Evening rabbit hunting – The Countryman

With skittish rabbits proving difficult to outwit with a roving approach, Mat Manning switches tactics and sets up a stakeout.

This ground has produced some good shooting through late spring and early summer. Short stalking sessions regularly yielded bags of five or six rabbits, but the bunnies are starting to wise up and it’s getting difficult to creep within range before they spook and bolt off into cover.

Following a successful breeding season there are still plenty of rabbits around – enough to cause significant damage – but my tallies are beginning to dwindle as they become more educated. The change in the rabbits’ behaviour means that I need to change my approach – and that means a switch to static hunting.

Stalking rabbits is one of my favourite forms of hunting: I enjoy the challenge of pitting my wits against their survival instincts, plus it’s a tactic that enables me to cover plenty of ground so I can see what’s going on around the shoot.

Mobile hunting does have its disadvantages though, and the main one is that a shooter on the move tends to cause a lot more disturbance than one who is keeping still. You’re far more likely to create tell-tale sounds when you rove from field to field, and a moving hunter is far more likely to catch a rabbit’s eye than one who is stationary.

So rather than enjoying a nice trek around the fields and trying to creep within striking distance of the rabbits, I’m going to adopt a patient approach and wait for them to hopefully come to me instead.

It’s a pleasant evening with a very gentle breeze – good conditions for this kind of shooting – so I’m expecting to see a few rabbits as they creep out from cover to graze on the paddock as dusk sets in.

The quarry – rabbit

PEST STATUS: This burrowing rodent undermines banks and field margins, eating grass, cereal and vegetable crops. It also causes damage to lawns and golf courses.

HABITAT: An animal of the open countryside, rabbits usually establish their burrows on hillsides and embankments.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Rabbits are liable to breed very quickly, and their meat is also good to eat.

18:45 – The right spot

A successful rabbit ambush depends almost entirely on picking the right spot. Set up in a place where your quarry is unlikely to show itself within range and you’re going to be in for a very long and boring evening.

On farms where the rabbits are really abundant, you will probably be able to see them out feeding along the field margins when you arrive. Earmark the busiest looking areas, and make sure that you keep an eye on the bunnies as you walk into position. 

Don’t worry too much if they all bolt into the undergrowth as you approach, but do look out for the runs or holes where they disappear because these are the places they will probably emerge from when they venture back out to feed.

Sometimes there will be no rabbits out when you turn up; maybe because they have yet to come up or perhaps because something has recently moved through the field and spooked them.

On these occasions you will have to rely on experience when picking an area to target, and that’s when reconnaissance can pay off. Recently excavated burrows, signs of scraping, fresh droppings and cropped grass where rabbits have been nibbling – these are excellent clues to places where rabbits are active.

Mat uses his binoculars to scan the field he is planning to target before he sets up. Through the optics, he spots a group of rabbits out enjoying the evening sun around a busy warren that he was planning to target. It’s a very encouraging sign.

19:05 – Settling in

Mat doesn’t attempt to stalk in for a shot at the rabbits that are already above ground, but instead walks straight across the field to the spot where he intends to target them from.

Rabbits are used to seeing walkers in the fields and although the disturbance has sent them to ground, they are unlikely to regard it as anything particularly suspicious and will probably come back out before long.

When approaching his chosen ambush point, Mat was careful not to walk over the burrows he is planning to target. Stomping around right above the warren can really alarm rabbits and make them very reluctant to venture back above ground, so ignore the usual stalking advice of keeping to the field edge and staying close to cover and take the direct route instead.

Mat has settled for a spot about 30 metres out from the hedge line. It offers him a really good view of plenty of productive ground, but there is virtually no cover. He gets around this by getting down on his belly, which will help to keep him off the skyline.

Shooting from the prone position also means that Mat is able to use a low bipod to support his gun. The extra stability is always welcome, and should enable Mat to shoot at slightly longer ranges than usual.

19:10 – Getting the measure

The added support of the bipod might help Mat to shoot over longer distances, but he will still have to give shots holdover to compensate for the fall of his pellet after it passes his 35-metre zero.

Mat has worked out his aim points very carefully during sessions on the range, but he can’t apply them with any certainty in the field unless he knows how far away the target is, and the best way to work that out is with a laser rangefinder.

