The terrier was making an almighty to-do at the burrow’s entrance. Alerted by the din, the ranger killed his saw and ambled over. Immediately, the hairy dalek fell mute.
The ranger ordered the animal away, which it did reluctantly, sitting trembling a few feet from its master. Kneeling in front of the hole, the countryman brushed at the burrow’s entrance with a gentle hand. He then picked up several droppings and rolled them between his fingertips. What information he was divining from all this I had no idea, but it was a fascinating ritual. His dog seemed equally taken, never dropping its gaze, the little body wracked with shivers and leaking an occasional whine.
I walked over, curious to see what would come of this odd field craft. Bending down, I noted a strong musty smell mixed with the damp reek of excavated earth. Without looking up, the ranger asked me to fetch him a briar. An odd request, I thought, but obliged him, wading into a cluster of brambles a few yards down the hedge and returning with a ten foot whip. I handed it to him and watched as he cut down its length a couple of inches, before splaying the ends at ninety degrees. This done, he began to pass the cutting down the hole.
For a couple of minutes he proded and poked, silent but for a few choice words amplified by the burrow’s acoustics. Finally, he stopped and slowly began to rotate the briar. I remained silent, mesmerised by the slow turning, and the even sound of his breathing. After five minutes, and the greater part of the briar out of the hole, the ranger shifted back a few inches and stopped. Then I heard it: a thumping sound, like a dry, fast, drumbeat. In a flash, it was with us: a large buck rabbit, kicking violently, caught on the end. The ranger grabbed the animal and before you could say ‘knife’ dispatched the squirming creature.
I regarded the dead rabbit and felt instant pity. In the moment it had been fished out, it had seemed so vital, the back legs kicking with such strength. Now it was just a slack rectangle of fur. I found the change hard to compute, it had been so sudden.
Barely dead but dead nonetheless. That is the odd thing about death: there is no hierarchy, no scale, no such thing as less or more dead. Seconds earlier the rabbit had been full of life, wedded to the clod, to the dew, to the smell of coming winter. Now it was as remote as any one of its ancestors, flung into the vast, dark space of every rabbit that had gone before it. I imagined a coney netted for the pot of a hungry Victorian family, or one taken by a gypsy’s dog near this spot in the year of my birth. Death levels everything and the rabbit’s eyes would soon glaze over. Looking down, I observed the delicate ears, the subtle dun coat, the sculpted feet and soft pads; every cell of which the fields and Fenland air had nurtured into being. A work of love no less. I did not want the ranger to see I was affected, so looked away.
He told me an old poacher had taught him the trick. He’d splayed the end of the briar so not to skewer the rabbit, and with its turning the animal’s fur had become caught on the thorns. The ranger asked me if I wanted it for my pot. I couldn’t say no, despite having no idea how to skin and prepare an animal. The truth was that I was too embarrassed to admit this, so took the limp creature from him and put it in my bag. Walking back to the truck, I caught a glimmer of the Dog Star low in the sky. My mind instantly returned to the rabbit who was now far beyond even that cold twinkling, as far from his hedgerow home as could be imagined. I silently promised myself to do right by the animal and cook a stupendous stew; to honour the rabbit who, in his final bolt, had even out run Sirius.