The New Year is a time when many people think about making healthy changes to their diet. This year the focus is on meat, with fads like Veganuary grabbing the headlines. This comes on top of a lot of bad publicity for livestock farming, which is seen by some as the main cause of climate change. To find out if producing meat could be made eco-friendlier, I set myself a New Year challenge: to provide a healthy meaty meal, with minimal environmental impact. So I phoned a local farmer friend, and asked for permission to shoot the rabbits infesting his fields.
Transport is a major issue with conventional food, and it occurred to me that the first thing I could do was to cut out the food miles. I am lucky enough to live in a rural area, and the farm in question is only three miles away from my home, within easy walking distance along quiet country roads. Walking with an unloaded shotgun in a slip is perfectly legal, so I grabbed some cartridges, a pair of ear defenders and my certificate and set off on foot.
Getting there was easy but shooting the rabbit was less straightforward. In January, there are not that many bunnies about, and the ones that are around are shy and on edge because of constant predation. The field that I was shooting over was a hillside, with rocky knolls and plenty of gorse cover. That should make getting close to any targets easier, I thought.
Having crept around for a while, I spotted a rabbit sitting under a gorse bush, some 60 yards away. I decided to stalk nearer for the chance of a shot. Creeping round a clump of gorse, the next thing I saw were two rabbits lolloping straight towards me, apparently unconscious of any danger. My gun went up and I shot the first one cleanly. Unfortunately, the second bunny bolted into a jungle of gorse, speeded on its way by another ounce of lead, but with no damage other than a headache from the two shots.
When I picked my bunny, I was very pleased to find that it was shot in the head. A clean kill! That was a reminder that, if done properly, there is nothing cruel about shooting rabbits. After all, a quick death is far more welfare-friendly than hanging around amid the strange sounds and smells of an abattoir.
After this the day went very quiet, with no more rabbits venturing out. This shows how wary winter bunnies are compared to the summer months, when they would have been back out very soon. Still, one rabbit for two cartridges – costing perhaps 60p in all – wasn’t too bad. And a couple of ounces of lead and fibre wads and a small amount of nitro powder would have very little environmental impact. Needless to say, the spent cartridges were in my pocket ready to be disposed of responsibly.
When I got back home, I paunched the rabbit and hung it up to cool off, and to come out of rigor mortis. Two days later, having given the carcass some time to tenderise, I skinned the rabbit. An advantage of shooting winter bunnies is that they have thick, luxurious fur. In fact, the skin has two layers of fur, an extremely soft grey woolly layer, and the black-tipped brown guard hairs. The wool gives excellent insulation, while the outer layer makes it waterproof. After taking the skin off, I stretched it out on a board so that it didn’t shrink while drying. When added to a couple of skins I had already prepared a few weeks earlier, it would make a warm winter hat, without resorting to the kind of plastic fake fur that contributes to pollution in the oceans.
I then jointed the rabbit. Firstly, the back legs were removed by cutting round the pelvis and breaking the joint. Then the front legs were taken off. This is a much simpler process as, like on deer, the front legs are only connected to the body by tendons and muscles, so they can simply be cut off. Then, I worked along the spine, making sure to keep as close to the bone as possible, and removed the rib fillets and the loin. It is important to get as much of this as possible, as it is the best meat. There is almost no fat on a rabbit, and like all game the meat is very healthy. In this case my Mum cooked it in white wine and French mustard, and it was delicious!
So, what lessons did I learn from bagging my Eco Bunny? Rabbits are an abundant source of very cheap food, providing very good meat without cruelty. Shooting them also helps farmers, as rabbits have a serious effect on grazing land. As for environmental impact, wild rabbit compares very favourably with vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes that claim to be so good for nature. In fact, the grey gloop has very little to do with nature, as most of it is made in industrial units, before being packaged in plastic and transported by lorry to supermarkets. By walking to a local farm, I did not use any fossil fuels to produce my supper; and my meal came in a reusable furry wrapper, not a plastic bag. So, if your New Year’s resolution is to eat healthily and reduce your environmental impact, look no further than the humble rabbit!