Rabbit hunting with Richard Saunders

Rich Saunders takes a break from his pure pest control duties to stalk a few rabbits and see if there’s any light at the end of the polytunnel.

A set of trigger sticks helps provide a more stable position to shoot from, assuming you can deploy them without scaring off your quarry

If God has a penthouse suite, and I am deserving of it when I fall off my perch, heaven for me is a lush, grassy field with a never-ending hedgerow full of rabbits, and I’ll spend eternity wandering up and down it on an early spring evening, air rifle in hand.

For now though, one of my favourite permissions is a soft fruit farm. Nestling in the Buckinghamshire countryside, it covers many hundreds of acres and produces tons of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

The fruit is grown inside mile after mile of polytunnels, with many of the plants having been raised up on stands to keep the berries off the ground and, presumably, away from the ravenous bunnies. Some of the fruit is grown on the floor though, and the rabbits can easily decimate crops as well as the plants themselves. 

They also have a habit of nibbling through the network of irrigation pipes that criss-cross the complex, resulting in a drop in water pressure and potentially part of the crop being destroyed.

Having shot over the farm for a couple of years, I quickly discovered that from a pest control perspective, a mobile approach, shooting in the dark from my truck is the most effective. I trundle around the lanes, locating rabbits with a thermal spotter and then shooting them through the open window.

The one drawback with this approach is that I have to keep to the farm tracks. Any attempt to get out of the truck results in already alerted rabbits simply running away.

Consequently, many shots are at distances of 50 or 60 metres, which means having to use an FAC-rated rifle – either a 90 ft-lb .30 calibre FX Impact fitted with a PARD NV008 LRF, or a 55 ft-lb Brocock Sniper XR Magnum, which is paired with an ATN X-Sight 4K Pro 5-20×50.

This approach often returns bags of 20 or more rabbits in a night, but if I’m honest, it’s not much of a challenge. However, when it comes to pest control, I feel obliged to use the most effective tactics that are at my disposal.

We all need a bit of light relief though, and I love nothing more than breaking up my pest control duties with a bit of sport. With all those miles of polytunnels, the fruit farm makes stalking these rabbits endlessly challenging and absorbing, my most recent trip especially so.

For me, the joy of shooting for sport lies in the challenge of pitting my fieldcraft skills against the evolved caution of wild quarry. As a result, I much prefer to use a sub-12 ft-lb rifle. My choice for this evening’s session was my .177 calibre HW100S, which has a Custom Stock CS500 walnut handle and a Hawke Airmax 6-24×50 scope on top.

Arriving at the farm in the evening, the scent of ripening strawberries and fresh grass hung in the air. The songbirds were in full voice and fluffy seeds drifted about, indicating the direction of the breeze.

At the back of the truck, I took the rifle from its bag and then loaded the 14-shot magazine with Air Arms Diabolo Field pellets. I’ve found that the 4.52mm version tends to give me a much better edge when it comes to maintaining its consistency at longer ranges.

Rich replaced the standard HW100S stock with one made by Custom Stocks of Sheffield – this is the CS500 model

With the magazine back in the rifle and a few spare pellets in my pocket, I snicked the safety catch on and grabbed the rest of my kit – a Hawke rangefinder, a set of shooting trigger sticks and a game carrier – before setting off.

Despite the warm evening, I’d taken the precaution of wearing gloves, a face veil and a cap as I walked along the hedgerow, stopping every few metres to scan the area. 

Recent high wind meant the ground was littered with sticks and other debris, making quiet progress difficult, and I spent more time looking where my feet were landing than I did looking for rabbits. Fortunately, as I turned a corner, one emerged from the hedgerow ahead of me.

It sniffed the air and knew something wasn’t right, ready to scarper back into the undergrowth. We did the Mexican stand-off thing for a good five minutes. Me wishing the rabbit would put its head down and relax, him looking for an excuse to tear off.

