Germaine Greer takes on the ferocious animal world in her Cambridgeshire garden and declares war on the rabbits
Rain. More rain. Water butts full for the first time in a year. A soft grey mist hanging in the hedgerows. The snowdrops did their best in dry, warm ground, and quickly went their way. Now the scillas and the narcissi and the wood anemones are keeping their jubilee, their petals sleeked by the damp air, glowing against the new green that is rushing up over the land. Under the beech trees a clump of sweet violets has appeared; by the pond in the wood is another. A dome of frog spawn nudges the surface of the water and the white marsh marigold is in flower. Up on the chalk hill Farmer Hamilton’s beet is beginning to show.
The grass grows like mad, and the geese graze like mad upon it, for the time of their brood is almost at hand. They are already so plump that the folds of fat beneath their bellies drag up on the new grass, leaving trails like the slime of a giant snail. The gander, for want of anyone else to show off against, bullies the widowed grey goose. A Canada gander came courting her but she, not wanting to know that unlike the white geese she can fly, stayed on the ground. Since the fox took her grey mate she has been an outsider. The gander ‘treads’ her though and there are more of her narrow pointed eggs than there are of the big chalk-white ones of the white geese, so she will have her day, I hope. Mother-son incest is not frowned upon in the goose community; she and her son- consort may head up a grey flock yet.
If I cannot control the rats there will be as few goslings as there are chicks. First the rats stole the eggs from under the setting bantams. Then we moved the setting bantams out of the house, which was by now thoroughly undermined, into coops. The rats dug under the coops, so we kept moving the coops. The chicks hatched, the rats dug faster and dragged the tiny birds through the holes they made. We now have one chick left, immured with its mother in an outhouse. It is enough to make a woman invest in a pack of Jack Russells, and be buggered to the anti blood sports movement.
I can’t myself see the difference between digging out a badger and digging out a rat family. Rats are intelligent; they love their children and they are passionately attached to life. A rat will drag its trap around for days, because no-one can get near enough to free it or kill it. Some time ago I wrote about the way country people deal with trapped rats, which is by dropping the rat, trap and all, into the water butt. I got passionate letters from hairdressers and fashion designers. How could you? they wailed. How cruel. I pondered the advisability of sending these correspondents a live rat of their own to deal with, but while I was pondering, Charlie and the game-keeper, fed up with all the nonsense about rats’ rights, poisoned nearly all the rats. Then I asked the RSPCA officer the best way to deal with trapped rats. ‘Drown them,’ she said.
A rat with a day-old chick is not a pretty sight, no prettier a sight indeed than someone vivisecting a day-old chick. It is all bloody cruel out there. Creatures suffer and die horribly all the time. The cats bring in live rabbit kittens, screaming piteously, and punch them around to get the juices flowing, before biting their faces off. At what stage cognition ceases I have no idea. Some cats start at the rear. Both of mine begin at the front, and seldom bother with the rear, which is usually left under the dining table. Guests have risen from dinner-parties and tramped the contents of a warm and steaming rabbit caecum all over the house. Inexperienced guests sometimes intervene to stop the slaughter; one brought a rabbit to me as I lay in bed and placed it reverently on the coverlet. It lay and trembled. One of its feet kicked spasmodically. It was paralysed down one side. ‘Shall we get the vet?’ she asked. We didn’t. I have given up intervening since I rescued a dormouse five times. When the red cat, who specialises in the rarer species and small songbirds, brought the dormouse in for the sixth time, I decided the dormouse gene pool would be better off without it.
As I see it, the ecological balance is already so buggered up, that you cannot simply live and let live. We have a thousand or so rabbits and about the same number of rats on my three acres because there is nowhere else for them to go. The population that should be spread over the 100-acre field lives with me because I neither plough nor poison my ground with fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and fertilisers. Because of the environmental stress none of the critters who lives under my hedgerows and my poultry houses is quite sane or quite well. The rabbit population is full of myxomatosis. Because none of the predators will take a sick rabbit, the myxy ones are compelled to live out a normal life-span, and to reproduce. When the ferreters come these days they get no hassle from me. Strange to relate they get no hassle from the anti blood sports people either. Funny that, when you think about it. Foxes live by hunting and could expect to die the same way, but rabbits? What harm did rabbits ever do?
Well, I’ll tell you. Rabbits are bloody bastards. Absolute bloody bastards. They don’t kill other animals. They kill plants. Foxes, unlike dogs and mink, kill for food for themselves and their young. Rabbits don’t kill trees for food. I don’t know why they kill trees. They will do just enough damage to a young tree to ensure that it dies, and then they will move on to the next one. They will nose their way through spiral guards and gnaw out a neat half-inch strip all the way round the tree; that’s all it takes to kill even a mighty tree. They will climb on each other’s shoulders to attack the tree above the guard — I reckon, because otherwise I don’t know how the hell they do it. Build a cage for a young tree and they will burrow under it. If they can’t get at any other part of the tree, they will dig under it and eat the roots. They will kill larch, oak, sycamore, hornbeam, whitebeam, beech, birch, horse chestnut, willow, alder, poplar, aspen, apple, medlar, cherry, maple, cedar, cypress, hazel, pine, spruce, juniper, whitethorn, blackthorn, but not brambles or bracken or elder. I have just planted 20 planes and they have yet to kill one, but they will. I have planted more than 700 trees since I have lived in this house and they have destroyed 400 of them, some when they were already 20 centimetres in girth. They have eaten whole yews and lived to tell the tale. They even managed to strip a monkey puzzle of its scales.
I do not protest when rabbits eat bulbs or gnaw their way into the cage to eat my salad. But I cannot bear it when for the sake of slightly different taste, some sort of oral novelty, they kill one of my trees. Do something for our struggling tree population. Kill a rabbit today.