Rise of Rabbits Threatens Countryside and Gardens

When the author Jeanette Winterson tweeted over the summer: ‘Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating rabbit,’ little did she know the twitterstorm she would create.

One of the twitterati told Ms Winterson: ‘u make me sick. I will never again. read a word u write. Rest in peace little rabbit.’

When she replied that she had despatched the luckless lagomorph ‘humanely’, a certain commenter maintained, ‘there is NO humane way to murder a sentient being’.

Ms Winterson continued to defend her decision to kill the rabbit. ‘The meat pics that disgust me are Macdonalds, KFC, chicken nuggets etc. Processed factory farmed meat is not meat I eat.’ She further invited (or else incited) the twittersphere: ‘Rabbit anyone?’

But such spats have a real edge to them, because we know that to the government, rabbits are pests, and many feel entitled to kill them if they do so properly – i.e. with a humane trap. In fact, it’s more than that. The Pests Act 1954 states: ‘The occupier of any land in a rabbit clearance area shall take such steps as may from time to time be necessary for the killing or taking of wild rabbits living on or resorting to the land, and, where it is not reasonably practicable to destroy the wild rabbits living on any part of the land, for the prevention of damage by those rabbits, …’

Furthermore, the Rabbit Clearance Order of 1972 defines the whole of England and Wales as a ‘rabbit clearance area’.

So, essentially, there is a legal obligation for most English and Welsh subjects to control the rabbit populations, which may involve killing them.

In addition, the rabbit population is on the increase, after recovering from the affliction of rabbit haemorrhagic disease in the mid-1990s.

But would any local residents be likely to end up imitating Ms Winterson? Many tenants on the Benefield Road allotment in Oundle certainly seem to be having trouble.

Mrs Liz Titheridge said: ‘I had dreadful problems with the rabbits this year. My particular disaster has been the runner beans. I planted out small plants in the middle of May … [the rabbits] had an overnight feast and all that were left were stalks.’

She tried to make her beds more rabbit-proof, ‘but the same thing happened whilst I was away on holiday. I came home expecting to see the beans climbing up the pole covered in red flowers, but there were just stalks again!’

Farmers, in particular, report widespread problems with rabbit populations decimating crops intended for commercial purposes. It is not unusual to set traps to eliminate the pests, or to enlist the help of amateur trappers, who pass on the meat to local butchers.

For some, pest control is a fulltime job. Northamptonshire resident, Steve Caple, self-styled The Countryman, is a commercial pest controller. He said: ‘Through the winter months, about 50 per cent of my business is rabbits … some people see a rabbit quivering in a field and think ‘Poor little thing’ … but speak to a farmer, and they’ll say ‘Get rid of them all.’’

Clearly those of Ms Winterson’s opinion appear to be in the ascendancy. Numbers are now estimated to have risen to around 45 million, and there is increased awareness of traditional culling methods.

Certainly this is one area where modern science and her efficiency is a bit discredited – nobody appears to want to return to the use of the myxomatosis virus. Especially since immunity in the rabbit population is now such that it probably wouldn’t work.

By Richard Taylor