Eventually I blinked first and decided to make my move. I was in a Catch-22; the rabbit was a good 30 metres away and beyond my abilities for a standing freehand shot, and yet there was a good chance that deploying my sticks would give the rabbit all the excuse it needed to bolt. I quickly reasoned that a missed opportunity was far better than a wounded rabbit.

Moving slowly, I spread the sticks and, with the hedgerow providing cover, knelt down to take the shot. The rabbit made the false start that hunters dread, as if about to make a run for it. I held my breath and despite being in an even higher state of alertness, it stayed put, enabling me to make a clean kill.

With a quick belly squeeze to empty its bladder, I hung the bunny from my game carrier, cycled the HW’s sidelever and, with the safety catch activated, moved on.

I continued creeping along the hedgerow and although no more shots resulted, I saw several rabbits run into the polytunnels. The tunnels themselves are hundreds of feet long and around 12 feet high.

Thick sheets of white plastic drape down to the floor where they are anchored to prevent them blowing about. Each tunnel contains eight to ten rows of plants about a metre apart.

Strawberries are out of reach of the rabbits, but they eat the grass that flourishes thanks to some leaky irrigation pipes

Sticking my head around the edge of the tunnel into which I’d seen a rabbit disappear only resulted in startling one that had been no more than a couple of metres inside. He disappeared like smoke, running out of the tunnel and back to the hedgerow.

Cursing my luck and hoping he’d not been alone, I knelt to look through my Pulsar Helion thermal spotter. Although it really comes into its own in darkness, the Helion works just as well in daylight and accompanies me on every trip.

Through it I could see the brilliant white outline of three rabbits further up, all with their heads down and feeding on the lush grass between the rows of plants. However, they must have been partially obscured as I couldn’t spot them through the scope or my rangefinder.

I knew they were on the left side of the tunnel, so I made my way down the right, keeping several rows of plants between us. After another 20 metres I scanned ahead with the Helion once again.

All three rabbits were still in play and this time through the scope I could make out the nearest. There was too much interference for the rangefinder to work properly, but I estimated the distance to be about 50 metres.

Crouching even lower, I inched further into the tunnel, the soft ground making it easy to progress silently. I kept telling myself another 10 steps would do, then another 10, dreading the sight of a bolting rabbit with each one.

Finally, I risked another look, this time through the scope. Either I’d made more progress than I thought, or the rabbit had moved closer, as I put the range at no more than 25 metres and didn’t need to use the rangefinder to confirm.

I knew I’d have to shoot underneath and across the rows of plants, and it would be too difficult to use the shooting sticks in the confines of the polytunnel. Instead I lay them on the ground, wincing at a slight ‘clink’, and fidgeted into a kneeling position.

Bringing the scope to my eye, the rabbit on the other side of it looked enormous, and I dialled the magnification down to 10x. It was turned away from me and had its head down, nibbling the grass; all I could see was its backside.

The rows of fruit provide handy cover for stalking rabbits, even if it is tempting to stop for a quick snack

Steadying myself for the shot, I placed the crosshairs where its head would be if it sat upright and, rather than making a squeaking sound, deliberately clicked the safety catch off as loudly as I could.

In the confines of the polytunnel the rabbit heard the alien sound and sat bolt up. I adjusted my aim minutely and fired. The rabbit leapt into the air before falling onto its side, legs stretched out and toes splayed.

Although it’s a quiet rifle, thanks to the Weihrauch silencer, the report from the HW100S seemed loud in the confines of the tunnel and I felt sure the other rabbits had run off.

Nevertheless, I cycled another pellet and, crouching below the plant stands, peered through the Helion. But I was right and there were no signs of life.

I made my way over to the fallen rabbit and confirmed the pellet had struck where I’d aimed at the back of its head. 

I could have carried on, and no doubt added more rabbits to the bag, but ending the session on a high after a successful stalk seemed the right thing to do, so I made my way back to the truck with that contented feeling all hunters know well. 

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