Magic Rabbits

There are small moments in life when you may call into question your beliefs.  I love nature with its great vistas, cool and soft breezes, and birds soaring on thermal updrafts.  Nothing matches the fresh green of new leaves unfurling on trees in spring, or the harmonies achieved by a dawn chorus.  Moments such as these elevate my heart and give peace of mind.  But the intensity and proximity of nature at Crockern brings with it other challenges.  And, seeing yet another furry-bastard-rabbit in the garden can turn my bliss into rage.

A whole crop of cabbages destroyed last autumn!  Holes dug into the flower beds.  A pot of chives laid to waste in under thirty minutes.  Chives!  Who ever heard about a rabbit eating an onion?  Crockern rabbits seem not to be interested in a specific cuisine, rather, they are content to eat anything and everything.  This is war.

Strong words, but when we moved to Crockern we didn’t have rabbits.  This year, it seems we could supply the local pub for their rabbit pies.  When there was just the one rabbit two years ago, perhaps we could have prepared better, knowing that when there is one rabbit there will soon be an army.  As a prey species, rabbits will keep reproducing in the wild in order to survive.   These little buggers reach their sexual maturity in 3-6 months and can become pregnant again within 24 hours of giving birth.  At this rate, it would take a Google algorithm to calculate their numbers.

About a year ago, while our garden was flourishing, I heard a piteous shrieking outside.  Rushing to see what was happening, I found a baby rabbit being attacked by a slightly larger not-to-be-named predator.  I ran to its rescue and Roger quickly appeared with a box filled with straw bedding.  We made a safe space for the wee-rabbit to recover.  Knowing it would one day mature into its reproductive years, we threw caution to the wind and provided it water and nourishment in the form of fresh, tender lettuce leaves from our garden.  At the time, we felt good about our efforts to save this injured rabbit.  In hindsight, I wonder if we weren’t the classic marks in a short con game as we now have dozens of rabbits testing our garden and our patience.

Crockern Farm

Seemingly a single rabbit, but where there is one, there are many!

Just the other morning, I saw four baby rabbits eating grass among the chickens.  Our chickens have made peace, and yet we cannot.  Then again, the chickens have been known to do some serious damage on the garden beds, too, so perhaps they are allies.  And our dog Sam has a deep reverence for life.  A lot of traditional dog stuff is missing from him.  He never chases squirrels or birds.  And when it comes to rabbits, I recently caught him laying in the sun just napping while a rabbit nibbled at plants only a few feet away.

In truth, we could live with all of this if they would just stay out of our vegetable beds.  Last year, we surrounded the vegetable beds with seemingly impenetrable fencing.  Despite the fencing, one particularly cunning rabbit has repeatedly found her way onto one of the raised beds.  Each morning these last few days, we would see her on top of the same plot, scratching at the surface.  We hadn’t yet planted these beds, so there is nothing but dirt and a few weeds.   Beatrix Potter lovingly referred to all those rabbits in Mr. McGregor’s garden as “improvident and cheerful.”  With all due respect to Ms. Potter, I would quickly amend improvident to Grifter!  These little tricksters, driven by the need to frustrate and annoy, seem capable of all manner of magic and sleight of hand.  How else to explain their determination for jumping onto an unplanted garden bed?  What’s in it for them?  There’s nothing there to eat.

We needed a new game plan.  We needed to think rabbit.  And we need to do this before planting out all our tender plants this season.  Purchasing more scaffolding planks, compost and chicken wire, we doubled the height of the raised beds.   We secured the perimeter fencing.  We waited and watched.  And much like the magician who pulls a rabbit out of his hat, there suddenly appeared a rabbit on top of the same bed.  I watched her one morning as she dug a small area and sat in it.  She reminded me of our chickens when they are laying an egg or having a dust bath.  I called Roger to show him this behaviour, and in that moment, she had disappeared.

New double-height beds with chicken wire fencing perimeter! P1050396

The following day, when I returned from a morning walk with Sam, there was a deep and perfectly formed tunnel in the very same vegetable bed.  Again, with some form of misdirection, when I turned to reveal the tunnel to Roger, it had been covered up with soil.  A smooth, seemingly untouched surface left behind.  Where had the tunnel gone?  Where was the rabbit?  What was going on?

Like forensic scientists, we examined every corner, and possible access spot.  We eventually discovered a small hole where the rabbit was burrowing up under the bed.  A difficult to access spot as there was a giant boulder buried under the ground at that point.  Difficult, that is, unless you are a rabbit.  So, in a flash of genius, we blocked off the hole with rocks.  In another, somewhat dimmer flash of genius, we fenced off all the beds, barring this one as we had a plan.  Roger dug up a ton of compost and soil, laid chicken wire into the bottom of the bed, and returned the soil.  Job done.

