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Confessions of a bunny-hugger

November 19, 2011

One of the things I love about living in the country is our daily encounters with wildlife. Maybe I should have called this post ‘Close encounters of the furred kind’, ho ho. It’s a rare day that I do not see one or more of our native wild animals and birds: hedgehog, roe deer, buzzard, red squirrel, woodpecker and the ubiquitous rabbits. From time to time we might also encounter one of the more shy species: field mice and voles, tawny owl, pine marten, stoat, woodcock in the woods, or grouse, hare and red deer on the moorland. And that’s not including the reared game birds, the partridges on the high ground and the pheasants that potter about our lawns and drives, squabbling and preening like chickens in fancy dress. These sightings are a daily delight, all the more precious for being unpredictable.

Hedgehog meets human: is not impressed.

It is a wonderful (literally wonder-full) education for the children too. The hedgehogs in particular seem to have thrived here this year, and we have often encountered them on our daily walks. Most of the wildlife we see moves too fast for my basic camera – there is a reason you see more trees than animals on this blog, you know – but hedgehogs are a delightful exception. Their steady progress across the grass is barely perturbed by the presence of humans. For children, there can be little more thrilling than the chance to meet a wild animal, however small. It’s a pleasure for adults, too, and a good chance to show children how to treat animals with gentleness and quietness, and how we must leave creatures in peace before they get frightened by our attention. (Oh, and how we must give our hands a really good scrub after touching a hedgehog hopping with fleas, for example.)

Sadly, it is more usual for the wildlife we meet at close quarters to be wounded, sick or dead. Fast, healthy wild animals might watch you from a safe distance, but will be well away before any enchanted child can stumble close enough to stroke them. Our life lessons often come from the end of life, therefore. Once we came out of the house to find a little mole freshly dead on the grass. Apparently, he had been dug up and despatched by a fox or a dog. He provided a useful anatomy lesson, with his pinprick eyes and outsized, spade-like hands, but it was undeniably a slightly melancholy one.

Such is the reality of country living, however. Daily encounters with life and death, bringing us face to face with nature’s most basic facts. This autumn, we have been seeing a high number of sick rabbits, owing to an outbreak of myxomatosis. This horrible disease kills rabbits slowly, blinding up their eyes with pus and blocking up their lungs and noses. It can take them a fortnight to die, during which time they grow increasingly helpless as the disease takes hold. It is such a cruel and lingering death that the Rabbit Welfare Association recommends immediate euthanasia for any pet rabbit which contracts myxomatosis. Wild rabbits have no such option.  While they are undoubtedly a pest to gardeners and they breed like – well, you know – they are a pathetic sight when you see them huddled at the edge of the drive, fur matted and lumpy with tumours, eyes swollen and sightless. They are easy prey for dogs in this condition. Our spaniel cannot resist chasing them, no matter how I shout after her: she can catch them with ease, of course, and brings them to me proudly. The good news is, she has a mouth as soft as velvet and can release the rabbit completely unscathed. The bad news is, I am too squeamish to kill it.

And here’s the thing. I wish I were merciful enough to be able to kill animals with my bare hands. There comes a time when it is an act of cowardice, even arguably of cruelty, to cradle a wounded or sick animal in your hands and place it down gently in the undergrowth, where it will be hidden from predators and will be left in peace to die a slow death of pain or starvation. You should, I believe, have the courage to master your own feelings and put a mortally sick animal out of its misery.

Similarly, anyone who has ever shot a pheasant for the pot has probably had to wring the neck of a wounded bird at some point. It is a moral duty not to leave an animal to suffer, especially if the suffering was inflicted by your gun in the first place. I don’t shoot, for various reasons, but I eat meat and I have been out on pheasant shoots, wincing every time I see a bird wounded rather than killed outright. And I have wrung the necks of a few of them, believing it was the most merciful thing I could do in the circumstances. But I hated doing it. Without being too graphic, it is not a pleasant thing to do. These days, I try to duck the duty, handing a wounded bird to an experienced gamekeeper who can dispatch it in the blink of an eye. 

pheasants for the pot

As a countrywoman, them, I feel a bit of a fraud. I adore the beauty of the countryside, but am too feeble to face up to the grimmer aspects. Wringing the neck of a wounded bird is upsetting enough to me: wringing the neck of a sick and suffering rabbit is quite beyond me, and I despise myself for it. My younger son was in tears today after the dog caught a sick rabbit and I gently released it into the bushes. I talked to him about it all: why dogs chase rabbits, why the rabbit was ill, why animals die. No doubt these are all good lessons to learn. I wish, though, that I could have taught him the hardest lesson, that killing is sometimes the kindest option. But we were both upset, and I failed to take that final step.

