Airgun hunting on the farmyard

The farmyard can be an incredibly productive place for airgun hunters who know how to employ the right tactics, as Pete Brookes explains.

The air rifle is perfect for dealing with rats and feral pigeons, but shooters should always be mindful of a safe backstop (Photo credit: David Jinks)

Anyone who manages to acquire a permission from a farmer will no doubt be expecting to shoot in and around the farm buildings, but for many shooters this is simply not the case.

If you are lucky enough to be allowed onto their land to shoot, you may find you end up well away from the farmyard itself. From the farmer’s perspective, allowing someone with a firearm access onto their property, close to where they live with their family and surrounded by expensive machinery, can be too big an ask, at least at first.

The days of the archetypal farmer, rotund with baling twine holding up his trousers, are all but over. Now we are looking at the new generation of farmer – someone taking over the family business in a more competitive and demanding industry. 

This farmer/landowner is more likely to have been to agricultural college and will be savvy with technology. No more yearly farming plans on the back of cigarette packets, the new breed will be working to long-term management schedules, and that includes the impact on their productivity by pest species.

But once the airgun shooter has built up trust and has proved themselves to be safe and competent, they may now be given an invitation to take on the farmyard.

Shooting around the farmyard can be challenging and you need to be aware of the hazards contained by the environment even more so than when out in the open field.

Not only are you shooting within an area prone to ricochet, you are inside a working zone potentially surrounded by thousands of pounds’ worth of machinery, livestock and of course the human workforce. 

However, do not let these put you off as airgunning around the farmyard is a fun pastime and provides an essential service. A skill of the shooter is knowing when or when not to take the shot, and here that advice certainly does ring true.

So what quarry are we likely to encounter? This is probably not the most obvious place to start, but the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is a frequent visitor to farmyards, particularly into grain stores when natural food sources are low within its usual woodland patch. 

The control of greys will be a great service to the landowner who is not only accountable under legislation to prevent infestation by pests within their farm, but is also under strict guidelines and protocol set by the very supermarkets they supply to ensure there is no contamination of the foodstuffs that they sell.

Greys make their way from their woodland home to farm buildings via regular routes both in and out. I have sat up many early mornings observing greys making their way into grain stores and noted they come along the same route time and time again.

Where they pause before breaking cover to cross open ground can be a good predetermined spot to set up an ambush. Within the buildings themselves covering access and egress points, either a hole in the side of the wall or even an ill-fitting door under which they will squeeze their way through, can prove a good tactic for success.

As long as they’re not spooked, greys tend to feed slowly and will conveniently sit upright, offering a sizable target. This should give you ample time to line up an effective head shot so any of the standard calibres are adequate. Working around the machinery does give you the opportunity to shoot from a stable position, so think about taking a bean bag to rest the rifle on.

Probably the most notorious inhabitant of the farmyard is the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), which is quite possibly the species loathed by most people, with current estimates of the population in the UK ranging anywhere between 18 and 60 million onwards.

The saying that you are never further than six feet away from a rat is far from accurate, however there is no underestimating the serious impact on our health and food production this rodent creates.

The airgun shooter offers the farmer a useful service by reducing the number of resident rodents, many of which carry some sort of disease (Photo credit: David Jinks)

My own disdain to the brown rat goes back to the mid-eighties when I was a young infantry soldier deployed in the ‘Bandit Country’ of South Armagh. Our patrol base was located within one of the small villages dotted along the border with the Republic of Ireland, and on a hillside overlooking the village was an observation post protecting the main base, fortified and armed. Apart from attracting the occasional sniper fire the OP was a welcome break from the cramped main base and long, arduous foot patrols. 

Unfortunately, the OP was also a magnet for the local rat population. Our sleeping and resting area was infested by Mr Rat and all his family. You could hear their claws scraping the concrete as they scurried about under improvised beds, with the occasional one jumping onto the bed itself. As the incoming patrol alighted from the helicopter on change-over, the obligatory banter was always the same: “Big as ******* cats they are, mate!”

We may not be best buddies with the rat population, but it still deserves a quick and humane dispatch, and although what calibre to use is personal preference, your choice does determine the killzone.

If you are not baiting an area then the rats will probably not be hanging about long enough to line up a decent headshot, so a heavier pellet such as the .22 or .25 into the front third body area is a good secondary killzone. Just be aware that a shot into the heart and lungs does literally put them dead on their feet, particularly with larger specimens. 

The rat’s survival instinct and autonomous drive sometimes cause them to flee even though the trauma of the pellet has done its job. The impetus in their muscular functions sometimes gets them back to cover and out of your view even though their life is very much extinct.

Not the biggest of drawbacks, but it may put doubt in your own mind even though it was an effective shot and can also make it completely inaccessible to recover the carcass.

In some part to the changing unpredictability of the General Licences (GL), for now, the feral pigeon (Columba livia) is the only feathered species that I shoot with an air rifle around farm buildings.

I agree somewhat with the broad concept of the GL and feel all birds should be offered some degree of protection, but that must certainly balance with the requirements and needs of the British farming industry. 

We no longer live in a ‘natural’ environment, and since humankind upset the balance a long time ago it is necessary for us to manage the countryside effectively and compassionately, not just for the benefit of our wildlife, but also for the good of the working rural community. 

The second reason I do not shoot other feathered quarry with an air rifle around the farm is that corvids are far more clever than I am. These are intelligent creatures and unless you get your fieldcraft spot on you will be up for a challenge, and although I have taken a few over the years with air rifles, I am now in the fortunate position to leave them now for shotgun decoy work and another enjoyable day out shooting. That said, do not be put off going after corvids with an air rifle, they are an inspiring adversary and you will certainly learn your craft in the process.

Feral pigeons do present a serious health risk inside farm buildings and the air rifle really is the ideal tool to use. Preferably I take them on the ground as there are always opportunities whilst they are feeding, sometimes with a couple of pigeon decoys to give them the confidence to fly in if there is movement around other areas of the farm.

When I first became involved with air weapons (circa BSA Mercury and Airsporter days) it was commonly stated that .22 was for fur and .177 for feather. Now with a present day PCP I am happy to use any of the calibres to place an effective shot into the head, or with an aim point around the upper wing area placing it into the area of the heart and lungs.

If possible, try to avoid shooting ferals when they are perched in the roof area sitting on the rafters, even with metal roof girders as a backstop. No matter your skill and accuracy or the quality of your combination, it only takes one flawed pellet to fractionally stray off course, placing a perfectly symmetrical hole in the roof. Just remember a permission is hard to get, but easy to lose.

If you are fortunate to be offered a permission within the farmyard, take it
and enjoy it. Just be mindful of the environment and any potential hazards, and adhere with the conditions of the General Licences to protect your sport.

Whether you are new to hunting with an air rifle or have been doing so for many years, having a variety of ground to shoot upon does enhance your time outdoors. 

Remember, we do not go after farmyard pest species for what they are, we go after them for what they do. By providing valuable assistance to the farming industry we are also very much helping to maintain the safety and integrity of our national food chain. 

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