I have known about the desire of some creatures for self-immolation since reading “archy and mehitabel” in the late 1970s – and, in particular, the “lesson of the moth” from 1927. But, as I have discovered over the last few weeks, moths are far from the only animals to seek a rapid escape from this veil of tears.
Infamously, lemmings are supposed to hurl themselves from cliffs – though I believe this is a foul slur propagated by the Disney corporation, who could find themselves in a whole heap of trouble if the rodents ever get lawyered-up (as I believe our American cousins would have it).
However, I refer to creatures rather closer to home – and which I encounter on my bicycle while trolling to and from Cambridge of an evening. Unlike the electric light bulb which lured Archy’s moth to its untimely end, it is the siren song of the cycle path between Addenbrooke’s and Shelford which has led many a creature to its doom.
In dry weather and generally in the hours of daylight, a host of black beetles scurry across the cycle path – and more than a few succumb to the tyres of a passing bike – but, it is in the hours of darkness where the death toll really rises. After any rainfall, snails to the left of the cycle path find a pressing need to visit the right, whilst those on the right feel compelled to sample the delights that they believe lie concealed on the left side. I will admit that as a member of the human race, it is slightly unfair to cast aspersions on snails for this particular behaviour – one has only to look at any major trunk road to find people doing the self-same thing.
Snails are not known for their rapid motion and many hundreds (possibly thousands) choose to make this perilous journey after the sun has set. As a result, my journey home is punctuated with sharp ‘cracks’ as each snail explodes under my wheel – and at times, these cracks can be so frequent as to resemble the fire from a Maxim gun. I do not deliberately try and hit the molluscs – though do take some obscure pleasure in their destruction, viewing it is a form of weregild for the plants their kin have destroyed at Fish Towers. Also, on the plus side, the snails are only endangering themselves – it would require a very large snail indeed to be a serious risk to the passing cyclist (and the Giant African Land snail – achatina achatina – is largely unknown in Cambridgeshire).
Rabbits though are a very different story. These can be seen at all times – but in the greatest numbers after dusk. Unlike those creatures lacking a backbone, the rabbits do not spend a significant amount of time on the cycle path itself. No, as I cycle past, bunnies will stop whatever they are doing in an adjacent field and run tens of yards in order to hurl themselves under the wheels of my velocipede. They are not easily dissuaded from this action. Try to dodge them as I might, they are determined to end it all and that I should be the instrument of their destruction. I’ve tried whistling, singing and extensive use of my bell (well, less mine and more the one fitted to the bicycle – I wouldn’t want you to imagine me accoutered like an Alpine cow as I cycle) – but this only seems to encourage the little blighters to seek oblivion at my wheels. I know I tend to wear quite dark clothes but I have yet to carry a scythe and wear a cloak while cycling (to be honest, they would add too much wind resistance) and tend to wear at least some fluorescent garb at night, so I struggle to see why I am considered the coney angel of death. I fear that whilst striking a rabbit would allow it to achieve its aim, it might also unseat me leading to unwanted bruising and abrasions. Trains can be fitted with a cow-catcher to remove recalcitrant ungulates from the track in areas where they are a problem, but I have yet to see a coney-catcher accessory for the country biker.
I also fail to understand how rabbits have become so numerous (despite their legendary rate of reproduction) given their tendency to throw themselves at any perceived threat or potential predator. Surely, evolution is supposed to weed out this sort of foolishness from a genome pretty rapidly. I think Richard Dawkins is local – perhaps I should challenge him with this particular conundrum. Is the stupidity of rabbits the unequivocal proof of the divine that so many have been seeking?