Signs of rabbits in the churchyard

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Rabbits in the churchyard. I’d seen signs last year when ferreting close by, and mentioned it to the appropriate authorities, but the wheels of officialdom move slowly, committee by committee, meeting after meeting, and I had heard nothing until last week.

I do get asked several times a year about dealing with rabbits in churchyards, but never by the people who can legally authorise my presence.

Visitors are upset when flowers meant for their loved ones’ graves are eaten by rabbits, and also when there is evidence of rabbit tunnelling in consecrated ground, but anything I can do might result in a similar disturbance of areas that should be left in peace. Then there is the health and safety aspect: what if an undermined gravestone should fall on the unsuspecting mourner, or an ecclesiastical toe be caught by a hidden rabbit-scrape, causing a fall and possibly injury? Whisper it, but are those rabbit-workings leading underneath a tomb?

Then by contrast there are those who love to see the rabbits about, especially the baby ones in summertime, and who do not begrudge them a diet that includes expensive flowers, and forgive them their plentiful droppings on the graves. For my part, I work within the law and my own safety, as well as that of the animals that help me: my ferrets and dogs. English laws concerning ‘pursuit of coney’ are complex and arcane; not just anybody can legally permit the rabbit-catcher to catch rabbits, no matter how much inconvenience is being caused.

The Church does not necessarily own the land on which the church stands, for often it is the property of the parish, or a long-term generous arrangement originally with a benefactor from centuries before, whose blood has since died out. I pause by a once-stately line of family graves, the last incumbent of which, according to the inscription, ‘died without issue’ two hundred years ago. The plot is neglected, earlier gravestones partly illegible from erosion and lichen, wrapped in brambles and nettles. Just right for rabbits, and adders too. You have to be careful of upsetting residents in this world as well as those in the next.

I pick my way through the neglected areas, and then to those paths that have been strimmed, flanked by graves still tended, and a welcome seat beckons by the church wall. I sit in the sunlight that catches it, and ponder my options. Yes, I could do something about the rabbits, but it would involve major disturbance of some of the areas of rough that had grown around the churchyard perimeter, plus the piles of old branches, grass mowings, discarded flowers of the kind rabbits don’t eat, old gravestones moved and stacked for whatever reason, and some of their surrounds too, that provided rabbit-shelter round the edges.

No matter what time I did my work, there would be members of the public about, some of whom would be upset either by the necessity of my walking across the graves, or because they liked to see the rabbits about.

The area was unsafe to work a dog because of the risk of collisions with stone or iron, which would make the task doubly difficult, and meant that I would need at least one human assistant. There was also the matter of the correct paperwork from the correct authority.

As I sat, I saw a rabbit hop under the hedge and work its way along to one of the once-grand family tombs, where it vanished out of sight. I had formulated some ideas to offer, so I stood up from my pleasant seat in the sun and picked a selective way back to the main path through the churchyard, and then on to my destination and the discussion that would follow.