That night, as we nodded off to sleep, we listened to the sounds of owls in the trees and another strange sound we couldn’t identify.  It wasn’t an owl, nor did it sound like a fox, and as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.

By early morning, I looked out the window and saw the rabbit once again by the vegetable bed.  Not on top, but a tunnel dug nonetheless.  With her dirty little paws, she was by the edge where we had placed the stones.  She had moved the small stones and by her side were three baby rabbits!  When I went to investigate, the four of them were gone.

This is the classic magician’s illusion:  Rabbits appearing from tall silk hats. They appear.  They disappear.  The single rabbit suddenly becomes four.

After confirming there were no baby rabbits left behind, we added  new and larger stones on this potential breach.  Wilful and unaffected by our prevention efforts of the past year, the rabbits seem reluctant to grasp our efforts.  They come in droves, like creatures in a horror film.  We’re engaged in furious combat.  I don’t wish a family of foxes to return and jeopardise our chickens, but I wouldn’t mind them passing by and helping to return the rabbit population to a more manageable number.   The rabbits have rightly identified Roger and me as easy marks and we could use a little back up.  Clearly, this is going to be a long battle.  The enemy may never run out of soldiers to occupy our gardens, but we are stubborn and will never surrender!




When Roger and I met on that Russian Icebreaker in the Arctic, we spent a lovely evening watching Wallace and Gromit movies and sharing some popcorn.   A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and, of course, A Close Shave, had us giggling at Nick Park’s brilliant Claymation stunts, gags and puns.  Who knew that one day, we would find ourselves rescuing sheep, not with Porridge guns affixed to our side-car-come-helicopter, but instead with our own sheer strength and determination.

I’m still in the States as I write this, missing the daily activities of our lives at Crockern where each morning I am awakened by an exuberant Sam for his morning walk.  We feed the chickens, fill the bird feeders, and uncover the vegetable garden from its frost-protecting fleece before setting out for the next 30 minutes.  By the time we’ve returned, Roger has the coffee ready and the day is underway.

In A Close Shave, when Gromit is framed and sent to prison for sheep rustling, Wallace finds his house overrun with sheep.  In our early days at Crockern, we too were over run by sheep in the yard.  They would stare at us, chew the grass, poop everywhere and give the “Am I bothered?” expression when we tried to shoo them away.  It was not uncommon to see thirty or more about the yard.   The sheep were not worried about Sam as he ignored them.  All the same, as if to assert its authority, one sheep sneaked up from behind and rammed Sam off balance as he carried on watching Roger feed the chickens.  Before Sam could react the sheep quickly did a runner.


The track leading to our house is also a public footpath and all around us open moorland where both sheep and cattle graze.   As a consequence passing walkers often stop by to report to us injured or distressed sheep.   We are happy to tend to those sheep in the field if they need our help, but I’ll be damned if they are welcome in our yard.  Sam has taken this on board and if he sees them within our walls, he shepherds them out!  He never chases them when they are on the moors, and when walking amongst hundreds of sheep barely gives them a passing glance.  But when they are in our yard the rules of engagement have changed.  Sam lowers his body and stares at the sheep, awaiting our “okay” before running towards them, never biting, and only stopping his drive at the corner of the barn as the sheep make their escape over the walls, often knocking stones off as they go.  He then prances back up to us with his tail held high seeking just praise for a job well done.   His performance would receive perfect scores in the sheep dog trial challenges known as “the lift”.


A proud Sam

Some dogs aren’t capable of such restraint and we’ve seen seriously injured sheep from dog attacks.  It is awful and avoidable.  Dogs who are not trained around wildlife and livestock can sometimes display their natural hunting instincts when the opportunity presents itself.  Many people don’t have recall for their dogs, nor do they keep their dogs on lead in unfamiliar terrain.  The assumption that “My dog is really friendly.” and so would never chase a sheep is misguided.    In fact, The Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society has reported over 50 dog attacks so far in 2012, and 72 reported sheep deaths from dog attacks in 2011.

In our short tenure, we’ve rescued sheep from all sorts of misadventure.  Let’s face it, sheep are fairly stupid animals and get themselves into trouble.  For example, Sam and I stumbled across a lamb, its fleece sodden with water and mud from many days of rain, that had laid down to rest and become trapped in the grips of a gorse bush.  I checked to make certain it was uninjured, then lifted it up and out from the bush, and was pleased to see it skip swiftly away and join up with its mother nearby.

