EACH morning at around 7:30, a wild hare the size of a small dog bounded on to the lush grass lawn of the house in which we were holidaying. Last week, sipping coffee on the sofa, I could see it through the window nibbling the grass in one patch and then bounding across the lawn, its hind legs like powerful pistons and ears rising a good eight inches above its head, as it set off in search of a fresher strip of garden buffet. After ten or 15 minutes it would gracefully skip off through a crack in the dry stone wall and out into the surrounding sun-dappled countryside, only to return 12 hours later as dusk softly settled and dine once more.
The hare was indeed the largest I’ve ever seen and with its whiskers, mobile nose and dark inquisitive eyes, I grew quite fond of his (or her) daily arrivals. But niggling away at the back of my mind was the calculation of what his impressive, muscular bulk would translate into edible meat, be it bowls of hare stew or thick slices of game pie.
I knew I would never set down a snare, catch and kill, skin, gut and cook him up. I knew also that if someone had suggested doing so I would have said no and to leave him be. Yet I also know that if I’d departed for the day and a passing chef had done just that, I would have been momentarily disappointed, angry even, but eventually my appetite and curiosity would have got the better of me and before the night had passed I’d have reached for the knife and fork.
For like the vast majority of the population, I have small noble sentiments about certain cute and cuddly animals, but do so enjoy my meat, usually medium to well-done, although only after someone else has done the dirty work.
I also have a soft spot for rabbits, although I never had one as a child, one of my earliest cinematic memories is going to see Watership Down at the La Scala cinema in Clydebank and becoming almost hysterical with grief when the rabbit died and the auditorium was treated to the lugubrious tones of Art Garfunkel and his mournful rendition of Bright Eyes. This week a certain slice of modern Britain took on the persona of my four-year-old self sobbing into a hankie at the La Scala and once again the emotional trigger was the death of a rabbit – not a celluloid creation but a genuine, actual rabbit who had the misfortune to hop, not on to my lawn, but the vegetable patch belonging to Jeanette Winterson, at her country house in the appropriately named village of Upper Slaughter in the Cotswolds.
Ms Winterson, the award- winning writer of novels such as Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, took exception to the rabbit’s indiscriminate appropriation of her herbs and so swiftly passed judgment. A decade ago this would have caused not even a ripple in the public psyche. But today in the age of Twitter when it is de rigueur to inform the wider community of one’s plans for supper her decision to tweet “Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating the rabbit” and accompany her dinner plans with a photograph of said rabbit sans skin and artfully draped on top of a chopping board, nestling beside a cream- coloured Aga, provoked a reaction that can at best be described as a touch extreme.
In a few further tweets, Ms Winterson suggested how effectively the rabbit’s pelt would act as a glove puppet and then went on to show pictures of the rabbit now unhappily bathing in a bubbling pot of cider, rosemary and thyme. Finally while she dined on her adversary, she explained that her cat was enjoying the entrails. Granted such details may be a little off-putting and clearly one Twitter follower took exception, writing back: “Before I unfollow you, you make me sick. I will never again read a word you write. Rest in peace little rabbit.” The rabbit was indeed resting, but rather now in a series of cooked pieces.
Next to hop on to their high horse, after first seeking its consent, was People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), whose campaign director Mimi Bekhechi said the public had a right to be outraged by the author’s actions. “Rabbits are sensitive, smart social animals who form life-long bonds and each has a personality of his or her own right. Snuffing them out for a fleeting moment of taste is arrogant, ignorant and cruel, whether they are trapped, factory farmed or shot.”
The controversy meant that Winterson eventually wound up on the BBC’s World At One, where she made a robust defence of her actions: “The rabbit population is out of control this year. You can’t simply leave them to breed. It seems to be if you’re going to cull a rabbit, you might as well eat it – why waste it? I have a rabbit population which is decimating my vegetable garden and my flower garden. Now either I stand by and let that happen or I deal with it.”
She did, however, welcome the discussion that she had inadvertently prompted: “There ought to be a discussion, because I would like people to understand what it means to eat animals. They are not made of fairy dust, they don’t drop out of the sky. If you eat meat, why are you squeamish about seeing someone gut a rabbit with her own hands and eat it?”
The reason is simple. Our attitude towards meat has become warped over the past few decades as a result of the increasing disconnect between the land and larder. What Winterson had done: catch a wild animal, kill it humanely, cook then eat it and so waste nothing, is the antithesis of what we so often do which is to pick up neatly cellophaned slabs of meat from the local supermarket. Then there are the vast quantities of processed meats such as chicken nuggets where the quantity of actual meat is low and bolstered with other ingredients to bulk it up. The majority of the population would baulk at eating horse, but so convoluted has the supply chain become that millions didn’t get any choice in the matter.
I’m not suggesting that we should all seek to emulate Winterson. I certainly have no desire to catch and cook my own food. Perhaps 10,000 years ago I would have had no choice (and would have more than likely starved); now, I do, which I consider to be progress. Yet what we should recognise is the providence of what we eat. There are many who would criticise Winterson’s actions while happily roasting a battery hen without giving the conditions in which it was reared a second thought.
In fact Winterson’s tweets have prompted me to track down rabbit this summer, as the dish was once commonly consumed here and has only recently started to make a return to the supermarket shelves with Waitrose and now Marks and Spencer selling meat from rabbits culled on estates in the Scottish Borders. It seems to me to make perfect environmental sense as, after all, regardless of how cute the animal looks, it is still legally classified as a pest responsible for £100 million of damage each year as they gnaw through crops and undermine riverbanks with their burrows.
Those whose image of bunny rabbits remains fixed on the tales of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit should also remember that Ms Potter would certainly have approved of Ms Winterson’s swift action. After all Potter, an amateur biologist, was never happier than when dissecting dead rabbits in an attempt to further her knowledge of their anatomy.
While I respect vegetarians who stick to their principles in the defence of animals, I have little time for those who eat meat but wrinkle their nose at the reality of being a carnivore.