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Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit and the plague

Friday 18 August 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard has become one of the victims of the rabbit plague sweeping parts of the Yorkshire Dales and asks: is Beatrix Potter to blame?

A LOT of my time this week has been spent futilely chasing rabbits around my allotment. And then, on Thursday, it was announced that Hollywood is to make a film based on the life of Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit. And today, I am pondering the question: is the latter responsible for the former?

As we reported on Daelnet (See News), the Skipton areas of the Dales have been hit by a plague of rabbits. They have infested church yards, the Leeds-Liverpool canal basin, and allotments - one of them being mine.

peter rabbit
Peter Rabbit - too human?

What's more, they are gourmet rabbits with the skills of a circus gymnast. I have watched them leap fences four feet high and - even more miraculously - jump through a tiny hole in a wire fence three feet from the ground like a trained Alsatian leaping through a burning hoop.

Once inside, they plunder only the best. They take tender young French beans but not their tougher cousins, the runners. For some reason, they totally gorge on red cabbage but merely nibble the outer leaves of the common-or-garden green stuff. As for calabrese, they ignore the leaves but feast on the flower hearts, the bits that should grace my table.

But the biggest insult ever was when they set up home a couple of winters ago under my asparagus bed, eating the tender shoots - the ultimate garden crop - before they even got to the surface! So I was not just giving the blighters B & B but threw in a gourmet supper too.

Now my childhood was spent in the lean years of the 1940s, when rationing was actually tightened after we had "won" World War 11. It was a regular treat for me to go out with a friend of my father's with his 12-bore and a brace of ferrets, to be welcomed by local farmers because, for them, the only good rabbit was a dead rabbit.

The usual tally was several brace, which my grandmother - a Victorian cook of the old school - would turn into myriad dishes from pies to stews and (with a pigeon breast or two and a little pork) game pies. These were split half and half between hunter and cook and our neighbours enjoyed a veritable feast.

Now I would dearly like to take a gun to the rabbits on my allotment but this is not allowed by the council because there are public footpaths on two sides and a bad shot might endanger a passer-by. Gassing is not allowed either because that could endanger domestic pets and the same goes for snares: there is a voracious Siamese cat which hunts our land and it is an ace-killer of baby rabbits.

All this is shame because the only way that England will ever control its rabbit population - which has become a menace in some areas for under-mining railway embankments and country roads - is if more people could be persuaded to eat the bleeping things.

And that is where Beatrix Potter comes in. She published Peter Rabbit, her first book, in 1900 and then went on for many years giving human feelings to a whole zoo of animals like Jemima Puddleduck, Prickles, et al. This was the beginning of the end for the great English rabbit pie (except in times for war or food shortages) because millions of townies were brought up on anthromorphasised animals which could speak, think and hatch clever little schemes - and therefore definitely not for eating.

Beatrix has always puzzled me in this because she sunk her literary fortune into a Lake District farm and became very much a hands-on sheep farmer. Farming in that beautiful but desolate part of the world has always been a hard struggle and for any hill farmer, whether in the Lakes, the Yorkshire Dales or the Pennines, the rabbit has always been a public enemy: it is said that seven rabbits graze as much as one mature sheep.

We are all indebted to dear old Beatrix because she virtually founded the National Trust and her farm was its first property. But if only she hadn't made Peter the Rabbit human. Then I could enjoy once again an Olde English rabbit pie - fattened on my own prize veg. Imagine: asparagus-fed rabbit. Surely, we gardeners are allowed a gourmet treat too!

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