With rabbit numbers on the rise after a successful breeding season, Mat Manning heads out on a stalking session with coneys in his sights
Keeping rabbits in check takes up a lot of Mat’s field time at this time of year, but his efforts are rewarded with some delicious meat for the pot.
This evening Mat is using stalking tactics. It’s not the easiest way to get within range of wary rabbits, but pitting your wits against their finely tuned survival instincts makes for exciting shooting.
A familiar farmland pest, the rabbit has a reputation for rapid breeding. The grassland on this farm is used for cattle grazing and as pony paddocks, so the problem caused by rabbits is twofold. Their ability to munch through large volumes of grass is costly for the farming enterprise, and their habit of burrowing around field margins poses a danger to horses and their riders.
Handy extras for a roving rabbit shoot
Mat has flagged up several items of kit that make his stalking sessions more comfortable and productive. These include a pair of relatively light boots, which combine a snug fit with good support and a reasonable degree of feel. He’s also attached a sling to his rifle – although Mat often likes to carry his gun by hand when hunting on the move, he’s always glad to let his shoulder take the strain. Finally, Mat has chosen a quality set of scope mounts, which help to ensure that your combo is producing pin-point accuracy.
Made from full-grain leather with a high rubber rand for added protection, the Fieldman provides great support without feeling bulky, making it a great choice for hunting on the move. A Vibram Trek sole provides excellent traction.
This sling has a camo finish to keep it low-key. A quick-release mechanism ensures fast attachment and detachment. A hand-crafted suede shoulder pad makes for safe carrying, while the integral thumb loop reduces arm and hand fatigue.
Mat’s first choice for scope attachment, Sportsmatch mounts are made from aircraft-spec aluminium; every component is hand-inspected prior to assembly for a rock-solid connection between gun and scope.
20:05 hrs Heading out
Rabbits have been hunted by man and natural predators for centuries, so have finely tuned senses to help them avoid ending up as a meal. Their ears are adept at picking up unusual sounds, their nostrils are constantly filtering the air for strange odours and they can detect vibrations through the ground.
Mat is careful not to blow his cover from the very outset. Car doors are closed as quietly as possible to avoid giving rabbits an early warning of his presence, and his keys are wrapped in a head net before going into his pocket, to stop them from jingling as he walks.
Mat has also replaced his usual welly boots with a pair of snug-fitting lace-ups that don’t slop around on his feet and allow for soft, controlled footfalls.
0:15 hrs Covering ground
One of the main advantages of stalking is being able to cover lots of ground and target numerous warrens during each visit. The downside is that movement really compromises your concealment, so it’s vital to proceed with stealth.
Mat doesn’t usually wear a camouflage head net when hunting on the move. He likes a full field of view, unrestricted by the blinkering effect of a head net, so he can scan all around for signs of his quarry and also check for twigs that may snap noisily under a misplaced foot.
Natural cover is exploited to the full. Keeping close to the hedgerow helps to hide Mat’s outline, while the shade cast by trees and shrubs provides him with further concealment.
And remember, it’s not just rabbits we’re trying to outwit – the alarm call of a startled blackbird or the commotion caused by a spooked deer will put your quarry on high alert.
Essential Technique: Natural Concealment
You don’t have the luxury of a hide when you’re stalking – and Mat doesn’t even like to wear a head net during mobile forays – but that doesn’t mean you can cut corners when it comes to stealth. The roving hunter is more exposed than ever, and there’s a far greater risk of catching your quarry’s eye when you’re moving.
The best way to avoid being spotted is to keep as close as you can to natural cover: you’ll stand out like a beacon in the open field, but your camouflage clothing will help to keep you hidden if you stay tight to the hedgerow. It’s even better if you can make your way along the shady side, where the shadows will make you even less conspicuous.
Remember also to use the contours of the ground to keep out of sight, and stay low as you close in on your quarry – you’ll soon be rumbled if you allow yourself to be silhouetted against the skyline.
20:25 hrs Closing in
Catching sight of rabbits that have ventured out to feed is the hunter’s cue to ramp up the stealth by another gear. A shot is on the cards – but this is where the hard work really starts.
Mat spots two rabbits that have left the shelter of their burrows to nibble on the sweet, sun-ripened grass. They’re way too far off for a shot, but Mat still reaches for his laser rangefinder. A quick ping ranges the bunnies at around 110 metres; Mat then ranges several points along the hedgerow until he finds the 80-metre mark – a spot that’ll put him about 30 metres from his quarry if he can get there. Working out ranges at this stage in the stalk cuts down disturbance at close quarters.
20:32 hrs Reaching striking distance
Read your quarry’s body language: it’ll tell you when to pause and when to proceed. With skill, practice and a little luck, you should find yourself close enough to take a shot.
Mat’s stalk goes as planned, but there’s a nail-biting moment when one of the rabbits sits bolt upright with ears erect after Mat’s jacket snags a bramble. He stops dead still and doesn’t move forward until the agitated bunny settles back down to feed.
On reaching his predetermined firing point, Mat settles onto his knees and pauses to catch his breath. A tricky stalk can leave your heart thumping, so it’s worth waiting for your pulse to settle before taking the shot. After a moment of recovery time, Mat shoulders his rifle and drops the nearest rabbit with a solid strike to the head – the other one bolts off at the sound of the impacting pellet.
Expert Tip: Keep quiet!
Rabbits have a powerful sense of hearing, and unusual sounds will put them on high alert or send them running for their burrows. Quiet stalking begins long before you reach the field. Choose garments that don’t feature jingling zip pulls or clicking poppers. Walking around the house late at night, when ambient noise is at a minimum, is a great way to check how quiet your gear is.
Try not to slam car doors when you arrive at your shoot. A metal gate is a noisy obstacle: you need to decide whether to unlatch and open it, or climb over, keeping your weight close to the hinged end to reduce strain and movement.
20:35 hrs Pickup, prep and hock
Bagging a bunny leaves the roving shooter with a choice. Some hunters put shot quarry in a backpack or game bag and carry it with them, while others hock their rabbits and collect them on the return journey.
After collecting the shot rabbit, Mat holds it by the forelegs and squeezes it down the length of its belly to drain the bladder – this quick, simple job prevents urine from tainting the meat. Mat then hocks the rabbit to a fence so he can carry on unburdened until he collects his haul on the way back to the car. Remember to hock rabbits well off the ground if foxes and badgers are a problem on your shoot, and choose a discreet place that’s out of the way of walkers.
With the first rabbit of the session taken care of, Mat moves on with stealth, keeping close to that all-important cover.
21:05 hrs Onwards and into dusk
The last hour or so of daylight can be one of the best times to stalk rabbits during the summer. Bunnies often go to ground on hot days, but they’ll readily come out to feed on dew-softened grass as sunset approaches.
Mat continues across the fields, moving with stealth and keeping close to cover. He winds down the magnification of his scope from 10x to 6x to improve light transmission as the sun goes down.
The session goes well: even after a couple of failed stalks with rabbits dashing for cover before Mat is able to make it within range, he still ends up with a tally of four shot rabbits by nightfall.
The return journey sees Mat collecting his hocked rabbits, ready for paunching. Doing the job in the field cuts down on mess back at home, and the resident wildlife will have snaffled up the pile of guts by daybreak.