What is the law on killing rabbits in your garden?

Rabbit

Novelist Jeanette Winterson has caused a minor storm on Twitter by posting pictures of a rabbit she killed, cooked and ate after it entered her garden. But what does the law in England and Wales say on the issue, asks Justin Parkinson.

Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, revealed that she had "humanely" killed a rabbit which was eating parsley in her garden in the Cotswolds. She cooked the rabbit in cider - and parsley - and joked that the fur made a "good glove puppet".

This provoked a mixed response on Twitter, with one calling her contribution "revolting" and another saying: "U make me sick. I will never again read a word u write." But the more positive comments included one calling the pictures "beautiful" and another asking: "Life in the wild, humanely killed, what's not to like?"

The answer

  • Rabbits are not a protected species anywhere in the UK and are generally considered a pest
  • But they must be treated humanely once trapped

Rabbits are a pest, according to government guidelines, causing an estimated £100m of damage every year. Because of this, they are afforded few protections in law.

The whole of England and Wales - with the exception of the City of London, the Isles of Scilly and Skokholm island - is designated as a "rabbit-clearance area". But numbers have increased since the effects of myxomatosis, a disease introduced in the 1950s, have faded.

Under the Pests Act 1954, all occupiers of land have a "continuing obligation to kill or take any wild rabbits living on" it. Methods of doing so include gassing, ferreting, trapping and snaring.

Under legislation dating back to the 19th Century, the land occupier and one other person - such as a member of household staff - can shoot rabbits found there. However, the number of people able to do so is restricted by controls on gun ownership.

In short, none of Winterson's actions could be construed as illegal.

But there is some protection for rabbits. Once caught in a trap they are temporarily defined as protected, meaning the trapper can't be cruel to them, such as by tormenting or leaving them to suffer longer than is necessary.

Rabbits are also not a protected species in Northern Ireland or Scotland.

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