they collapse and the entrances are permanently closed. Immaculately preserved inside, the sealed tunnels must run for hundreds of yards underground with no escape. I almost imagine the figure of Tom Sawyer’s Injun Joe hunched by a guttering candle inside the blocked off entrances – a terrifying image which irretrievably delivered me into the clammy grasp of claustrophobia in a single paragraph – as an adult, I can hardly lock a door without wondering whether I have sealed Injun Joe inside.
Warrens come and go, and there is no question that rabbits are now at a low ebb. I didn’t even bother to look through the fields where we ferreted twenty years ago, and focused instead on new areas where the rabbits are recent arrivals. Myxomatosis has had a part to play, and people speak vaguely about new diseases running through populations of rabbits like wildfire. They often breed well until midsummer, but there are never the vast, groaning populations there used to be before I grew up. I can’t help thinking that predation pressure plays a part, particularly in this world of buzzards and badgers. The former kill a good many youngsters, and the latter must account for huge numbers of tiny kits under the leaf litter or tucked away beneath the roots of the rowans.
All this was food for quiet thought as I stepped through the sour, buttery gusts of gorse flower and thumped a few bunnies for the pot last night. I came home with three in the bag from fields where I used to gather ten or fifteen without batting an eyelid. A brood of dabchicks piped on the weedy flightpond above the steading, and I looked down through the trees across the Solway to Skiddaw and the spread of the Lake District.