I wasn't looking forward to killing the rabbit.
No, forget the understatement - I was dreading it. I was dreading
it like murderers dread the hangman's noose, or deep-sea divers
dread the bends, or unhappy schoolteachers dread Monday morning.
"You don't have to do it," my wife Mary said, her face softening
with concern, and that was kind of her, but we both knew it wasn't
The fact was I did have to do it. If I didn't do it, then what
exactly were we playing at here? A re-run of The Good Life?
If I couldn't bring myself to kill one single, solitary rabbit,
all our talk of self-sufficiency, of getting out of the rat-race,
of living a more sane life... it would be no more than that. Just
talk. And I could already hear Mary's mother, already see her
arched eyebrows, her told-you-so smile, her vindicated sneer: "Oh
yes, you've always been very good at talking about things, haven't
Well, she didn't deserve that satisfaction, and anyway, Mary and I
were in way too deep for back-pedalling, long past the point of no
return. We'd given up our jobs, given up our flat, moved to a
decidedly rural part of the country - and now, look at us.
Wonder of wonders, we were actually doing the thing we'd spent the
past two years dreaming about. Against all the odds, we were
finally running our very own smallholding.
Our first few weeks getting the place into some kind of shape had
been hard, but deeply satisfying. Sure, the cottage was rough
around the edges, and there was still some building work to do,
but the setting was perfect. We had eight acres of decent soil,
crops planted and growing, chickens clucking, ducks quacking,
geese honking, a few sheep bleating - and of course we had
rabbits, busy doing what rabbits like to do best.
Could I put all that at risk, just because I couldn't face up to a
little butchery - something that was central to this new life of
No. It was crunch time. Crunch time for me, crunch time for the
Her name was Tag, and she was one of three New Zealand Whites. The
big buck rabbit we'd named Bobtail, and the other doe was called
Rag. Rag was heavily pregnant, and if Tag had followed suit, our
little ménage à trois would soon have been well on the way towards
providing us with our target of 200 pounds of meat per year.
That's what the books said, anyway.
But there was a problem. However hard Bobtail tried (and to give
the boy his dues, he tried very hard indeed) Tag refused to play
ball. Week after week after week Bobtail performed his manly duty
with stunning enthusiasm, but Tag remained stubbornly barren.
If a doe is not productive, said the self-sufficiency experts, the
only place for her is the pot! And Tag, sweet-natured rabbit
though she was, was definitely not productive. Well, there was no
room for freeloaders on my little farm. Tag would have to go.
"If she's not pregnant by the end of the week," I told Mary, "then
that's it. We'll get another doe, and I'll just have to... you
The end of the week came, and as far as I could tell Tag remained
as barren as ever.
"Tomorrow," I said, reaching for the switch and turning off the
bedside lamp. "I'll do it tomorrow."
In the darkness I heard Mary breathing.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," I said. "It's time."
I couldn't sleep that night. I'd drop off for a few moments, and
then the thought of what I had to do in the morning would come
hopping into my dreams like some broken and twisted Bugs Bunny, 15
feet tall, lurching its way through a Hammer Horror film set.
I lay there, eyes wide open, staring into the darkness, thinking,
Back when our decision to downshift had still been at the talking
stage, our friends had enjoyed quizzing us about our new lifestyle
and what it was going to involve. They were especially interested
in the butchery part. Nobody seemed to have much of a problem with
chickens, geese and sheep, but many were horrified at the idea of
us breeding, killing and eating rabbits.
Our closest friends, Steve and Pauline, owned a couple of fluffy,
bouncy, aren't-we-cute rabbits - pets for their kids - so it was
hardly surprising that they were particularly appalled.
never be able to do it," Steve said to me one night over a pint in
the pub. "Not when you look down and see those big, brown eyes
looking up at you, that little twitchy nose..."
"New Zealand Whites have pink eyes," I said.
Pauline shook her head. "Steve's right. I still remember the state
you got into when you reversed over our cat."
I winced. Squashing their cat had been the worst thing that had
ever happened to me. I'd long ago realised that Pauline was never
going to let me forget it.
"It's not the same thing," I replied, hiding behind my beer. "Not
the same thing at all."
"Poor little creatures," she said, half-glaring, half-grinning.
"Just don't expect me to be nice to you after you've murdered
millions of innocent baby bunnies, that's all. Talk about blood on
They were right, of course. I'd always known I was going to have a
problem with this killing business, but while it was still far off
in the future I could distance myself.
You can cultivate a frame of mind in which it's possible to talk
about killing, skinning, hulking etc. in cool, practical terms,
like they do in all the smallholding books. You can also learn to
distract yourself from the less pleasant aspects of a downshifted
reality by imagining how fantastic it would be to live somewhere
bucolic with Felicity Kendall.
But as I gave up on the idea of sleep altogether, as pale light
began to seep through the curtains, I had to accept the fact that
I couldn't distance or distract myself any longer. Crunch time.
And as for Felicity Kendall - she was nowhere to be seen.
At about 5am I slipped out of bed, got dressed and crept
downstairs, leaving Mary twitching in dreams of her own. I wanted
to get this over and done with as quickly as possible, preferably
while she was still sleeping.
Outside, there was an early-morning mist rolling over the ground.
That seemed appropriate, somehow.
Rag, Tag and Bobtail were in their separate hutches in the small
barn behind the cottage. They twitched their noses at me as I came
close, and Bobtail stamped his foot.
If ever you have to kill a rabbit, here's what you do. You take
its hind legs in your left hand, grab its head in your right, and
twist the head backwards. At the same time you force your hand
downwards to stretch the neck. If you do it correctly, the
neckbone breaks and death is almost instantaneous.
I'd read through the instructions dozens of times. I knew them
backwards. I'd even practiced the movements using a tea towel as a
substitute rabbit! But as I took Tag out of her hutch my hands
I carried her outside so Rag and Bobtail wouldn't be able to see
what was about to happen. I stroked her, told her I was sorry, and
then as quickly and efficiently as possible, I killed her.
It was horrible, and I'll never forget it. Never forget how hard I
had to pull.
But I did it right. At least I did it right. If she suffered at
all, it could only have been for a few seconds.
Having killed her, I wanted to get the skinning and hulking done,
too. I knew the theory - you nicked the hind legs just above the
foot joint and hung the rabbit up on two hooks. Then you made a
light cut just above the hock joint on the inside of each rear leg
and cut up to the anus. After that you could peel the skin off the
rear legs and then just rip it off the body.
I did all of that, and did it well. I'd mastered something
fundamental, confronted a situation I'd been dreading, acted like
a man. I was actually feeling pleased with myself.
When I opened her up to gut her, though, all my good feelings
* * *
Mary came downstairs and found me sitting in the kitchen.
"What's wrong?" she said.
So I told her.
I'd recognised the liver, the heart, the kidneys, but there were
other objects in there that I didn't recognize at all. Objects
that weren't in the books.
Ten of them.
"I should have waited, Mary," I said. "Tag was full of babies. She
was pregnant after all."