Although you can use a rangefinder to ping the distance to rabbits after they have ventured out, there is a risk of them spotting the movement and spooking. Mat gets around this by ranging set markers instead.

Using his rangefinder, he measures the distance to fence posts, trees and a trough along the length of hedge he is targeting. When rabbits venture out close to these markers, Mat can use these predetermined reference points to estimate the distance to his target without having to cause additional disturbance by reaching for the rangefinder.

If you don’t have a laser rangefinder you can always pace out the distance to markers around your target area, but it’s best to do it well in advance. As previously mentioned, stomping around close to their burrows can really alarm rabbits, so it’s best to do it prior to the day of your shooting session so you can head straight to your ambush point when you turn up to shoot.

19:25 – The first shot

With all preparations carefully made, it’s just a matter of waiting patiently. Fortunately for Mat, it doesn’t take too long for things to get going this evening. First a rabbit appears about 80 metres down the hedge – too far away, but an encouraging sign – and moments later another emerges right in Mat’s target zone.

The rabbit is a couple of metres from a fence post that Mat ranged at just over 30 metres, so it’s a comfortable distance, but the shot is not on just yet. This bunny is obviously eager to fill its belly as it’s got its head down nibbling at the grass. It’s great to see quarry so at ease, but when presented in this way it’s impossible for Mat to line up on its head.

Mat watches through the scope and positions the crosshairs just above the rabbit. He then makes a squeaking sound through pursed lips, and just as he had hoped the rabbit sits up on full alert as it tries to locate the source of the sudden noise.

With his quarry sat bolt upright, Mat is offered a very clear head shot and only has to make minor adjustments to his aim before touching off the trigger and rolling the rabbit over with a solid strike to the skull.

19:55 – A longer shot

Shooting from the prone position may make you hard to spot, but there are still other factors to consider, including scent. Rabbits have an excellent sense of smell and soon become suspicious if they catch a whiff of any unnatural odour.

To get around this, Mat has set up downwind of the burrows so the breeze will carry his scent away from his quarry. Little factors like this can make a big difference when it comes to keeping shots coming, especially when you add them all together.

It is also important not to cause any unnecessary disturbance or deposit any scent close to where the rabbits live. With this in mind, Mat does not walk in to collect the first rabbit he shot. It was cleanly killed so he left it where it fell, ready to be picked up at the end of the session.

The cautious approach pays off and it’s not long before Mat has a chance to make another addition to the evening’s bag. A rabbit has come out a bit further away than the last one, just beyond a tree trunk that Mat ranged at 40 metres.

The rabbit’s head is clearly presented and Mat places the first aim point beneath the central crosshair between his quarry’s eye and ear to apply some holdover to compensate for the fall of the pellet.

With the bipod holding his aim dead still, Mat gently squeezes off the trigger and the pellet hits home with a ringing crack, signalling the second clean kill of the session.

20:40 – Time to move on

With four rabbits in the bag, it looks like it’s shaping up into a very productive session…but then disaster strikes. Just as the action is really building up, Mat hears a barking sound that signals the approach of the farmer and his two wayward collies.

Mat immediately decides to break cover and collect the rabbits he has managed to bag before the dogs can arrive and grab his hard-earned bunnies for themselves.

Just as Mat is picking up the last one, the farmer strolls through the gate and across the field to see how he is getting on. It’s always wise to be polite to your host, so Mat spends a good 10 minutes chatting with the farmer, who is delighted to see such a good job being done.

Although it’s a good opportunity for Mat to catch up with the farmer, the disturbance is ruinous to the shooting. As they stand talking, the dogs amuse themselves by scrambling in and out of the brambles right along the stretch of hedgerow that Mat had been targeting. After such a commotion, there would be little chance of the rabbits feeling confident enough to venture back out for a long time.

The session isn’t over yet, though. With plenty of light left for another hour’s shooting, Mat is going to stake out another spot until it’s too dark to see the emerging rabbits.

He makes a point of checking what route the farmer is taking because the last thing he wants to do is set up in a place where the dogs will appear again or where they have already spooked the rabbits.

Mat Manning’s gear

Daystate Red Wolf (.22, FAC)

MTC Mamba Lite

Scope mounts
Sportsmatch two-piece

Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign

Hawke LRF 400

Harris HBRS 6-9

More from our Countryman series with Mat Manning

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