Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Rabbits and things

Before 1953 rabbits were plentiful in and around Kingsley and, as previously mentioned were a welcome addition to the menus of many houses in the village. All that was about to change, and change dramatically. In 1953 the Myxomatosis virus was illegally imported into the UK on to an estate in Sussex. It wasn’t long before this dreadful disease reached Kingsley, probably by mid 1954 or soon thereafter. The results were as swift as they were terrible.

If the reader now consults the O.S. map of the area, the following will have a lot more meaning. At that time there still existed the remnants of the old army barracks which had,for the most part, been built of wood. These were situated beyond Fir Hill, which as previously mention, most of the children of my age called ‘the back of the hill’. If one follows the path which leads from Kingsley over the common passing the location of the old chapel on the right up and over Fir Hill. Coming down the other side of the hill and crossing the river, referred to on the map as Oxney Stream. Oxney Farm, the old Aldershot Beagle kennels, are on the right. The track, if I recall correctly, becomes a made road just about where it meets the drive up to Oxney Farm. On the opposite side of the track/road, that is on the left, are the fields in which the then remains of the old army barracks were.

There were at that time a mish mash of structures which had been used for troop accommodation, wash rooms, latrines and stables etc. It should  be remembered that these were quite old buildings in an advanced state of ruin and dated, I imagine,from a period when the army still had a lot of horses, hence the stabling and other horse related structures. Interspersed amongst this whole area were a significant number of wells. These deep holes had what was left of raised surround and round wooden lids. Lids which had long begun rotting and falling apart. I have no doubt our parents would have had nightmares had they known where we were playing and the existence of those wells. This whole area attracted us like a magnet as did the disused sewage works which then existed over beyond Oxney Farm towards Shortheath Common. On the OS Map behind Kingsley Mill and beyond what is listed as the weir, (which I don’t remember existing then), there is a small group of buildings. I know not what they are, but as near as make no difference, that is where the old sewage works were. They too had been linked to the nearby army camp. Although both areas, doubtless, held all sorts of potential dangers I never knew of an accident happening. Both of these areas provided great play grounds and were regularly used by us. However, I digress, this particular article is concerned with the old wooden barracks area and the wells.

Readers of a sensitive disposition should now abandon this article as what follows is both disgusting and revolting in equal measure. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The whole area of the barracks, both within, and in the surrounding fields were home to huge numbers of rabbits. It was a fertile hunting ground and it is not an exaggeration to say the area was crawling with them. One fine day all that changed. I remember going to the area, there were a group of us, out for the usual games of soldiers or cowboys and Indians when we came upon the most dreadful scenes imaginable. It had been some time since our last visit and, therefore, we had no idea what lay in wait. There were hundreds of rabbits crawling around in various states of infection. Some were still aware of human presence and could run but they knew not where they were running, others, their heads and eyes filled with puss were just waiting to die. Feeding becomes  impossible as the disease progresses to its climax. The animals become covered with scabs and sores and the whole thing is disgusting.

An even greater horror awaited us, for as we looked around, unable to take in the magnitude of what we were seeing, we discovered that these poor pathetic creatures could obviously smell water. The old wells were full of seething masses of rabbits piled high within the well sinking to their deaths. The top layer desperately trying to swim  and keep going whilst others from outside continued to drop down on top of them thus the gruesome cycle continued.

Words cannot describe the feelings that went through our group that morning and I am sure that all of those present, like myself, will never forget the feeling of revulsion and the sort of numbness that followed. Lewis Batty, my best mate at the time, and I spent days on end with large sticks putting those sad creatures out of their misery. But, at the end of the day, we were trying to hold back the tide, the numbers were so great and there is only so much of that sort of thing that is bearable. Within weeks the place was, all but, devoid of rabbits. The internet tells me that by 1955 the rabbit population in the UK had been reduced by 95%. I am confident that all those children that were with me on that fateful morning will never forget that awful event. Although the disease still lingers on within the rabbit population it is much more isolated and far less virulent than it was when it first struck. Rabbit populations have, in some parts, recovered but I doubt if they will ever reach the sort of numbers that existed before Myxi was introduced.

Was it necessary?, I don’t believe it was. Rabbit populations provided much sport and not a little good wholesome meat in rural communities. If a farmer had a particular problem with rabbits his request for help in controlling them never fell upon deaf ears, there were always plenty of people ready to shoot, ferret, net or lamp them. I don’t know if there is now a rabbit population in the area I have described but it would be nice to think there is and that they have managed to overcome the disease. The old huts are long gone, they were all cleared and burned and the wells filled in. The area, when I last saw it, had been returned to fields and cattle grazed it once more.

I think Mr. Waters, who had the farm behind the old chapel, took those fields over. He was a dairy farmer and would walk his cows from the farm over Fir Hill and into the meadows either side of the river. To the right of the track which went over Fir Hill was a deep ravine between the private woods on the right. Through this the cows would pass morning and at evening and during wet spells it would become a deep muddy gorge. The woods referred to were then owned by a retired naval commander who had a very nice house over looking the fields towards Kingsley Mill. His woods were home to a large population of badgers and I have spent many happy hours in the dark watching them. With the Commander's permission, I hasten to add. In spite of the fact that this was long before any debate occurred with regard to badgers and a possible link with T.B, one weekend somebody took it upon themselves to gas the Commander's badgers. He was outraged and a police investigation followed but I don’t think anyone was ever brought to book for the matter. The population quickly re-established itself and, as far as I am aware, the gassing never reoccurred. Mr. and Mrs. Waters …it may have been Walters… were an interesting couple to small boys and provided us with the odd chance for mischief! Also Mrs. Bailey at the Chapel and Mr. and Mrs. Crease who then owned the mill. All will feature in next month’s edition.

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