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Bred in Britain: the recycled mouse

EARLIER this spring, as the outbreak of slash attacks on horses and ponies in southern England reached its peak, I was contacted by a prominent Australian journalist who was over here writing on the state of Britain.

He was amazed that these incidents were attracting such enormous national coverage, especially in papers such as the Independent and Daily Mail. They would not merit a line in a serious Australian paper, he advanced. Did I not find it strange?

It was my turn to be surprised. I told him that to understand the horror these attacks provoked you had to understand our national psyche. The majority of Britons are soppy about dogs, cats and horses. They like pets. It starts early on and flickers like a recurrent leitmotiv through many a person's life: a child starts with a hamster and by old age is lavishing love on a cat.

Reporting such brutal behaviour against horses and ponies was not strange, in this context, but absolutely to be expected.

I advised him to read Margaret Forster's excellent biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which contains one of the classic accounts of a human-canine love affair. She doted on her cocker spaniel, Flush, tried to teach him to talk and was convinced she could turn him into a partner at dominoes.

If I ran into this journalist now I would freely own up to having greatly enjoyed last weekend's adaptation of Jilly Cooper's equine bonking novel, Riders, simply because of its truly luscious depiction of top-quality horse flesh. I'm amazed that the critics failed to comment on this.

These thoughts surfaced as I set out to tackle the household mouse problem.

Mice are invading the larder every night. During past infestations the local council saw them off with its own poison. But these modern-day rat- catchers are no longer a free service: they have been privatised. Rather than pay, I visited the local hardware shop with children in tow and asked for mouse poison, only to be told that there was a much better and more humane solution. They sold, believe it or not, friendly mousetraps.

These small, smoky Perspex, rectangular boxes are quite unlike crude mousetraps that spring and kill the mouse. Instead, they bring down a little door once the mouse has ventured inside, rather like the shutter on an automatic garage.

The instructions on the friendly mousetrap, which I bought, reminded me to check it frequently, so as not to harm the mouse. Once you have caught it, you are supposed to set it free.

The first night we scored an immediate hit. A large mouse threw caution to the wind when sniffing out a piece of a Penguin biscuit.

However, my children, classic small Britons and deeply in love with all animals, got up before me and thought it would make a wonderful pet. So they tried to decant this wild mouse from its friendly mousetrap into an unused aquarium. The mouse seized the moment, staged a tremendous jump and ran to freedom under the cooker.

Night two passed with no catch at all. Then on night three, we caught our second mouse. But where to let it go? It didn't seem right to put it over the fence into our neighbour's garden, so we made a special trip to the park and watched as it happily scampered away. There is a certain pleasure in recycling a mouse.

All of this was watched with amazement by the New Zealand girl who is acting as a mother's help. Like the Australian journalist, she said she found the British attitude towards animals peculiar. It wasn't just that we were soppy about mice. She confessed to finding the habit of keeping dogs inside the house, rather than in pens or kennels outside, simply disgusting. In her first English job her employer had kept eight cats: each had a separate bowl with its name on, arranged around the kitchen.

I recall all of this simply because at a time when the rest of the world appears to be inflicting ghastly atrocities on one other, I find it rather refreshing to think that we in Britain are too squeamish to finish off a mouse.