RABBITS GET UPWARDLY MOBILE

THE BROADER PICTURE
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The Independent Culture
When Peter Rabbit's failed attempt to overleap a gooseberry net got him into a painful tangle, some "friendly sparrows ... implored him to exert himself". Thanks to this encouragement, Peter was able to wriggle free and thus escape the pie-dish. His modern Swedish cousins would need no such chivvying. Highly-trained muscle-bunnies, they are quite capable of leaping at least 3ft into the air - and in some cases earn a handsome living from doing so.

The growing Scandinavian sport of rabbit show-jumping is closely modelled on its equestrian inspiration. On leashes, competitors of the genus Oryctolagus cuniculus are guided by their owners around a course of lightweight, scaled- down versions of the type of jumps used at Hickstead. This has been happening in Swedish back gardens for about 20 years; last November, however, the sport received official recognition, when a national body was established to organise events for 25 clubs and 4,000 competitors. Events like the one shown here (at Uddevalla, near Goteborg) attract crowds of thousands.

"Are you sure it's not the Finns doing this?" groans the country's cultural attache in London when asked about the recent formation of the Swedish National Organisation for Rabbit Jumpers. "In Sweden there's an organisation for everything," he explains. "I think it's better for rabbits to be wild. We have lots of wild rabbits in Sweden. And many hares."

Admirers of Flames of Fame, a current Swedish super champion (below), would be appalled to hear him compared to such unskilled creatures. A dwarf lop-eared buck rabbit weighing some 3kg, Flames is a nationally celebrated star of track and field. (His breed's compact body and powerful legs have ensured lop-eared domination of most events.) He particularly excels at the long-jump, with a personal best hop of 205cm. His owner, Louise Jansson, 17, has covered an entire wall of her family home near Karlstad, southern Sweden, with the conquering hero's 500-odd decorations and trophies.

Competition within the sport is fierce, and recently grew more heated with the introduction of cash prizes by new competition spon- sors. Louise Jansson's mother, Lisbeth, ex-plains: "Everyone wants to be a winner, of course." But she is quick to stress the competitors' sportsmanship: "They are all good friends. They don't spit at each other, you know." None the less, Flames of Fame, who revels in his celebrity, must inspire some rabbit rivalry. "We are very proud of him," says Mrs Jansson. "Many people know about him in Sweden and all over the world, and he certainly knows how great he is. Sometimes he won't start a race until people have clapped their hands."

Early training is essential for showjumping bunnies: a young hopeful has to learn to take the leash at two months, and must be introduced to the jumps at four months, if he or she is to stand a chance of reaching competition standard. Lisbeth Jans-son argues that "the most important thing is the relationship between the rabbit and the owner - they must trust each other whatever happens. If the rabbits don't enjoy it, they don't jump. They must really love it to be a success."

Karin Gabrielsson, of a Stockholm-based animal welfare agency, agrees that, far from being cruel, the activity enhances the lives of its participants. "We've certainly never seen it as a problem. It's not uncommon in Sweden to take your rabbit out for a walk on a leash - people do it with cats as well - and it gives the rabbit a much better environment than keeping it in a small cage"

So far the sport has remained resolutely Scandinavian, but might it catch on in this country? There are 1.4 million domestic rabbits in the UK, and at least 37.5 million in the wild. It all adds up to a vast reservoir of untapped show-jumping talent. The British Rabbit Council (who organise the rabbit equivalent of Crufts in Doncaster every January) is extremely twitchy about the concept: "Our members are only interested in exhibiting their rabbits," says a spokesperson. "It's all right for people involved in wacky television programmes, but I don't think our members would go for it."

Much more enthusiastic is John Hird of the British Small Animals Veterinary Association. "Rabbits do have a tremendous facility for play and are much more intelligent than people give them credit for. You get a lot more feedback from a rabbit than from a gerbil or a hamster." And the issue of animal welfare? "They probably enjoy it, and it would be difficult to coerce them - the rabbit fear reaction is to become fossilised." Hird is enthusiastic about the thought of his rabbit clients' participation. "I don't see why it shouldn't catch on. Cock-fighting's dead now, thankfully, but people love a bet, don't they?" !

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