Saturday, 13 April 2013

Rabbiting in the 70's

 I have touched on the subject of my rabbiting and eel-trapping days on Elmley before, (that's me above), but  here I will go into it in a bit more depth. Obviously it won't appeal to all those who read this blog, those who simply prefer to read about my current bird watching news, but it happened, I enjoyed it and it was all part of the jigsaw that makes up my life-time of  being out and about in the countryside. So if you don't agree with the killing of animals in the countryside it would be best to not read on any further.
The photos were all taken in 1976-77 on what is now Elmley RSPB and perhaps surprisingly for some, it was after the RSPB had begun shaping that marsh at Spitend into the bird reserve it became. Peter Makepeace, the first RSPB warden there, not only recognised that the huge rabbit population there needed controlling, but also enjoyed spending a few hours helping us catch the rabbits at times. Mind you, the methods that we employed, as well as being hard work, were never going to make much of an impression at all on the rabbit population. Eventually ferreting and the shooting of rabbits on the reserve, especially along Windmill Creek, by other people given permission by the RSPB, became a necessary way of managing their numbers. The minute numbers of rabbits to be found throughout the whole of Elmley these days are nothing compared with the many, many thousands there in the 1970's and 80's.

The Elmley track in those days was a lot worse than it is now and so in order to not to have to worry about damage to our cars, especially as we drove across parts the marsh, we bought an old Post Office transit van with no MOT or tax, which gradually became a bit of an old wreck. We used to leave it parked between visits, at the start of the Elmley track, confident by the state of it that no one would steal it. It's condition became even more hazardous soon after getting it, as the fuel pipe came apart and so we made a short cut fuel supply by running a length of piping from a jerry-can in the passenger well - fortunately we never smoked! If I remember rightly that old van served us for a year or so and my 8 yr old step-daughter, who used to sometimes come out with us both rabbiting and eel-trapping, used to love having a go at driving it along the track.

The most heavily infested area for rabbits was always along Windmill Creek, where the old saltings, inland of the 1953 dam, were a mass of dried out rills and deep fissures, a haven for rabbits but with so many escape routes, very difficult to ferret or dig out. Although we did sometimes work along the Creek, we much preferred to work the smaller warrens that were commonplace throughout the flat marsh. Ferreting would of always been an easier and more productive method of catching the rabbits and we occasionally employed that but generally be preferred to use the nose of our dogs and dig out the rabbits. We used my two terriers and even my friend's labrador to identify which rabbit's holes had rabbits down them and they were rarely wrong thankfully, because it could be a hard dig.

The rabbiting was only carried out through the winter months from November to the end of February and in that way it was rare to come across any nests or young rabbits.
Having identified a positive hole among those in a warren we would begin digging, continuing to expose the tunnel as we went. Although the tunnels occasionally went deep, mostly they remained just a foot or two below the surface and would sometimes meander for some distance, so it was hard work, especially as in even the wettest of winters, the surprising peatiness of the ground meant that it was generally bone hard and dry. All the time that we were digging we were encouraged by the increasing excitement of the terriers and rather than dig right up to the rabbits in the tunnel, we would lie down and put our arm into it full stretch until we could feel the rear of the rabbit. Having found it, it would then be pulled out, immediately dispatched, before another check of the tunnel would be done and sometimes a second rabbit would also be located there.
Having established that the end of the tunnel had been reached and no further rabbits were there we would carefully back fill the earth and leave it as we had found it.

We would spend most of a Sunday morning carrying out this rabbiting until we were either knackered or had a dozen or more of rabbits, by which time as you can see below, the dogs weren't in the cleanest condition to take home. The binoculars by the way, weren't for rabbit spotting but there in case an interesting bird flew by. Once we'd given the dogs a bit of a wash in a nearby ditch it was then time to make our way to the local Workingmen's Club where most of the rabbits would be swapped for a few pints of beer, because in those days, fresh caught rabbits were still a favourite meal for a lot of people.

During the summer months the terriers would often have time off to produce a litter and here below is one of my early dogs, aptly named Whitey, seen in the garden both before and after having her puppies.


  1. Another brilliant and interesting read and reflection of your country life Derek. Those puppies of Whitey's look fabulous.

  2. Thanks again Mike. I've dabbled in most things in the countryside and firmly believe that in doing so it enables you to have a clearer understanding of how things work there.

  3. Derek, finally managed a walk out to your world today. The 7 white fronted geese were exactly where you described.A five and a two. The tide was way out and so not much on the scrape in front of the very nice new hide.3 Marsh harriers over but none close.Large numbers of avocet and Shellduck. Heard several pings from beardies but not seen. Skylarks singing from every place and male Reed Buntings posing all over. A lovely late morning spent all alone just enjoying myself.

  4. Mike,
    A tad earlier in the morning and we'd have met. The new hide and the Flood in front of it have been quite popular in recent months, glad you enjoyed a visit all to yourself, they're often the best.