17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 62

Country life

Lessons in loving

Leanda de Lisle

My mother-in-law has a series of pho- tographs of her eldest son as a toddler, looking very blond and angelic, with a fluffy little chick held tightly in his hands. First we see the chick above his fist, then below, then above again. His brow is bur- rowed in concentration. Aah, you think. However, my mother-in-law confessed to me that what the pictures don't show is that, at the end of the shoot, the wretched bird lay dead. Such is often the fate of a child's pet, which may explain why ours have been so bad-tempered.

My sons' nursery teachers used to tell me the boys were very gentle, by boys' stan- dards. It's just that they were a bit like the cartoon Yeti who wanted to keep Daffy Duck as a pet. 'I'm going to love him and squeeze him and pat him,' the Yeti would announce, crushing poor Daffy in its enor- mous arms, and patting him on the head so hard that his bottom yo-yoed. Poor Daffy, of course, was terrified of him. Just think of all those guinea-pigs and other creatures out there now, feeling the same way at the approach of their master's footsteps. Tonka didn't build big, tough toys for very small boys without good reason. Girls, on the other hand, seem to be different.

According to my middle son, the female minority at his school have exorcised our hamster's evil spirit. A few weeks of being cooed over by little girls and Trigger is a new hamster. The crazed look in his eye has faded and instead of biting your fingers he'll happily curl up in your hand. On St Francis's feast day, he was blessed by the school priest, and his little head didn't spin round once. These days, he's almost as sweet as that other one which died in the summer, and I'm now wondering whether the school would take in our rabbit as well.

Bluey — if I remember rightly, that's what the rabbit is called — is getting old. Well, I hope he's getting old and not just because I want him dead. He looks thin and mangy and I don't like to think it's because he's unhappy. But, to face facts, he must get bored being left outside with the chickens, and nobody who values their body parts would dream of stroking him. I hardly dare even talk to him beyond a 'You all right there then, rabbit?' I don't think I can stand the guilt for much longer. The trouble is rabbits take up more space than hamsters, and I suspect the school would complain that its smart hutch would squeeze out too many Bunsen burners in the laboratory where Trigger is kept.

I know I've said in the past that I'd take the rabbit back to the pet shop, but that's probably just the coward's way of executing him, and if I was going to do that I would release him into the wild.

I've just received a lovely long letter from a reader in Zimbabwe who told me that having wild rabbits sunbathing on our drive indicates a shortage of predators. While I've seen the odd fox about, I think he must be right. It's a bit embarrassing really. I write all this stuff in defence of hunting, I'm hosting a hunt ball next month and I want more foxes, not fewer. Not that I think the hunt has anything to do with our fox shortage. No, it's much more likely to be because of the roads.

We live in an oasis of countryside fenced in by roads. There are probably hundreds of hungry foxes peering over the roads at our rabbits, unable to reach them because, if they tried, drivers mounted in gigantic lorries and dressed up in absurd 1970s costumes would charge down on them and splatter their little foxy bodies all over the tarmac. The murderous scum. But foxes or no, the wild rabbits might kill Bluey. I can't buy him a male companion because I'm told they'd fight to the death. The only answer appears to be to tell my sons to ask the girls to teach them how to be tender. In any case, when I come to think of it, such lessons in lovin' could hold them in good stead in later life.