On another day, Roger saved a lamb whose head inexplicably got stuck in a small but heavy metal table outside lying around the yard  The table had a support bar on its frame, creating a four-inch gap between frame and the tabletop.  Roger heard the sheep bleating and went outside to investigate.  What he found was that the lamb’s head caught in that gap.  The lamb would right itself and then tumble down the hill as the weight of the table took over.  Roger was able to catch and hold the lamb, calming and keeping it still.  How it didn’t break its neck with this table stuck on its head remains a mystery.  When I went outside, all I could see was Roger crouched over something on the ground.  Looking at me he asked, “Can you bring me a hacksaw?”  A few days before a fox had taken one of our chickens, so I didn’t ask questions and instead headed to the barn and returned with all matter of tools:  hacksaw, tree saw, and just in case, an ax.

I held the lamb firmly down but it became apparent there would be no prising its head from the table’s rigid construction.  Roger took the hacksaw to the table leg but before beginning to cut, turned to me and asked what remains the oddest question given the circumstances, “Are you sure we don’t need this table?”

Dartmoor Lamb

One of the many little lambs.

Among our many sheep saving interventions has been reporting the limping, the blind, the infected tick on the face, and the dead and dying sheep.    We have called the farmer on each of these occasions, including our most recent predicament.  She was unable to come out straight away, so Roger and I went to the rescue.

A twenty-minute walk onto the moors and up the hillside on the other side of a swollen river was a sheep trapped between the stonewall and the stock proof fencing.  I had asked the farmer if we should just cut the fencing and she said, “No.  We try to not do that.  Instead, pull the fencing back and move the sheep.”  Okay, plan to hand, but I was wishing we had a nifty Wallace and Gromit “Release-O-Matic” to aid our efforts.

Adult sheep weigh a lot (between 45 and 100 Kg).  Add to that a soggy fleece and they weigh a whole lot more.  We spotted the sheep and then had to cross the river to get to it.  Roger took an approach that would have meant me swimming in the river, so I opted for a trickier, but shallow, bit of navigation.  I crossed successfully then immediately misjudged a step and got a boot full of bog water.  Heading over towards the sheep, I next tripped over a bundle of rusty barbed wire hidden in the brush.  I fell flat on my face, cut my hand and was covered in mud and still had a soggy boot full of muck.

Undeterred, we knew that to free this particular ewe, we had to first free her shoulder.  Roger held her head steady by the horns and I pushed her shoulder through the fencing.  Her shoulder was now free, but she was unable to get purchase with her back legs and so remained stuck between the fence and the wall.  Roger climbed up over the fence and squatted somewhat unsteadily on the wall in an attempt to pull the sheep up to freedom while I pushed from below.  After three failed attempts, I joined Roger on the wall.  As the two of us awkwardly leaned over, hoping to not fall off the stones, we gripped the sheep, took deep breaths “and on three…!”  We managed to free the sheep and she ran off uninjured, immediately forgetting the entire event.  My hand was now bleeding significantly.

A few years ago at the Sloane Club in London, Roger and I were having drinks with our friends Nitty, Steve and Joe.  And who should join us at the table?  T’was none other than Nitty’s friend Peter Sallis!  I could barely contain my glee as the owner of the voice of Wallace was sharing a drink and telling us stories from his long career.  I left that evening filled with an enhanced and abiding appreciation for the antics in every episode of Wallace and Gromit.

We may lack the obvious sight gags, film parodies and practical inventions, but we have had a few or our own close shaves.  One morning as I was walking Sam, Roger drove all of the recycling and rubbish to the end of the track for pick up.  In the ten seconds it took to drive through the open gate, over 50 previously unseen sheep sped through in a covert escape.  Was this, perhaps, a cunningly organized rescue effort for a falsely accused Gromit held at Dartmoor Prison?   Roger was standing in one spot directing those Houdini sheep toward a grassy bit of land away from the road.  They had no intention of returning through the gate and more were continuing to stroll OUT of the gate.    Sam and I went to the far side of the herd and Roger stood sentry by the gate.  Together the three of us returned the sheep to the fields while they looked back contemptuously for having their escape plans spoiled.

I wonder, what Roger and Sam have had to confront in my absence?

Sam, The Great Houndini

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of The Baskervilles, set in Dartmoor.  Old Crockern keeps his Whist Hounds in Wistman’s Woods and there is a landmark in Dartmoor known as Hound Tor.  There are many tales of hounds in this part of the world, but one little known story is that of Sam, The Great Houndini.

