I’ve always had a complicated relationship with hunting. I’ve never made it a secret that I hunt, and I enjoy my forays into the wild country immensely. In Alaska, when I lived deep in the bush, I typically used a rifle because there were many dangerous animals that could and would eat or stomp a man to death, and not a few dangerous humans, too. Also, shots tended to be at long range–distances of 200 and 300 yards were not uncommon. But when one has to down a couple caribou to feed one’s family through the winter, you do what you have to. Since moving to Nova Scotia, I strongly prefer a simple longbow or recurve bow, or even a crossbow. I like the feel of the traditional bow, and the greatly increased skill in shooting and woodscraft that a traditional bow requires. I also appreciate that a bow is much safer, but that is grist for another article. What I am concerned with here is the ethics of the hunt, not the tool that is used.
I have always hunted. Literally as far back as I can remember, I had a need to hunt. My family was deeply poor after my father gambled away everything. My mother had to separate from him and we moved to her parents’ farm deep in the rural farm and bayou country of Louisiana. We had no money and often getting by meant relying on the my grandfather’s few acres of crops, fruit trees, my grandmother’s chickens and the wild fish and meat I could bring in. Before I was out of my teens I had literally spent thousands upon thousands of hours in the bayous getting game and fish. But my relationship to hunting has always been complicated. I have, like my grandfather, always deplored trophy hunting. I never shot an animal because it had a big set of antlers or horns. I never killed for fun or sport. Indeed, while I reveled in the outdoors and the challenge of honing my skills at tracking and woodscraft, at developing my ability to slip through the wild lands unseen and unheard, I never actually enjoyed the kill. It was simply a necessity, as much a plain fact of life as digging out a sweet potato or decapitating a chicken for the pot. I am quite capable of tracking down and taking anything I set my mind to, but only out of need. To me, the desire to kill is one of the most deplorable elements of the human psyche and I often wonder how it is so many regard it so highly.
So, in the past couple weeks, as the weather has warmed around the homestead, I have been surveying the fences of the small area of the Hollow we cultivate, and checking the various fruit trees and shrubs for the first signs of life. I’ve been in the woods a lot, too, gathering maple sap for syrup-making. And what I have noticed are rabbit tracks everywhere. Young willows and poplars are riddled with small horizontal tooth marks where rabbits have scraped away the bark for the nutritious cambium beneath. Many of those young trees will die. The rabbits have rarely before ventured onto the cultivated grounds; the ducks and geese, the horses and especially the barn cats keep them away. But many young wild rose bushes are also showing signs of rabbit predation out in the meadows. The only reason my fruit trees have escaped is because every autumn I wrap the trunks in foil up to the branches. Even earlier in the winter, when I was harvesting wild chaga fungus, I noticed rabbit tracks everywhere.
What is going on is the rabbit cycle. Once every five to seven years, depending on how far north you live and the vigor of the local ecology, rabbits cycle through a growth and drop of population. They increase in numbers until the woods are thick with them, but then they eat out all the useful foliage and starve. Simultaneous though timed slightly behind the rabbits’ rise in population is a rise in predators which prey upon them. Coyotes, foxes, martens, fishers, owls, raptors and especially bobcats and lynx prey heavily upon rabbits. Their numbers rise and fall according to the rabbit cycle.
So, seeing that the rabbit cycle is peaking makes me happy. I like all the wildlife and for the next couple years there will be more opportunities to observe the elusive predators on my back country forays. But around the homestead, the rabbits are a problem. Obviously, if they are spilling into the meadows of our cultivated lands, it means their numbers are such that they are feeling pressure to press into territory they know to be less than ideal. It means, if they discover the fruit trees they will vigorously attack them for the especially nutritious cambium beneath the outer bark. And they will attack the gardens for the tender new shoots as well as the more mature growth.
What to Do?
Many of my friends are vegetarians and vegans. I have always respected their choice to act for what they believe to be the welfare of animals, though I have always disagreed with their choice on the basis I feel it aims to take us out of Nature’s design (but that, too, is grist for another article). They suggest I live trap the rabbits or set fences around the gardens.
Now, I could conceivably live-trap the rabbits. It would cost a fortune. Live traps are very expensive and I figure I would need at least twenty traps to be effective–that’s a good $1200. But what then? I must then take those rabbits and deposit them deeper in the forest, at least five miles away. Most likely those rabbits, deprived of a known territory’s hidey-holes and shelters, would fall prey to wild predators within days. And if they didn’t, their numbers would merely be added to the rabbits already there and they would carry on decimating the edible flora in that region. It’s a lose-lose proposition: for me, for the rabbits and for the forest.
