Country Matters: In a stew about those rabbits

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The Independent Online
THE ONE feature I had not anticipated was the wildlife - but there, as my wife deposited me in hospital and I looked out of the window, were a dozen of the biggest, sleekest rabbits I had ever seen, grazing the two-acre lawn. Not only that: as we watched, out stalked a great bruiser of a fox, which paraded through the throng with lordly mien, scattering potential dinners to right and left.

On the eve of a major operation, nothing could quite make me feel at home, but that came as close as anything could have. I saw what had happened. When the hospital was built, three or four years ago, a wide strip of ground was left waste between it and the bypass. On this, dense scrub had grown up, providing ideal cover, and in it rabbits had established themselves: from their size and glossiness, it looked as though they had crossed with tame escapees.

As the evening wore on, I fell to counting numbers. With their constantly shifting patterns, the animals made a marvellous cabaret: for no discernible reason sudden alarms would shiver through the company, like wind through corn. The whole lot would bolt for a few yards, stop, sit up straight, then reform into new groups. Some were always disappearing into undergrowth, while others were emerging.

The banging of doors in the nurses' car-park, right under my window, did not disturb them at all; nor did a rangy black cat, which made a slow pass on the same trajectory as the fox. Clearly the rabbits knew this fellow, and they rated him low on their list of hazards, barely bothering to move out of his way. As dusk fell, they grew ever bolder and advanced right to the walls of the building, browsing delicately on the few shreds of plants that remained in the flower-beds.

Now to a countryman, a rabbit is both a pest and a juicy target - a curse to crops in field and vegetable garden, but also a succulent filling for a pie. Even as a nurse took my blood pressure - which must have been rising by the minute - I powerfully regretted not having packed a .22 rifle in my luggage.

A complete hip replacement is now routine: nevertheless, the first two days after the operation were not particularly amusing. Flat on my back, tied down by the heels, with a drip in my wrist and a drain in the eight-inch wound down the outside of my left thigh, I could scarcely move - which was just what the surgeon had intended.

But my mind was on the go, and every time a nurse came in I questioned her closely about the state of play on the lawn. The highest count we mutually recorded was 24. I lay there thinking of the havoc Old Bill the gardener would have caused: whenever he saw a rabbit, his aim was to 'give 'ee a ribber', and he could have dealt out ribbers left and right from my window.

Come day three, I was up, into the shower and away to the gym for physiotherapy, albeit with the help of wheelchair and Zimmer frame. But at least, being upright again, I commanded a view of the lawn once more: 15 . . . 18 . . . 22 . . . and I was powerless to intervene.

During a visit to the bathroom, another irony became apparent. In this environment the term 'high seat' does not have what I take to be its normal meaning - that is, a tower or ladder made of poles upon which one sits to watch or cull deer. Here the high seat was a six-inch upward extension of the loo, designed to minimise the descent of newly-repaired hips.

Yet my window was, in effect, a high seat in the outdoor sense: it offered an excellent field of fire, and looked down on the lawn from a good height, so that any bullet fired from it would embed itself safely in the grass.

On day four, feeling livelier, I made an early count: 25, and the cat. This was too much. I decided to appeal for permission to import a rifle, and put in my first request when my surgeon came past on his early round. I do not think he took me seriously. Possibly he thought I was delirious. He agreed that rabbits were a menace in his garden, a few miles out of town, but did not seem inclined to sanction any campaign against these urban cousins.

Next I tried the matron - young, good-looking and not in the least starchy; yet she, too, lacked the stomach for a massacre.

'But matron, look, I could feed the whole hospital. Rabbit pie all round.'

'Think how upset the other patients would be. They like watching them, too.'

'It's me I'm thinking about. The frustration of seeing that lot out there may seriously set back my recovery.'

Her tone remained bantering; and although she did not actually say, 'Grow up,' that was the gist of her parting exchanges. And so I was left, taking practice aims with one of the two walking sticks to which I had graduated.

Thus foiled, I sought comfort in letting my mind concentrate on the subject of walking. Having always walked everywhere as a matter of course - preferring to rely on my own two feet rather than other means of transport whenever time allows, and having instinctively headed for the top of any hill I found myself near - I found it a considerable shock to be able to walk scarcely at all.

I reflected on the fact that, although I have never gone on a truly marathon hike - John O'Groats to Land's End, for instance - I must have covered a good deal of ground in the course of everyday life. Two dog-walks a day, averaging three miles in total, mean 1,000 miles a year, for a start. The longest trek I have done was across the foothills of Dhaulagiri in Nepal - 24 days on end, for several of which we were lost. Lost again in the wilds of the Highlands, I once covered 30 miles in a single afternoon and night, the last 10 in the dark, victim of my own failure to take a compass with me. By the time I eventually drew near home, my whole family was out looking for me; my father-in-law, who went the wrong way round the mountain, reached base at 4am and very sensibly had a bottle of champagne in his bath.

Reliving such episodes helped pass the time, and encouraged me to look forward to full mobility again. Yet still, outside my window, the rabbits were nibbling and scampering and thumping.

Back at home, I found that myxomatosis had come round again, as it always does at this time of year, killing a high percentage of the population. But I suspect that the hospital rabbits, being cut off by city and bypass from contact with neighbours, may escape and flourish, now that the greatest threat to them has been discharged without a shot being fired.

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