Confessions of a bunny-hugger
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.
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.
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