I could easily build a fence around the gardens. I could even, without great trouble, electrify the fence with such a high voltage that any rabbit that makes contact with it would turn tail and never return again. But rabbits don’t tend to go far. They would just move off a little and focus on other areas of the homestead. In the end, they would continue to decimate the flora of the local forest.
But the increased rabbit population density would then have another effect–one I deeply desire to avoid. Those rabbits would become an irresistible temptation to all manner of intelligent and beautiful woodland predators. Coyotes, fishers, martens, least weasels and more would be drawn in unusually high numbers to our local forest (which we call the Elfwood). They would, for a while, prey on the rabbits, but as their numbers declined those predators would take notice of our domestic (and oblivious) livestock. They would begin by killing the ducks and geese which free-range year round. They would also shortly destroy our flock of laying chickens and our meat chickens and turkeys. I’ve known weasels and foxes to even chew and claw through the walls of tightly built chicken coops to get at the birds. The larger predators might even kill some of our dairy goats. In the end, I would have to attempt to trap the predators or hunt them. Live trapping would only have the same miserable consequences as it would for the rabbits, and that’s assuming I could successfully trap such intelligent creatures as coyotes. Most likely, I would have to hunt and kill many of them.
Our homestead, Twa Corbies Hollow, operates on permaculture principles. This means that we will always look for ways to:
- Live in balance with the local ecology.
- Do no harm to the global environment.
- Live right by the land’s spirits.
- Promote the self-sufficiency or our agricultural and husbandry activities.
- Maximize our productivity within the bounds of ecological balance.
The first principle is the issue at heart: how to live in balance with the local ecology. The simple fact is, rabbits are a prey species. They exist as a bottom tier prey species, hunted and eaten by most predators. Their survival strategy is very simple: evade and reproduce fast. If I trap and move the rabbits, I will merely be transferring the problem to another region of the forest. If I shield our gardens and young groves with electric fence, the end result will only be that predators will be drawn and I will end up having to deal with the predators after a considerable loss of livestock.
The path of balance, as I see it, is straightforward–to prey upon the prey species. There is a surfeit of rabbits. And it will bring no harm to their species as a whole to reduce their numbers around the homestead. So, the right thing to do–the path of balance–is to hunt the rabbits. Hunting them will accomplish several things:
- Reduce their population around the cultivated grounds.
- Reduce the damage they would do to the local flora.
- Prevent the unnecessary deaths of many predators whose numbers are much lower.
- Prevent the deaths of a great deal of livestock.
- Yield benefits to the human occupants of Twa Corbies Hollow.
Growing up, my Acadian grandfather taught me a simple philosophy in regard to hunting: If you kill it, you owe it to the beast to waste nothing. Everything I can reasonably use from the rabbits will find a purpose. The meat of every kill will go into the pot. The hides will be dried and tanned if viable, and if not the hides and offal will become food for wildlife and additive to one of the compost piles.
This is Nature’s path: one of purpose and balance. Everything has a role, a place, a use and a time.
Ethics require avoiding harm. As a permaculturist, I must balance between harm of a single prey animal and the needs of all the land and all its creatures. By hunting a prey species that is at a population height, I do no harm to the species as a whole. By reducing the prey species’ numbers in the immediate vicinity of the cultivated lands, I avoid having to harm much rarer predators, and I preserve both our crops and the life of many domesticated animals. And, in the end, the resource is not wasted, not pushed aside merely to make way for us. Rabbits will still freely roam the Elfwood, just not in such thick numbers that they must press into the few cultivated acres that they normally avoid anyway. At the very end of this, the system comes round upon itself: the problem becomes the solution and all becomes self-sustaining. The rabbits rose in number by dint of the foliage’s abundance, the rabbits became our food, we give back to the land by balancing the rabbit numbers, fewer rabbits live well by abundant foliage.
No trophies. No killing for pleasure. Like any predator in Nature, we take only what we need. Walking the path of wisdom, we take only what the land can spare, and what we must.
This is the path of ethical hunting within permaculture. Acceptance of the circle of life and death. Understanding the food web. Taking only of need and not of want. Giving back to the land in the doing. It should be the ethical path in all hunting. And in all living.