Outside the nineteenth-century gate lodge where we are living there is a small, circular stone planter next to the driveway, about two feet high and three feet in diameter. When we arrived it was full of an unattractive tangle of last year’s weeds and roots from long-ago plants. Our ten-year-old daughter, C2, thought this a perfect spot to plant a few colorful spring flowers, so C2 and our fourteen-year-old son, C1, spent an afternoon digging and pulling until the little planter was filled with nothing but soft, fluffy earth.
At the B&Q SuperCentre in Inverness we bought a small packet of fertilizer and too many little packs of flowers for the new garden. C2 and C1 planted delicate pansies in colors ranging from deep purple to white, and sturdy heather that flowers in brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow. The goal was an explosive bit of cheerful color that would contrast nicely with the green lawn and the gravel driveway. They nurtured this tiny garden in our rented home, knowing that we would not be here long enough to see the heather mature or to enjoy the pansies in their full spring glory. For two weeks the pansies flourished while the kids cataloged each new bud and blossom.
Plants grow incredibly fast here in the Scottish Highlands due to the long daylight hours of spring and summer, so one morning I went out to see just how well the plants were flourishing. The extra daylight hours had done our young plants no good: Overnight, almost all of the flowers had been severed from their stems. The plants were now compact clumps of neatly shorn leaves and hollow stalks. Being a Washington state native, I first indicted slugs for the carnage, but soon realized that the damage done to these plants would have required slugs the size of rats, with fearsome teeth to match. No, there was only one possible culprit: those bastard bunnies had discovered our garden and made breakfast of our delicate pansies.
C2, our resident animal lover, suggested setting a mousetrap among the plants. This from the child who, after watching each episode of Channel 4’s Pet Rescue, would beg me to adopt the latest charity case: “Please, Mommy! He’s an old German Shepard with three legs who’s a former attack dog and was never housebroken, but he’s really cute and just needs a home. Couldn’t we drive ten hours to London to pick him up and keep him until we go home?” C1, who, when Magellan first made his appearance, insisted that we take close-up photos of him because he was so cute, headed off to speak to our landlord – the man we hear popping errant rabbits with a .22 – to see if he was interested in eradicating our rabbit nuisance. To Captain OCD, Magellan was dead; his new name was Hasenpfeffer.
I am not sentimental when it comes to dispatching living, breathing pests. But I am too much of a coward to do the deed myself or view the results. Partly due to humaneness, but mostly because I didn’t want to see a dead rabbit with bulging eyeballs and a steel wire clamped into its neck, I suggested building a small fence. A rustic fence woven from cypress twigs gathered from the garden, tied with hemp twine, would perfectly complement the pretty little planter while protecting it from the local wildlife. There was no reason that we all – plants, people, and wildlife – couldn’t co-exist harmoniously. In another scene worthy of a sappy greeting card, Captain OCD and C2 built a charming two-rail fence twelve inches high, the rails six to eight inches apart, to encircle the small stone planter.
He must have thought the rabbits would honor the intention of the fence out of mutual admiration because he certainly knows better. I’m no game expert, but even I could see that a large cat would have had no problem strolling through the barrier without ducking and I envisioned the pesky little rabbits giggling as they hopped through the rails. My point was proven the next morning when we saw that even more flowers had disappeared. Conceding their design flaw and determined to preserve the little oasis of color and outwit the rabbits, Captain OCD and C2 wove smaller sticks between the rails, allowing no more than a two-inch gap between twigs. The plants were a bit difficult to see through the tiny fortified fence, but the overall effect of stone planter combined with twig fencing was still charmingly Highland-esque to us American visitors.
Confident that the gluttonous rabbits would find the fence impenetrable, we went away for the afternoon to visit, of course, a whisky distillery, only to return to more newly nibbled leaves. By now it was necessary to replenish the slaughtered pansies with more plants, so we made another trip to B&Q. But the flowers were no longer the point – they had been relegated to pawns in the battle to protect what we considered our temporary territory. There was nothing to do but completely enclose the small planter with bird netting, which meant yet another trip to B&Q. With the sticks and the green netting obscuring any possible view of the flowers from the house, all thoughts of lovely springtime blossoms were purged in favor of defeating the rabbits on their own turf. The planter was further fortified with a barrier of small stones to anchor the netting and prevent the rabbits from wriggling underneath the fence. A lone purple pansy bud, now visible only when peering through the netting while standing directly above the planter, had been spared and was to function as our benchmark in the next skirmish with the bunnies.
Certain that we had at last denied the rabbits their salad, we went on a day-trip to visit, of course, a castle. We came home eager to see if any other buds had sprouted from the protected plants in the warmth of the sunny spring day. Not only were there no newly budded flowers, but our signal bud was gone and a pile of leaves was bunched up against the netting, no doubt stashed there as our approaching car interrupted a herd of rabbits mid-nibble. The rabbits had chewed through the fortress. C2 suggested a rat trap, C1 volunteered to stand watch with a hatchet, and Captain OCD said that common pansies were a waste of time anyway.
Our neighbors have enjoyed this contest of wills between the American visitors and the Highland rabbits. They are used to the devastation that rabbits wreak upon gardens every year, so they chuckle at the folly of our attempts to nurture pansies in an exposed planter. They welcome myxomatosis, the annual virus spread by fleas that renders the majority of the rabbit population blind, leaving the rabbits with useless, infection-ridden eyes that make them easy prey for predators or causes them to die slow, agonizing deaths as the disease progresses throughout their little bodies. Our neighbors cheer as they step over a half-eaten rabbit carcass left by a fox or a pine marten interrupted mid-meal. Veterans of the rabbit war, they protect their gardens with elaborate metal barriers. The farmer across the street begins defending his many acres of newly sprouted barley at 5:30 AM with a gun, the sound of which suggests that his purpose is to not just merely eliminate the pests, but to blow the rabbits to ribbons as a warning to any other rabbits within five square miles.
As a visitor leaving soon, though, I have neither a history nor a future with these bunnies, so in an anthropomorphic mood and after three futile trips to B&Q, I concede victory to my fellow mammals while I grudgingly admire their determination, and I thank them for the memories they have added to this trip. The next time I attempt to finish Watership Down my interpretation of the novel will be colored by our experiences with the Highland bunnies. Right. Highland bunnies or no, I’ll never finish Watership Down.