If you want to eat lean, white, flavoursome meat from a healthy, free-ranging animal eating a natural diet, you could stump up for a top-notch chicken, but then you would expect to pay upwards of £12 for a bird. Then again, there’s an interesting alternative to be had for a fraction of the price, and one that’s so ubiquitous within these shores that we have overlooked it or even looked down upon it: wild rabbit.
Our country is teeming with wild rabbits. There are an estimated 38 million in the UK and their population grows by around 2 percent every year. That old maxim ‘breeding like rabbits’ is still apt, as from six months old the female rabbit, or doe, typically produces six different litters, each with five baby rabbits, all within one season. Half of her offspring will be females, who then, in turn, will breed within the same season. That’s a lot of rabbits!
Wild rabbits hang out in colonies in underground warrens and particularly appreciate light, sandy soil. They emerge to feed enthusiastically on any green growing thing in sight, typically grass and wild pasture, but they are also partial to lush plants, that are kindly provided by obliging farmers. Wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, carrots, turnips or fledgling trees – an army of British rabbits can munch their way through them with gusto; six rabbits eat as much as one sheep. Collectively they cause £100m of damage to crops every year, so it’s no wonder that, as far as farmers are concerned, rabbits are a pest that needs to be controlled.
For consumers who are trying to eat ethically despite the economic downturn and rising prices, rabbit looks like a wholesome, affordable meat, and an overdue rabbit revival is under way. But rabbit had been a staple food in Britain for centuries. We relied on it during the Second World War, when rabbit pie was never off the menu because it was cheap and plentiful, a situation immortalised in wartime hit Run Rabbit Run.
Back in fashion
After the war consumers ditched rabbit and moved to meats that had been less available during rationing years. Consumption dropped, the rabbit population soared and, in 1953, the deadly myxomatosis virus hit the UK, though there is some debate as to whether this was accidental or intentional. Around 99 percent of the country’s 60 million rabbit population died within two years and the sight of dead rabbits with swollen eyelids became common in the countryside.
Within another couple of years, the rabbit population had bounced back and developed some immunity to the virus, but rabbit meat had become synonymous with disease, and our taste for it further declined – a persistent prejudice that still lingers on. To this day, you will have to go to a traditional butcher or game dealer to buy wild rabbit. Supermarkets generally don’t stock it because it has been regarded as too challenging a meat to sell to the British, despite its popularity in Europe.
But this may well change as the economic downturn has made people open to trying cheaper types of meat. Rabbit is already putting in an appearance on the menu of fine dining restaurants and trendy gastropubs.
Eating wild rabbit makes good sense on many counts. From an animal welfare view, rabbit has a good life and a quick, clean death. Wild rabbits are killed when they bolt out of their burrows after being flushed out by ferrets. Once they emerge they are either shot or caught in nets and killed by breaking their necks, which results in instant death. Wild rabbits never have to experience live transport or the slaughterhouse. Their lives begin and end in the field.
On the environmental front, rabbits are part of the natural environment, so they put no additional strain on the earth’s resources. Their free-ranging lifestyle and wild diet make for healthy, flavoursome meat that tastes like slightly gamey chicken. Cooked properly – and that means not overcooking this lean meat – wild rabbit is very tender. European cookbooks are full of appetising recipes for it, everything from the Spanish paella Valenciana to the Italian coniglio arrosto and the French lapin à la moutarde. So if you haven’t already, give wild British rabbit a try. You may be favourably impressed.
What to look for when buying wild rabbit
- Go to a reputable game dealer or butcher and expect to pay around £2-£5 for a whole, skinned wild rabbit, or a bit more for rabbit joints. The best meat is on the legs and saddle, but don’t neglect the liver, heart and kidneys, which can be used in a terrine or lightly fried in a warm salad.
- Check that the rabbit is wild and British, not farmed or from France or China. Farmed rabbit may never leave its hutch and may be reared entirely indoors on grain and feed pellets.
- Don’t buy a rabbit with darkened or bruised flesh. It may have been badly shot, will not taste so good and may still contain lead pellets.
- When skinned, wild rabbit should have a nice rosy pink colour and a fresh, clean smell. Don’t accept any rabbit that smells pungently gamey.
- Rabbits are always in season and are at their best between three and four months old. At this age they are plump, their eyes are bright and they have plenty of white fat around the kidneys. Eat them as fresh as possible. Young rabbits are suitable for roasting, while older ones need slow cooking.