This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
I suppose it’s not a conversation to have on a first date but there is, I often think, something deeply earthing about standing on the side of the road and having a pee with your dog. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is but I think it might be that no matter how stressful and human your life happens to be, it gives you a sense of just being another animal after all.
When Hattie was finished, she tore away up the hill through the dead bracken and I followed on, zipping my fly up then dropping two cartridges into my gun. Throughout my childhood, I always thought that one day, I’d have a Jack Russell and we’d wander the hills together hunting rabbits. I got the dog when I was sixteen but it didn’t turn out quite like I’d imagined. Rather than working as a happy twosome, I spent most of my late teenage years with my head down a rabbit hole, shouting into the darkness for her to come back.
Like shooting geese or trying to catch salmon, the weather is everything when you’re after rabbits
I was always very straight with her that if she stayed above ground and flushed rabbits from cover for me to shoot, we wouldn’t head home empty-handed quite so often but she never saw it that way. As she’s grown older and fatter, her behaviour has improved to the extent that I now spend a little less time sitting next to rabbit warrens, tearfully wondering if I’ve seen the last of my dog.
Like shooting geese or trying to catch salmon, the weather is everything when you’re after rabbits, and the wind blowing hard in our faces beneath a warm sun was as good as it could have possibly been. As we climbed higher, I could see little cotton tails bounding away over the grass. The farmer’s son was right; the hill was hoaching with bunnies.
On the phone earlier that day, he’d told me it was nice to see them back but his dad had planted a new wood without plastic tree guards and there was little hope for the saplings while rabbit numbers were on the rise.
My plan was simple. I was going to work through the bracken with the dog, in the hope that a couple of sitters would bolt. As shooting goes, walking-up rabbits is about as far from the grandeur of driven grouse as it comes, but for my money it’s just as challenging and if you get a couple of young ones, they are every bit as delicious.
As the afternoon wore away into evening, it became clear my plan wasn’t going as fruitfully as I’d hoped. Save for one fluffed shot on a big buck that Hattie bolted from beneath a stone dyke, I was heading home with my cartridge bag almost as heavy as when I’d set out.
It wouldn’t have mattered hugely, except I’d promised a poet I was going to see the following week that I would bring him a rabbit pie. Tom Pickard, a man who was instrumental in the British Poetry Revival and was thought of by Allen Ginsberg, the granddaddy of the Beats, as being “one of the most live and true poetic voices in Great Britain”, was delighted by the idea. He’d grown up on rabbit, he told me, but hadn’t had any for some time.
Two days later, in South London, I stood in a butcher’s shop in disbelief. “£16.50 for that?” It was twice as big as the buck that had lived to tell the tale but I couldn’t help saying to the tattooed butcher that you can get two boxes of cartridges for the price of one of his bunnies. “We don’t ever get wild rabbit,” he told me with a disinterested shrug, “the meat can be tough and the supply is random.”
It should matter to meat eaters that the creatures we consume have had happy lives
I spent all morning at Tom’s and stayed for lunch. I was there to talk to him about the way birds inspire art and the possibility of poetry without them. “My writing would just be totally bereft if we lost our birds,” he said to me, in the shed at the bottom of his garden, “it’s the spontaneity they provide and a constant sense of the wild.”
He wrote to me the following day, telling me how much he liked the pie.
I’d given him the choicest cuts and made myself a little one with what was left. Tom was right. Even though the gravy was a bit thin, it worked well with the mushrooms and cider but I was unable to eat it without thinking about the caged life the sixteen quid rabbit had led.
Sure, that rabbit farm is no doubt someone’s living and they’re only in Britain because the Romans brought them here for their banqueting tables, but I’d have enjoyed my pie all the more if the contents had been free.
It should matter to meat eaters that the creatures we consume have had happy lives and there is no happier way to end up on a plate than it all ending one sunny day, on a Dumfriesshire hillside, after bolting from cover after a life of living wild.
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