Saturday, 9 December 2017

Rabbit hunting with Richard Armer

It’s always coldest just after the sun rises. A fact only known to the kind of people who find themselves up and out before the sun has risen. This morning of empty blue skies is particularly chilly, with a brisk wind and hard frozen ground underfoot.

I am out in a field near Newton le Willows with Juno, Kodo, Podo and Richard Armer. Juno is a sleek, mottled grey lurcher. Kodo and Podo are ferrets. Richard, dressed in camouflage, is the general of this little group, ready to unleash his troops on the local rabbits.

Hunting with dogs has been a tradition in Richard’s family for many generations: as we make our way towards the first warren he shows me the background image on his phone, and it is his great great grandfather, Henry Major, with a lurcher that looks very similar to Juno. Richard grew up in Leeds, and says that his passion for dogs and hunting with them kept him out of trouble as a teenager.
Juno’s heritage as a working hunt dog is impressive. Her ancestor, Merle, had a book written about him: “Merle: The Start of Dynasty”, by a well known authority on lurchers, Brian Plummer. She is alert, sleek and deadly, with bright eyes and a keen intellect that Richard says is partly due to the amount of collie that has been bred into the line. As soon as she is let out of the car she races around the field (totally ignoring the sheep – Richard says that it requires careful training to ensure dogs ignore livestock), leaping over barbed wire fences and generally looking quite pleased to be out on this frosty morning.

Richard begins preparing the first warren, setting nets over as many holes as he can find. Juno wanders around.

Kodo and Podo, who emerge from a very cosy looking box full of straw, are sisters. Kodo, at four years old, is the more experienced of the pair. Both are silken and elegant. Richard picks her up and gently puts her down next to one of the holes, where she immediately slinks through the net and vanishes underground. Juno stands still and alert in a position where she can see the whole warren: Richard tells me that she can hear what is happening underground, and knows when a rabbit is likely to emerge from a hole.

We all wait quietly and expectantly, Juno’s ears wagging around a bit as she takes everything in. Eventually there is movement and a rabbit flies out of a hole at about 25mph, into the net. Juno is on it in a flash, gently pinning it to stop it escaping, and then Richard has it. He quickly and expertly pulls it from the net and pulls its neck. There are a couple of subsequent post-mortem twitches, but it’s obviously a pretty quick and clean death. It’s a big buck, and Richard points out the scars on its ears: he says that Watership Down is a remarkably accurate depiction of the hierarchical and rather brutal rabbit society. “Except that rabbits don’t really talk.”

We move onto another warren, as Richard thinks that might be the only rabbit in this one currently (they quickly refill – rabbits tending to breed like, well, rabbits).

The farmer who requested Richard come and deal with the rabbits has sheep and a couple of horses in the next field. Both the sheep and horses can easily break a leg if they step into a rabbit hole. Not only that, but Richard mentions that five rabbits eat roughly the same amount of food as one sheep, so with too many rabbits in a field, the sheep won’t have enough to eat.

Up in a tree is an extremely impressive bird box, which Richard says is for owls: the farmer is quite a keen conservationist.

We set up the nets again. I have a go at this too, and quickly realise that there is a definite art to handling the nets so that they don’t tangle. Richard says that he has no patience for jigsaw puzzles, but doesn’t mind untangling his nets.

Once set up, Kodo and Podo both go underground, and several rabbits are pushed out. Some go straight into the nets, and some dodge the nets and bolt across the field. The intelligent ones rush to the hedge where they are safe from Juno, but those that take a wrong turn and head out into the field are brought down by Juno. Each one is skilfully despatched by Richard. He says that he doesn’t really like killing them, but given the bad effects that rabbits have on the local environment he doesn’t feel too bad about it. He doesn’t go hunting during the summer though, as he doesn’t like the idea of baby rabbits being killed by the ferrets or dog.

Richard has worked for most of his life as a chef, and is now a catering manager for a care home. Food is therefore a subject close to his heart, and he believes strongly in good, fresh, locally sourced produce, if at all possible. The rabbits caught today will be going to the Shoulder of Mutton pub in Kirby Hill, near Richmond.

Not that anybody is going to get rich by supplying rabbits to pubs or butchers: we leave with a haul of ten carcasses, which will fetch £2 a head. But that isn’t the reason why he is out here: Richard loves working with his dog, and he knows that having fewer rabbits will help the farmer. He also appreciates seeing it go from field to fork with as few “food miles” as possible.

Juno, Kodo and Podo all get back into the car, along with the ten carcasses. Richard heads off for home, ready to pick up his children from school. Rabbit might be on the menu tonight.