Islanders offer bounty on bunnies

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The Independent Online
THE 65 people living on one of Britain's smallest and most remote islands are under siege. Food is disappearing, crops are being eaten, man-catching holes are appearing overnight, and to add insult to injury, the enemy can be seen nonchalantly strolling the lanes and fields of the island at night in family groups.

Rabbits on the Orkney island of Papa Westray are estimated to outnumber humans by at least 500 to one, and have so far survived all attempts to kill them off, including gassing, shooting, snaring, poisoning and having slurry poured down their holes.

Now desperate islanders are offering a special bounty to any marksman who can kill the pests. A price of 25 pence has been put on the head, or rather the tail, of each rabbit on the island by the local council, with a total of pounds 600 in the kitty for the bounty hunters over the next 12 months.

The rabbit crisis on the Orkney island is blamed on a combination of circumstances - the land is not intensively farmed, the sandy soil is ideal for digging warrens, the pests have developed an immunity to myxomatosis, and the surrounding sea means the increasing numbers have nowhere to go.

Warrens up to five feet deep have appeared overnight in the sands, sometimes collapsing, ruining fields, and endangering walkers. Around the coast, sea defences have been jeopardized too by the burrowing bunnies. According to the islanders, who have worked out that six rabbits eat as much as one sheep, the final straw was competition from cheap rabbits imported to the UK mainland from China.

"Until then there had been a big market for rabbits from here, with people getting something like 14 pence a pound. When they started importing rabbits from China, it knocked the trade completely and people stopped hunting them. The bounty is an attempt to get people hunting them again," said Neil Rendall, Island postmaster and former councillor. "They are a problem. They eat crops and dig very big holes in the sand, which can collapse when people walk on them."

Papa Westray is not the only Orkney island suffering from rabbits. On Stronsay, the burrowing of rabbits knocked over a dozen headstones and now steel fencing keeps the pests out. On North Ronaldsay, where there are 70 people and several thousands rabbits, the Rabbit Clearance Society has tried gassing the rabbits in a bid to keep them at bay. According to Orkney councillor Howie Firth, so bold have the rabbits become that they can be spotted walking in what appear to be family groups. "When you are out for a walk you feel almost like an intruder," he said.

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