I mention our dog Sam a lot, so it seems fitting to introduce him.  He is smart, handsome, and manipulative and if he had the desire, a leader in the dog uprising to rid the world of the cat.  He is unlikely to have success as a leader in The K-9 Spring, as he possesses a level of shyness, worry, and anxiety.

Sam is a Border collie mix.  He’s got long black fur, except for his little white tuxedo chest.  His eyes are a golden brown and can will you to open the treat jar.  Two and a half years ago, we rescued Sam when he was about the age of 4.  We don’t know his full history, but we were told a few inaccuracies, including that he does well with dog savvy cats.  Turns out, he HATES all cats with singular intensity.

Sam first came to the collie rescue centre when one of their volunteers found him in a dog pound scheduled to be put to sleep.  When we brought him home a month later, he was anxious and distracted but responded to a number of commands, especially when treats were on offer.  He has a 7-inch scar on his side, the cause of which is unknown, so early on we forgave him any of his worries.  He was, and continues to be, on constant cat alert.


Sam (on left) with his best friend Jess

To meet him now is to notice that he is a pretty good dog.  He’s well behaved, polite to strangers, loyal beyond belief and an all around amazing athlete who is able to jump a five-foot fence rather than being lifted over it and negotiate rocks, water, and other tricky terrain with ease.   He wisely ignores the sheep and likes hanging out with the chickens.  He loves his walks and because he doesn’t play with toys (his choice), he must be walked.  He goes out a minimum of 3 hours a day.

When we were buying Crockern Farm, we spent a morning with the building surveyor.  Because another dog and a cat lived in the house, we kept Sam in the car.   After we had concluded our business (see the first blog about the chickens and new roof!), we went for a walk for a couple of hours.  On our return, the woman selling the house invited us in for some lunch before we headed back to our home.

Much to our surprise, Sam met her dog without any incident.  Her dog is an unneutered male Labrador.  Pick a combination that can put Sam ill at ease, and this is it.  But a quick assessing sniff between the two and all was fine.  We entered the house, Sam still on lead, when he spotted the cat.

All the times looking at Crockern, I never once saw this cat.  I knew it was here, but it kept hidden as cats often do.  Bring a new dog into the house and that cat came slinking down the stairs like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” The line was drawn in the sand, the red mist descended and Sam lunged.

Architectural details are important.  There are two doors to this kitchen.  One is a lovely pine door that leads to the rest of the house.  The other is a green door, with a cat flap, which leads to a boot room with another door and cat flap leading to the outside.  The woman took her hissing-puffed-up-tail-feline-fighter and put it outside.  Two doors, two cat flaps.  Cat outside.  Sam inside. We all sat down to lunch.

Slow, slinky, and all too aware of being a troublemaker, that she-wolf came back into the kitchen from the outside.   The next several moments were helter-skelter as we chased Sam who was chasing the cat.  Chairs upturned and a good deal of confusion all in the space of about 3 seconds.

To restore order, the woman put the cat into the house, closing the door without the cat flap.  Roger put Sam in the car.  We ate and talked, feeling excited about this becoming our home.

In the early 1900’s Houdini successfully performed in the US with escapes from jails, handcuffs, chains, and straitjackets, among other things.  He had to up the ante as imitators took on his act.   In 1912, Houdini introduced one of his most famous acts, The Chinese Water Torture Cell.  In this stunt, Houdini was suspended upside-down in a locked steel and glass cabinet full of water from which he had to escape.  He had to hold his breath for more than three minutes in this act.  The man had some magical talent and a few physical techniques (like dislocating his shoulder to get out of straight jackets), but may have met his match with Sam.

In the style of a Vaudeville performance, Sam inexplicably managed to get out of the car.  We only noticed this when his little black nose was poking through the cat flap from the boot room into the kitchen.  There are three possibilities:  a walker passing by let him out (unlikely); he opened the door with his paw and closed the door with an artful kick of his back legs once he was out of the car (more unlikely); he squeezed his body through the car window which was open a mere 4 inches (ouch!).  After making his way free from the car, he squeezed through the outside cat flap, and was planning to enter the kitchen.

Sam is a mid-size dog, weighing in at 15 kilos.  Bigger than a cat flap and 4 inches of car window!  He is loyal, but may also have some separation issues.  He is devoted to his humans and needed to protect us from THAT CAT.

From 1917 until his death in 1926, Houdini was the President of the Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.).  In 2012, our Sam started laying the plans to become a legend in his own time.