In an interview shown on British TV recently, the Duke of Edinburgh referred scathingly to ‘bunny-huggers’: people who want to enjoy the fairy-tale fluffiness of wildlife without the unpleasant realities. I have seen plenty of the realities of life and death in the countryside but, in failing at the final hurdle, I fear I am more bunny-hugger than true countrywoman. How about you?

See also: Pheasant philosophy

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2011 9:25 am

    Such a good post, DB, beautifully and powerfully written and deeply thought-provoking. I’m afraid I have to join you on the bunny-huggers bench, as I too have never been able to summon up the guts to put a sick or wounded animal out of its misery, instead calling on DH to do the deed. It’s one of the reasons why, in my chicken-keeping days, I was always secretly glad that they never hatched any chicks. I just don’t think I could have killed the surplus cockerels for the pot.

    The trouble is that here in the west don’t actually need to do this nowadays. If we relied on rearing and killing our own livestock for our own survival, I think our attitude would be very different, as was that of our forbears. Today we can afford the luxury of tender feelings, and yes, I despise myself for it too.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 20, 2011 11:11 pm

      Thank you, Perpetua. I could never keep chickens for the same reason.

      I don’t think that there has ever been a golden age of animal husbandry. Undoubtedly, however, most of us in the West are more divorced from the realities of where our food comes from that at any time previously, as you say, and it is perhaps easy to buy supermarket chicken on the one hand while decrying whaling, for example, on the other. When you have seen your dinner ‘on the wing’, I think it does make you think more about whether you can justify eating it. I think it is right that we should cultivate tender feelings towards animals, if only it encourages better animal husbandry.

  2. November 20, 2011 10:23 am

    Wonderful photographs!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 20, 2011 11:12 pm

      Glad you enjoyed them. The hedgehogs are very obliging sitters. 😉

  3. November 20, 2011 12:18 pm

    Interesting and thought provoking post Mrs Beastie!
    Definitely a bunny hugger too though I have had to put mice out of their misery when the cats have brought them in in a terrible state. I always cry but I will do the deed as the alternative seems so much worse. I think wringing a rabbits neck might be beyond me too though.
    I must say however, the Duke of E appears to be one of those people who seems cursed to speak before their brain has engaged. I think most of what people consider ‘the realities of the countryside’ are actually the realities of humans believing that they have dominion over nature rather than existing in inter-dependnace with it. Most of these realities of the countryside are to do with human’s laziness, arrogance and greed. Let us not forget that myxomatosis is a disease released by humans. I just read a book by a naturalist who kept large numbers of chickens for years and despite being surrounded by them, never lost a single one to foxes. He had spent years filming and photographing foxes, understood their behaviour well and respected them. Some of my neighbours believe that we have to manage fox populations with violent means but I truly believe that a more harmonious existence is possible with greater understanding and respect. Fox hugger and proud I’m afraid!
    Death is part of life and, in my experience, it can be a very beautiful one but I agree it can be difficult to know what our part in it should be.
    Ok rant over now! Enjoy the rest of your weekend. 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 20, 2011 11:30 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Lucinda. I didn’t think they were at all ranty! I too have cried over finishing off mice. I would not have a cat these days: I prefer seeing the avian visitors to our bird feeders.

      I do take your point about human interference in natural processes. Indeed, my two main examples – shooting and myxi – are both of course examples of suffering caused by humans. And I absolutely agree that we have a moral obligation to consider our actions in the countryside as they impact upon other species. I would say, however, that nature can be pretty gruesome without mankind’s ‘help’: I have seen newborn lambs with their eyes and brains pecked out by crows; a stoat sucking the life-blood from a screaming young rabbit; a sparrowhawk tearing strips from a still-living pigeon. These are the realities of the survival of the fittest. But that’s not to detract from the importance of humans continuing to reflect on our place in the scheme of things, and our having the humility to learn and to change our attitudes when we should – your naturalist who has studied fox behaviour being perhaps a case in point.

      Finally, thank you for your reminder that death is part of the cycle of life, and can be a gentle part of it too. As we head into the season of winter – the season of the crone, of decay and dormancy – that is a good thing to remember.

