Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Catching Rabbits

I continue to be exasperated at Countryfile's weekly portrayal of the British Countryside - why, we must have a whole generation of youngsters now that have been "educated" about the countryside by watching that programme. A whole generation that haven't been made aware of so many things that occur out there such as fishing, shooting, hunting, pest controls, ferreting, ditch cleaning, sea wall repairing, building hay stacks, etc, etc. The fairy tale version of the countryside that the BBC present is nothing like the one that I experience on my daily visits and merely seems to pander to local bloggers here that refer to shooters as halfwits and who complain about people who shout and whistle at their dogs in the countryside. Can you imagine - "why is that nasty shepherd whistling and shouting at his sheepdog, can't he do it quietly to round up the sheep!"
Anyway, below is a glimpse of real and normal life in the countryside.

I first learnt about, and participated in, the catching of rabbits when I joined the Kent River Authority's Sheppey work gang in 1966, aged 19. The core of the gang was only around six or seven strong but added to from time to time by others, who rarely stayed longer than the summer once the archaic outside work conditions that we suffered through the winter took hold.
For me, as someone who had always been interested in wildlife and the countryside since a child, it was a real joy to be working in the more remote parts of the Sheppey countryside, places that I didn't know existed and were often inaccessible to the public. To experience these places throughout the seasons and among people of a similar age but who already had practical experience of countryside ways and skills, made going to work each day a real delight.
Foremost among the gang was one of the Gransden family, who had been farming on Elmley for over thirty years and he was therefore well versed in hunting and shooting skills. Another guy spent all his spare time helping the local shoot and when he left the KRA after a couple of years, spent the rest of his life as a gamekeeper. Another, who became a good friend, did quite a bit of shooting and the odd bit of poaching around Sheppey and lastly, one who stayed on the KRA all his working life. That particular guy is still one of my best friends and is probably Sheppey's last true countryman in the Jack Hargreaves mould and is still practising his skills in all weathers in his 70's.
So I quickly settled in to the groove with these guys and began to absorb all manner of knowledge about countryside ways, combined of course, with the long established but now out-dated skills used in sea wall and ditch management. Skills such as hand scything ditch banks, repairing groynes along beaches and the art of chipping and shaping rocks and then laying them as a level surface on the sides of sea walls to prevent erosion from the sea. But in the winter especially, we would often use our lunch breaks and later, weekends, to wander out into the marsh wherever we were and catch and kill rabbits., rabbits will sit out

In areas of rough grassland, individual rabbits will conceal themselves in what we used to call "seats", a rabbit sized depression in a clump of grass and usually the only time that you knew that they were there was when they suddenly bolted out of it. However I quickly learnt by walking across the marsh with these guys, that you become adept at just "knowing" which grass clump contained a rabbit in it's "seat". It might be just the particular shape of the clump or you might actually see an eye blink inside it, but the rabbit would sit tight and hope that you would simply walk past, not noticing it. However, if you had spotted it, the art was to not break your stride and suggest it had been seen but as you walked by, to suddenly strike it with the weighted stick that you was carrying or, in a really quick and skillful movement, suddenly throw out a leg and stand on it. In this way many a lunch break saw us providing a weekend roast rabbit for ourselves or others, especially once I'd honed the relatively easy art of cleaning and skinning a rabbit down to just a couple of minutes. A few years later in the early 1970's, when most of us had moved on to other jobs, four of us still met on a Sunday morning to spend a couple of hours walking in line abreast across a marsh, catching rabbits in that way and Spitend marsh at Elmley was our usual spot. Spitend in those pre-RSPB days was an ideal spot, a huge acreage of rough, poorly grazed marsh, absolutely teeming with rabbits and we had unrestricted access.
However, as other things in life became more important, the group split up and it was left to just two of us to maintain the rabbiting weekends at Spitend and we set about changing our catching methods. The obvious one was ferreting, which we sometimes carried out but it had drawbacks such as having to keep ferrets throughout the year, which neither of us fancied, especially as I hated handling the bloody things and losing them inside the rabbit warrens. So we devised and stuck with the method that we used for several years after, which involved utilising our Jack Russell terriers, spades and lots of hard work.
Basically, as we wandered around the Spitend marsh and nearby Windmill Creek saltings, the dogs would quickly indicate to us which of the countless rabbit holes had someone at home by digging furiously at them. We would then begin digging at the holes ourselves with the spades, following the direction that the tunnels were taking and often competing with the digging dogs at the same time. Sometimes the tunnels would take a deep direction but generally we found that they usually maintained a depth of a foot or two below the surface and could run for just a couple of yards or several yards. After every few spadefuls of soil we would then lay on the ground and extend an arm along the tunnel to see if we could feel the rabbit and once we did it would be pulled out and immediately dispatched. Below you can see both myself and my two dogs after one such successful dig.

It was easily the most strenuous and dirty way of catching rabbits that I have ever undertaken as you can see below but we thoroughly enjoyed it and we would usually reckon on catching a dozen or two at each visit and how wonderful to be out in such beautiful countryside.

It was while returning from one of these Spitend days in around 1975 that we eventually bumped in to the newly arrived RSPB manager Peter Makepeace who advised us that Spitend was about to be turned into a bird reserve. He not only encouraged us to continue with our rabbiting due to the fact that they could be counted in their thousands but would sometimes find the time to spend a Sunday with us and help carry the rabbits back.
Below I am once again pictured at the end of a successful Sunday, with nothing left but to take the rabbits to the local Workingman's Club and swap them for a few welcome pints of beer.

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