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Notes from the Sticks: The rabbit pandemic

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Notes from the Sticks has gone on holiday for the summer (if there is one) and hopes to be back in September. Meantime we are running some repeats. This article was first published on October 30, 2022.

I FIND it surprising how few rabbits I see round here in Lancashire – I think I have seen more hares. I am old enough (just) to remember seeing masses of rabbits on lawns nibbling the grass down to the roots. Then came rabbit Armageddon.

I have been reading a book enticingly titled Myxamatosis by Peter Bartrip. This was a pandemic if ever there was one. It started in Australia where rabbits had become a terrible pest. In 1859 grazier Thomas Austin released 12 pairs of wild rabbits on his property, Barwon Park, at Winchelsea in Victoria. Mathematically one pair of rabbits and their offspring can multiply to nearly 4million in four years, and by 1950 one estimate put the population at 3billion. Another estimate is that there were 20billion by the 1920s. Here is a pre-war picture.

The myxoma virus had been discovered in Uruguay in 1896. It causes rabbits to suffer a lingering and painful death, usually taking about 10-12 days. In 1950, it was deliberately released in Australia to control the rabbit plague. In under three months it had killed hundreds of millions of them.

Rabbits were an agricultural problem in Europe too, and in 1952 Dr Paul-Félix Armand-Delille, a physician and bacteriologist, illegally introduced the disease on to his private estate not far from Paris, apparently thinking it would not spread beyond his boundaries. Within two years it had wiped out 90 per cent of France’s rabbits.

In the early 1950s the British rabbit population was also out of control, numbering up to 100million. There was a great deal of official debate about introducing myxomatosis but before anything had been decided, in mid-September 1953 some dead rabbits were found at Syliards Farm on Major Sidney Williams’s 2,000-acre Bough Beech estate near Edenbridge in Kent. The farm’s tenant, Geoff Wicks, told the BBC: ‘We began to see rabbits lying around all over the place, helpless, heads swollen up, like raw meat their heads were with large blisters.’ The disease spread slowly at first but after the winter it snowballed and by October 1954 every county in England and Wales was affected. The next summer it covered Scotland.

I remember as a child being told that the disease had been officially introduced into Britain, and so I have believed since, but after a great deal of research Bartrip says the likelihood is that infected rabbits were brought from France by one Gordon Williams (no relation to Major Williams) who was the tenant of Ivy House Farm neighbouring Bough Beech. Bartrip stresses that the evidence is circumstantial, but Gordon Williams had contacts in northern France from his wartime service, and he visited France on his motorbike via cross-Channel ferry shortly before the disease was discovered at Bough Beech. Williams never admitted responsibility but in 1977 he appeared anonymously in a BBC documentary called Rabbits Wanted: Dead or Alive, emphasising the damage done by rabbits and making a case for the disease. Bartrip says other suspects cannot be ruled out, and the disease may even have been carried by insects or birds from Fance. What he is sure about is that it was not introduced by officials.

In the end although 99 per cent of Britain’s rabbits died, the few survivors formed the basis of a resistant population and numbers climbed again. The UK now has an estimated 37.5million and Australia 200million.

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Pig of the week

ACCORDING to the British Pig Association (BPA), there are 14 pedigree breeds in the UK, and the Gloucestershire Old Spots (GOS) is the most numerous. (I always thought it was ‘Spot’ but the experts tell me it is plural ‘Spots’.)

It originated around the Vale of Berkeley, north of Bristol and south of Gloucester, where it was known as the Orchard Pig because they were often were kept outside to eat fallen apples. There is a legend that the black spots are bruises from windfalls. (An animal must have at least one spot to be registered as a GOS, but there is no maximum.)

Pedigree records of pigs began in 1885, much later than for cattle, sheep and horses, because the pig was regarded as a peasant’s animal and was not highly regarded. The GOS was first recorded in 1913, although it must have been around for a long time before that, and spotted pigs appear in numerous old paintings.

The breed is known for its docility, intelligence, prolificity and hardiness. It is a dual-purpose breed suitable for pork or bacon production, and the BPA says: ‘The meat from GOS pigs is so special that it became the first breed of any species in the world to be accorded Traditional Speciality Guaranteed status by the EU Commission putting it on a par with champagne and parma ham!’

It was once very popular but fell from favour with the advent of factory farming to which it is not suited (luckily for it). However with the revival of interest in traditional breeds of all livestock it has made a comeback. The BPA website says there are 755 total registered GOS including 612 sows, and 135 registered breeders. They are also popular in America.

Here is a video from West Virginia:

And one from Southern California:

You can read more at the Gloucestershire Old Spots Breeders’ Club. Their patron is the Princess Royal, who keeps GOS at her Gatcombe Park estate in Gloucestershire. Some accounts say King Charles keeps them at Highgrove but I have not been able to verify that.

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Wheels of the week

THIS is a 1962 Rover 100. It was launched in 1960 as a replacement for the Rover 90 and 105.

A bench front seat or individual front seats could be ordered and there were wood and leather details. In 1960 it sold for £1,538 which according to the Bank of England inflation calculator would be £27,600 today.

The Classic and Sportscar Centre website says: ‘The 100 model used a 2625cc six-cylinder engine which provided a top speed approaching 100mph despite only having a single carburettor. The Rover 100 was known as a powerful, robust saloon and many are still on the road today as result.’

A total of 16,521 had been made when production ended in 1962.

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I took this picture in our village this week.

I find it comforting that the natural world continues on its own way no matter what a mess we make of everything.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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