IT'S A dog's life for a rabbit these days. And it looks as if it's about to get a whole lot worse. Not only are more than 1 million rabbits on the South Downs awaiting death by gas for doing what they do so well, our fluffy friends have also been deserted by their No 1 ally, the author Richard Adams, who sees their extermination as a "regrettable necessity".

Last week I called on Mr Adams at his Hampshire home to find out what had happened to make him turn his back on the bunnies in the 26 years since Watership Down, his international best-seller, put them in the forefront of world literature.

I arrived to find the writer and his wife, Elizabeth, having tea in their beautiful walled garden. Mr Adams, who is now 78, was pensive for several moments when the matter of the slaughter was broached, and then he shook his head. "They should have realised this was going to happen and done something about it before now. I haven't been there but I am told there are an awful lot of rabbits and they do tend to wreck the place." I must have looked shocked. Mr Adams continued: "I've never been one of these sentimentalists. I'm not a fluffy- bunny sort of person at all. If I saw a rabbit in my garden, I'd shoot it. When they see a row of lettuces they have an annoying habit of taking a bite out of each one and then moving on. It would make it less infuriating if they ate the whole thing but, no, they take a little nibble out of all of them. It's a habit, a bit like cocaine. Once they start, they want more and more."

The Adamses' garden, set behind a picturesque white cottage in the village of Whitchurch, is strictly a rabbit-free zone. The flowers and trees, which come in all shapes, colours and sizes, including a bed of daisies which smells of chocolate, are far too precious for the likes of Fiver and the boys, the heroes of Watership Down. But there are plenty of nettles in the sunken garden behind the vegetables for the butterflies, Mr Adams said, as we toured his estate. "I find it difficult to do the gardening because I'm quite a synthetic person. I have a bad back and two false hips, so we get a very good man to come in once a week. He is wonderful, but my wife argues with him. He likes to pull everything out, you see."

I didn't see. I found it very difficult to believe Mr Adams' charming wife was capable of arguing. Mrs Adams is an author herself who has written several books on china and porcelain, I learnt, and the couple have been together for more than 50 years. "We were next-door neighbours. She was quite young when I went off to the war but when I came back in 1946 I saw this ravishing 19-year-old and knew I had to marry her." They have two daughters, six grandchildren and lots and lots of books.

Once the tour of the garden was completed I was ushered through to the library - an impressive room with wall-to-wall books. "All the books on this wall are novels and all of them on this wall are mine," he said, pointing to about a dozen shelves stacked with hardbacks, paperbacks and multiple copies in numerous languages of his eight books.

The retired civil servant admits his life took a turn for the better when he penned Watership Down, his first novel, which started as a tale he told to his daughters on a car journey to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch a performance of Twelfth Night starring Judi Dench. "The success of Watership Down was an overwhelming shock. I remember the reviews. There was one critic in the Observer who said he had read the novel with 'trembling pleasure'. Trembling with pleasure has now been adopted by the family as our phrase for fan mail." And, yes, he said indignantly, he still received "tremblings with pleasure" at least three or four times a week.

Trembling, but not with pleasure, is what those poor rabbits on the South Downs will be doing in a couple of months when they are wiped out by cyanide gas. I wonder what Fiver would have done had he found himself in their situation? They just aren't made the same any more.

MORE news from the bizarre world of publishers and their parties. Duckworth, known in the industry for producing wonderfully crusty books (prime example: Humours of Golf by W Heath Robinson), is celebrating its centenary this autumn. At the same time, it's launching a revolutionary imprint, representing a radical break with those last, august hundred years: they have asked Tom Headley to launch - drum roll - Duckworth Literary Entertainment (DLE).

Headley is not what one would think of as a typical Duckworth man. He was the deputy editor of Esquire magazine at the tender age of 23. He moved to Hollywood to write Flashdance, and - more memorably - that shopping scene in Pretty Woman. He's interviewed OJ, and is a confidant of Madonna ...

I'm told, though, that he's already commissioned half a dozen people to write novellas, with a view to selling the film rights to Hollywood, one of them being DM Thomas, the racy author of The White Hotel. Headley, so the story goes, will be a Bloomsbury-Hollywood go-between, offering literary London an entree into LA.

The launch party, designed by Sebastian Conran, son of Terence, will take place at the Dorchester in October. And the name of the celebration to launch this brave new world for Duckworth? "The Night of the Duck".

The Bridget and Tiffany offensive

MEANWHILE, the race to challenge the supremacy of Bridget Jones gathers pace with the publication of The Trials of Tiffany Trott, Isabel Wolff's picaresque tale of a single woman's quest for the man of her dreams. It's an odd kind of rivalry, though - or perhaps just a clever piece of commercialism - when the same publisher has both books on its lists. That's the case with these two in America, where Penguin/Puttnam have made Tiffany and Bridget "sisters under the skin", as Isabel puts it. And with Americans taking to Bridget in a big way, Penguin/Puttnam obviously have just as much faith in Tiffany, having secured the rights to Isabel's novel for a six-figure sum.

No wonder Isabel was looking so radiant in pink at her launch party last week, her success helping ease the disappointment at the way the Daily Telegraph dropped her Tiffany column for Bridget Jones last year. "I was genuinely hacked off about it at the time, but now the book's out I couldn't care less. It's helped to solder together the shattered remnants of my soul."

IN A previous incarnation your diarist was plying his trade on the sports desk of the Times. It was still an era of journalistic rectitude and stylistic propriety. There was a strict rule governing use of religious imagery: messiahs making comebacks would never have been allowed; to suggest that a team might be praying for victory, or had been crucified by the opposition, was likewise considered blasphemous. I don't know what the Times' attitude is nowadays, but I do know where the Church Times stands. "While England were experiencing a resurrection in the Test against South Africa..." begins its report on the Lambeth Conference bishops' match last weekend. O tempora! O mores!

To fellow tobacco-lovers, a small Scottish gem

AS YOU'LL have noticed from the rather fetching illustration that adorns this column each week, I enjoy my tobacco. I also enjoy my annual visit to the Edinburgh Festival. So you can imagine how delighted I was when I had delivered to my desk last week a splendid new publication entitled The Forest Smoker's Guide to Scotland (Quiller Press, pounds 7.95).

This invaluable book means I shall know exactly which pubs and restaurants I can visit and light up in without fear of falling foul of the anti-smoking lobby. Edinburgh, it turns out, comes top in the smoker-friendliness league, followed by Glasgow. The healthy climes of the Highlands and Islands are evidently just that - it's rated Scotland's least smoker-friendly region.

I took pleasure, too, in Lord Harris of High Cross's foreword. "After all that nonsense about so-called passive smoking," this inveterate pipe man writes, "a report from Uruguay claims to have discovered that people who gorge on rice puddings are more than four-times as likely to develop lung cancer. My tip for non-smokers is: stick to porridge and wear a rice-pudding patch." Smokers, he adds, should steer clear of rice puddings and avoid sitting next to a rice-pudding eater.

Impeccable logic, I'm sure you'll agree.