Alan Soden is usually up and out of the house hours before dawn. His council home is dwarfed by the Dowty factory next door and anyone seeing him tiptoeing out might think he was on his way to an early morning shift. But instead of bringing home a pay packet, unemployed Alan is off into the countryside to catch rabbits to help feed his family.

He goes out most mornings, walking up to 14 miles in the fields and by the river Severn near his home village of Northway, Gloucestershire. He prides himself on having a mental map of the area, accurate down to the smallest fruit tree. Although he usually goes for rabbits or fish, anything wild and edible that he can catch is fair game. 'I'm out well before light and I'm normally back in of a morning with what I need.'

Once he did this for fun - going out, bagging a few rabbits and taking them into work to give to his mates. Back in the Eighties he worked as a fabrication engineer for a local company, but he was laid off three years ago when the firm went under.

Alan's skill at coaxing wildlife into the cooking pot recently landed him in court, despite having two fishing licences. He admitted taking an 18lb pike from the Severn at Tewkesbury weir during the closed season. He told the court he took the pike to feed his family. Their weekly benefit of pounds 131 had run out and all they had in the larder was a tin of sweetcorn, two tins of peas and a bag of rice.

He faced a maximum fine of pounds 2,500, but the magistrates were lenient and gave him a conditional discharge, ordering him to pay pounds 10 costs.

The case provoked a wave of sympathy for the Sodens and their three children. One local farmer has now offered him a patch of land to go ferreting for rabbits. And a few days ago a man turned up on their doorstep and gave them a 6lb salmon. 'You should have seen the kids,' laughs Alan's wife, Anita. 'They couldn't stop touching it. This man was just somebody who'd read about us. He also brought some money to pay my costs, but we found out that somebody had already paid them. We've had some lovely letters from people. Had one from an old man of 84, reminiscing about the way he used to catch gudgeon with his father.'

The great irony is that for Alan Soden history has come full circle. He grew up in rural Herefordshire, one of eight children, and had his first job on a pig farm by the age of 12. His father taught him how to fish to help with the family dinner table. He could never have believed that at 41 he would be relying on the same country skills to feed his own children.

He has been offered jobs. One paid pounds 80 for a 40-hour week portering. Another was as a dentist's receptionist for pounds 2.40 an hour. 'I can just see me doing that,' says burly, bearded Alan. 'Anyway, who's going to work for that?

'I don't call what I do poaching. I call it existing, and trying to keep your own mind together. Other people on the estate are going to be facing the same bills as us - they have their own ways of cheating, working on the side and that. I go into the wilderness and get a dose of grub.

'I don't want people to think I'm a slaughterer of animals. I just take what I need. I'm interested in wildlife not just for food, but also being able to see it and show it to my kids.'

He says the recession has forced less skilful neighbours to turn to the countryside. 'If you went from street to street here you would find a lot of game eaters,' he says. 'I would say for the majority of them it's skills they've picked up out of necessity. A lot of them muck it up. They go a bit late and young rabbits are in the ground; they end up digging up the real estate and a lot of farmers don't like it.

'They're dabbling in it. That's why you see the odd ferret running loose around here. We had one out the back. It's not ours. It went into a factory round the corner and someone brought it over.'

The Sodens get their income support fortnightly. Anita, who is 36, says: 'You've got your bills to pay first and with what's left you buy food. If the amount left that particular fortnight doesn't buy as much food as you like, then you've got to get it from somewhere else.

'Around this cul-de-sac there are people in a worse position than us. They owe money, so when the job stops they've still got to pay the debts. We were really lucky because we don't owe anybody anything. We don't have bills, we've got no debt. Our philosophy is if you haven't got the money, you do without.'

To catch rabbits Alan either ferrets them out into a net, or he reaches for 'Old Bow', his battered, but lethal, 10in bowie knife. 'I chuck that knife like you wouldn't believe. You don't want to throw it further than 30 yards - it's so heavy. I ain't missed many yet. You've got to be absolutely silent on your feet. It's just one of them natural things I do anyway. In fact the wife says I ought to tie a bell round my neck. I creep up on anything and quietly nip 'em into the next world.'

When Alan earned a wage Anita could afford an unplanned trip to the supermarket. Now she goes just once when they get their money, and has to stick to a strict list of essentials. Then she has to cope with what her husband brings home.

'I don't like to gut the fish. He'll do all that. But where people are cooking a joint of pork, I'll cook a rabbit. If he brought home four rabbits there'd be two left out and two in the freezer. Sometimes my sister will send the kids over - 'have you got a spare rabbit?' She'll do a pie.

'We're all in the same boat. For instance, yesterday I went to see a woman I know, she said she'd got this huge bag of apples and wondered if I could use them. Now I'll make some pies and put them in the freezer, take some round to my sister or my mum. Everybody helps everybody.

'He brought home a flounder a few weeks ago. I thought it was a deformed fish - it's got both eyes on the same side. Frightened me to death. They smell like the river - you can either soak them overnight in salt water or, if you soak them in seasoned milk, it seems to take away that rivery smell.

'The same with pike. A lot of people wouldn't eat pike, but then a lot of people wouldn't have to. I cut it into chunks and fry it in seasoned butter. If the kids are going to eat it I'll flake it, and mix it with rice and things like that. If you're going to season it well, you'll disguise the taste.

'Hare is real strong, gamey - you wouldn't really give it to the kids. We'd have it on Christmas Eve, it's a special occasion dinner.'

The Sodens' three boys - Tim, 12, James, 8, and Tom, 7 - all look fit and healthy. Anita admits that their diet helps. They have grown up following their father across the fields. The boys know their mushrooms, and sometimes bring home walnuts and sweet chestnuts.

Alan says proudly: 'Jim catches his own rabbits. Tom's had a pike - very nearly as big as him when he caught it. The kids handle the ferrets well, they're quite often putting them down the holes for me.

'I can see the kids doing the same thing when they grow up. Maybe Tom won't, he's too squeamish, but the others will. I can't see them having much of a chance in the system the way things are going.

'But at least they're in the countryside. I feel sorry for kids in them big towns. I'd like to see a lot more of them get out into the country instead of being trapped around concrete. What are you going to do with bricks, apart from learn to throw them all over the place?'

(Photographs omitted)

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