      • November 22, 2011 10:37 pm

        Hi again,
        Yes I do take your point that the natural world can be very brutal but I think that is a slightly different issue in that it rarely requires our interference. Unless an animal is disturbed in the process, they will usually finish off their kill quite well without our help! It tends to be more the cases where humans are involved that require these difficult decisions from us, whether it be shooting pheasants, raising livestock or indeed keeping and breeding too many cats! One teacher once said, “for everything that lives, its life is the most important thing it has.” Unfortunately these issues are never black and white but I hold these words in my heart, even when making the toughest choice to end someone’s suffering.

  4. November 20, 2011 9:45 pm

    I’m a bunny hugger too then I’m afraid …sigh…. I do feel particularly guilty that I can find an injured animal or bird and take it to a neighbour and ask him to put it out of it’s misery. He doesn’t like doing it either but will do the deed because it IS an act of kindness. I can manage to take a sick pet to the vet for the final kindness rather than see it suffer. But no – I know I will never bring myself to do the necessary. Even though my heart aches for the suffering….sigh…

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 20, 2011 11:31 pm

      It’s hard every time, isn’t it. Thank heavens for stout-hearted neighbours – and for vets.

  5. Liz permalink
    November 21, 2011 11:29 am

    Total bunny-hugger too. We also seem to have had a lot of myxamotosis around here, and very grim it is too. I leave the dispatching to my husband, who is far less squeamish, or sometimes one of our dogs gets them. She deals with them very quickly and efficiently. I’m so pathetic I can’t even pick up the hens when they die. I often think I should be a vegetarian, because I couldn’t kill something and then eat it. But at the same time, I realise that the countryside around us would be totally different if livestock weren’t kept to be eaten.

    Enjoyed reading about your wildlife. I think myself blessed that I can look out of my windows and often see deer (roe and muntjac, daily), foxes, pheasant, badgers, herons, buzzards and in the fairly recent past I’ve seen weasels and even a mink (that was a surprise, and I had to google image it to double check what it was). The best sighting ever was a couple of years ago when it was very very cold and I looked out of the window and saw our hens (in their run, which we’d just moved), a pheasant and a FOX eating the grain, all together. I came to the conclusion that it was either a well-fed fox, or a very lazy one, not to have gone for the meal standing right next to it!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 21, 2011 12:59 pm

      I have the same ambivalence as you about vegetarianism and the logical ramifications for the national herd and landscape. It’s far from the clear-cut issue that some people seem to think. Your story of the fox is amazing: perhaps it was a vegetarian fox?! 🙂

      • Liz permalink
        November 21, 2011 5:54 pm

        Forgot to say, have you ever noticed that hedgehogs look like little old ladies holding up their skirts when they run?

  6. hmunro permalink
    November 21, 2011 9:28 pm

    Thanks for yet another wonderful, thought-provoking post, DB. As a former wildlife repair-person, I know only too well the anguish of seeing an animal suffer and literally holding its life in my hands. Like you, I’ve cried over the demise of the tiniest of creatures (spiders, even!). And I’ve concluded that all I can do is try to walk through this world with kindness and compassion, doing my best to do right by my fellow creatures. So please don’t despise yourself for being unable to wring the neck of a rabbit. It speaks to your deep appreciation for the miracle that is life.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 22, 2011 7:57 pm

      Well, I think you are doing a very good job of ‘walking through this world with kindness and compassion’, as your ever-generous comments show.

  7. November 22, 2011 1:43 am

    What a wonderful post. Great pictures of hedgehog and mole. Very sad about the bunnies. We had one for the longest time as a pet (live outdoors in his own wonderland in a sheltered atrium with a large guinea rescued from school – they thought he was living free, we never told them otherwise.) It is so sad when wild animals are hurt. At the farm, my soft hearted father kindly set them free of pain, but not everyone is able – not me. I have to seek help. Hard lessons. Animals are suffering this winter from wild fire damage to habitats and drought. Some are feeding anything that appears. They are allowing hunters to take more deer this season. Hope the winter is mild. Sorry to ramble on – your post is lovely.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 22, 2011 7:59 pm

      Thank you for your kind comments. Wild fires are something that trouble us only occasionally here in our rainy islands but goodness, yes, they must take a terrible toll on your wildlife. Hope for all your sakes that you indeed have a gentle winter.

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