Country diary: Snared in the branches

<span>Photograph: Ian Lamond/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Ian Lamond/Alamy

A pair of small black eyes meets mine. My run comes to an abrupt halt. A few yards in front of me, curled up on a leaf-littered path next to a busy road, is a damp black and white kitten. No more than a couple of months old, it looks vulnerable, with no houses nearby and cars thundering past. I feel a surge of apprehension for this tiny, unkempt thing.

Fearing the cat has been abandoned, I try to approach it, but it backs away into a tangled coppice of brambles and willows next to the road. I wade in after it, trying to tempt it with scraps of food, but it keeps retreating further into the thorny undergrowth. The grey November light is draining away, and I’m near the end of a long run, harried by squally wet winds, body temperature dropping. Eventually, I admit defeat.

In retrospect, it’s likely that the kitten was one of the population of feral cats that lives on Bolton Abbey estate. Last year, an apparently unowned cat was killed by a snare set by the estate, which owns huge swathes of grouse moorland. It was found by a runner alongside a fox in a “stink pit” (rotting carcasses used as a trap to ensnare further predators). The estate said that it legally controlled foxes and feral cats under England’s pest control laws.

But following a public outcry, the Bolton Abbey estate now works with a local charity to trap, neuter and release feral cats. For other “vermin” species, though, like foxes, the estate continues to use snares – devices that have recently been banned and described as “indiscriminate” and “cruel” by the Welsh government.

The ecological impact of feral cats, along with free-ranging domestic cats, is extensive, even devastating; by one estimate they kill up to 100 million prey items a year. But this in an already human-altered landscape, stripped of many of its native predators. Who decides what really belongs in such a place, and why? I wonder if that cat is still alive, hunched amid those branches and brambles, doing its best to stay that way.

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