When I was about six years old, my father taught me how to shoot.
No doubt this was an act of gross irresponsibility on his part. I’m sure that if my childhood had been delayed by a generation or two, then instead of playing Cowboys and Indians, with toy guns and rolls of paper caps, I would have probably grown up doing something far less corrupting – alone, in my bedroom, surfing the internet.
But Dad’s shotguns were real, and local farmers used to pay him half a Crown for each dead fox. My diet, in those days of brilliant blue skies, was never long without rabbit or pheasant.
I remember my first air rifle – a Diana 23 Junior – and how it seemed to take me forever to line up the front sight, as my under-length arms struggled to hold the heavy barrel steady. My intended prey had usually bolted long before I pulled the trigger.
Half a century slipped by before I took aim again, this time with a much more powerful Chinese-made .22. This modern rifle has a telescopic sight, which I can easily adjust for wind, and I’m pleased to report that so far not a single lead pellet has been wasted.
The target of my new-found sniping is the legion of rabbits which have colonised the wood, and which now seem determined to march upon the house, digging holes all over the field on their way.
Until a few months ago, most mornings I counted a dozen bunnies on the lawn – before silently sliding open the bedroom window, taking aim, and slowly reducing their number, one at a time. The rabbits do now seem to be getting the message.
I relate this part of my daily pre-breakfast routine not to upset any animal lovers: I enjoy seeing rabbits in the wild; I just enjoy rather less seeing what they do to my garden.
Rabbits remain one of Britain’s major agricultural pests, even though today they present nothing like the epidemic which we faced prior to the introduction of myxomatosis in 1953. Nevertheless, the 1954 Pests Act not only allows me to shoot rabbits on my land, it actually obliges me to prevent their spread to my neighbours.
Measures other than shooting appear disproportionate – I would need a huge amount of fencing, which the government says would have to be designed to keep the rabbits in, rather out. The fences would also need badger gates. The use of ferrets, for me, would be too time-consuming and I have always disliked the idea of traps. The Health and Safety Executive even publishes advice on how to kill rabbits using poison gas, but I’m afraid that – to me – sounds like a disaster just waiting to happen.
There seems to be no shortage of organisations urging me to Do Something About The Rabbits – Defra, Natural England and Cornwall Council all say that pests must be controlled, but none of them is offering to do the job for me.
My dead rabbits end up in a small incinerator, completely in accordance with 21st century health and environmental regulations. I would much prefer to cook and eat them, but I simply don’t have time. If any local butcher wants them, no payment need change hands.