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By R. F. Challis

Each summer, from the time I was ten until 1939, when I was fifteen and started work, I spent a month at my grandmother's, on the Suffolk coast near Aldeburgh. My home was in the Midlands, in a mining village on the edge of the Black Country. There must have been farms, as well as factories and mines but in my recollection, they comprised sodden areas of potatoes, turnips and cabbages, whereas Suffolk seemed to have field upon field of waving grain, ripening in perpetual sunshine.

And for a month I had all time at my disposal. So, I could afford to spend whole days in fields seeing the golden grain harvested and the sheaves clustered in stooks. As the reaping machine consumed the field, working inward from the perimeter, all the wild life, trapped in an inexorably shrinking universe crept ever closer to the centre, until their nerve broke and they started to run from the still standing grain.

Always, there were men and boys waiting - partly- for the sport but also for the value of the rabbits as food.  Field-mice scuttled off unmolested. The occasional hare galloped off like a racehorse for the distant hedge and no one attempted pursuit.

But there could be dozens or hundreds of rabbits trapped and finally they would peer out of the grain either darting back at the dread sight of man, or making a break for it. At the last, when they were almost shoulder to shoulder and barely concealed by grain the farmer would halt the reaping-machine and join the hunt.

Rabbits do not run straight. Knowing instinctively, that they are not fast, they dodge, double back on themselves or take cover behind sheaves. Some men brought dogs but they were not used at this final stage since unless trained they were too slow and stupid to cope with the flurry of rabbits. Everyone had a rabbiting-stick - a fairly light stick, ideally with a club end. The men used these, not to kill the rabbits, but to knock them over and pin them down. Then, with a swift grab, the rabbit was picked up and killed with a quick blow behind the head from the edge of the hand, or a sudden jerk, to dislocate the neck. The rabbit was thrown down and its killer was instantly off in pursuit of another.

On most fields, the rabbits were collected into one heap and shared out by the farmer, since they had lived in his field, eaten his wheat, and died for it there. All this was novel and fascinating to me. I had my own rabbiting-stick and even chased a few rabbits, taking care not to catch one since I was too squeamish to attempt to kill, and anyway not certain who would emerge as victor in a straight contest between a rabbit and myself.


It was a perfect day, and after breakfast I tracked down the harvesting from the distant tractor note and clack-clap of the reaping-machine. This distinctive sound was by the revolving wooden paddles which straightened and supported the grain so that the blade could cut it. The cut wheat fell on to the bed of the reaper, where it was automatically baled, tied and then ejected on to the ground, by a set of rotary tines. But the spring controlling the tines had broken and the farmer had mended it as best he could, while waiting for a new spring from Ipswich. Every half-dozen sheaves or so, the tines stuck, the sheaf was not ejected and the farmer had to get off the tractor and pull the tines round manually. I started to walk round with the rearing-machine and each time the tines jammed I gave them the required jerk so that the farmer could work normally. I had to leave him to his own devices for almost an hour for dinner, which was served at one, precisely, by my grandmother. In any case, I was hot, hungry and thirsty. By two, I was back at my self appointed task. There was a break during the afternoon while the farmer had a snack and a drink. During this brief interval I fell foul of a boy - about twelve, as I was - who was apparently on holiday from London. This seemed to me presumptuous. I was the interesting visitor from foreign parts; there was no need or room for a second.

I affected bewilderment at his accent and made a disparaging reference to "cockneys". He failed to understand that this was a contest of verbal exchanges only, and launched himself at me. He won the encounter and while I was straightening my spectacles I heard the ungrateful farmer say that it "sarved me roight". Nevertheless, I resumed my station by the reaping-machine, only leaving it when the farmer joined the final chase of the beleaguered rabbits. The share out of the "bag" was normally weighted heavily in favour of the farmer (who conducted it), any of his men present, other men in at the kill, and finally, any boy who had contributed conspicuously to the haul might hope for one of the less desirable rabbits and so I had never carried away a rabbit from a harvest field.  But now as the first priority, the farmer - the very man who had said that my humiliation “sarved me roight" - looked around for me and threw four fine, plump rabbits to me!

Jubilantly I bore home my rabbits. An aunt from Essex had arrived.  She and my grandmother were considerably impressed when I presented my trophies, which I said were my share out of a rather small "'bag"' of seventy. My aunt wanted a rabbit to take back and although I tried to give her two, she insisted on paying me half-a-crown for them.

While the cat frantically begged for a share, my grandmother expertly gutted the rabbits in the garden where we stood, and then buried the "innards" - to the eternal chagrin of the cat.

I concealed for ever the ignoble truth that I had obtained the rabbits by Work - that I had earned them by the sweat of my brow. I preferred to have it thought that I had spent the day, chasing and killing rabbits. Old instincts die hard.

Aldeburgh town steps.

Wheat field, copyright Adrian Hall, used under a creative commons 2.0 license.