Summer rabbit stalking – The Countryman

Balmy evenings are made for stalking rabbits – Mat Manning sets up for a roving session in the hope of bagging some bunnies for the pot.

Summer rabbiting is one of the highlights of the airgun hunter’s year, not just because it offers the chance to pit your wits against a challenging adversary while carrying out vital pest control, but also because successful shooting is rewarded with delicious free-range, low-cholesterol meat for the table.

Rabbits have had their ups and downs over the years. When I was a boy, local populations were frequently decimated by bouts of myxomatosis. Through generations of survivors, rabbits have built up a resistance to this horrible disease, but they then took another hit when rabbit haemorrhagic disease struck.

This new threat has had a detrimental impact in many areas, but I’m pleased to say that my locality has shown a strong recovery in the past couple of years – so much so that rabbit numbers are once again getting out of hand in many places.

The farm where I am shooting this evening is a great example of the rabbits’ ability to bounce back from the brink. Three or four years ago it was a rarity to see any here, but now they are abundant once again and causing the usual headaches associated with spiralling rabbit populations.

On this mixed holding, the main problems are their tendency to nibble away at crops and the undermining of fields and banks caused by their burrowing. Rabbit excavations don’t sound like a major concern, but cattle and horses can break a leg when a misplaced hoof plunges into an unseen burrow.

This evening’s session is a bit of a reconnaissance trip to familiarise myself with the landscape in readiness for some after-dark outings with night vision gear as the days get shorter. I’m hunting on the move so I can cover plenty of ground, so that means I’ll be travelling light. Conditions look very encouraging so I’m pretty confident about bagging a few bunnies.

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.

19:45Timing and tactics

Rabbits become active as evening closes in, so Mat has planned his outing for the last couple of hours of daylight. Bunnies creep out to feed at dusk during the summer as the temperature becomes comfortable and the dew softens the grass.

This evening coincides with a warm, dry spell after a showery morning following several weeks of low rainfall. Although rabbits don’t like the rain, they emerge to feed after the showers have passed because the rainfall causes a flush of tender green shoots that are irresistible after a diet of parched grass.

Mat has opted for a roving approach because he wants to cover plenty of the farm, so he is travelling very light – apart from his gun and ammo, the only accessories he has with him are his rangefinder and a knife. You really don’t want to be overburdened when trying to stalk within range of wary rabbits.

Mat is dressing lighter than usual, and swapped his wellies for a pair of trainers. He may end up with wet toes if it rains again, but at least he should be light on his feet.

19:55 – Going the distance

Full camouflage is not essential for stalking rabbits because their eyesight is not great. Their finely tuned senses of smell and hearing more than make up for that though, so Mat tries to keep his hunting gear away from any strong odours and is conscious of anything that may cause unwanted noise – he closes the doors of his car as quietly as he can on his arrival and wraps his keys in an old headnet to stop them from jangling noisily in his pocket.

The cautious approach pays off, and Mat soon spots a pair of rabbits feeding along the field edge. Keeping in cover, he creeps in a little closer and then takes out his laser rangefinder to ping the distance to the oblivious bunnies.

They are 74m away from where he is standing, so he then ranges the distance to fence posts along the hedge line until he finds one that’s 48m from his position. If he can creep to that post, or at least close to it, and providing that the rabbits stay where they are, Mat knows he will be less than 30m from them and well within striking distance.

Of course, Mat could range the rabbits again when he gets closer, and if they move along the hedge he may well have to, but it’s better to do it from a distance if you can. Taking out and using a rangefinder when in close proximity to wary quarry will cause additional movement and possibly sound too, which might just blow your cover.

20:05Firing point

Spotting rabbits is just the first step towards putting one in the bag. The really challenging part is getting in close enough to take a telling shot.

After working out a firing point from which to shoot, Mat then needs to actually get himself there without being rumbled by the rabbits. Although rabbits aren’t particularly sharp-eyed, they will still spook if they spot a human form looming towards them. Mat tucks in close to the hedgerow and stays as low as he can in order to keep his silhouette off the skyline.

It’s a still evening with very little breeze. That means there’s no wind to waft any scent from Mat towards the rabbits’ twitching nostrils, but it also means there’s no noise from the trees to mask his approach. The best way to avoid detection is to move slowly and quietly, and freeze dead still the moment a rabbit shows any sign of being alarmed.

Apart from being armed with acute senses of smell and hearing, rabbits also detect vibrations through the ground. Heavy footfalls put them on edge and often send them running, so Mat treads as carefully as he can.

The concentration needed to close in the final few metres makes the steady progress feel extremely slow, but in reality the stalk actually only takes a few minutes. Mat eventually makes it to his firing point, and luckily for him the rabbits haven’t moved, so he knows he’s within range.

He settles into a kneeling position, takes a moment to compose himself and then shoulders his rifle and pushes off the safety catch. The crosshairs settle on the head of the closest rabbit, Mat squeezes through the trigger and the shot is on its way.

20:07 – Pick up and hock

Mat’s first shot of the evening finds its mark. The pellet strikes the rabbit’s skull with a ringing crack, delivering a lethal impact which flips it
into the air before it flops down into the grass and expires with barely a kick. The sudden shattering of the peace sends the other rabbit bolting, and it disappears into the undergrowth before Mat even has time to reload.

Mat hasn’t brought a backpack with him because he doesn’t want to be weighed down, but it means he doesn’t have a bag to transport shot rabbits. Instead, he will be hocking them to trees and fences and collecting them on his way back to the car.

Mat takes the rabbit and squeezes its belly to empty its bladder before making a small cut between the bone and tendon behind the heel of one of its rear feet. After placing its hind legs either side of a strand of fencing wire, Mat then threads the other foot through the cut to create a secure attachment before moving on to seek out more rabbits.

It’s always a good idea to hock rabbits in a discreet, shady place where they will be out of the sight of walkers. It’s not a method to use in areas where foxes and badgers are abundant, as these opportunistic scavengers will often snaffle up your hocked rabbit before you return.

20:50Ups and downs

As he moves quietly from field to field, Mat sees more rabbits, but they’re not easy to get close to. Although it rained earlier in the day, the grass is still brittle and the short stems have a habit of crunching underfoot. The rabbits’ skittishness suggests that it will probably be more productive to target them after dark when there are more above ground and further out from cover.

Mat embraces the challenge of daytime stalking and accepts that things don’t always go to plan. It is important not to get frustrated and attempt recklessly long shots – there is no point in risking wounding your quarry, and Mat knows there will be more chances on other days.

It’s not all over for this evening, though, and Mat eventually manages to close in on a rabbit that’s feeding a bit further out from the hedge line. But the rabbit suddenly sits bolt upright – it isn’t looking in Mat’s direction so has either caught a scent or picked up on a sound. Mat freezes dead still and doesn’t move until the rabbit settles back down and starts nibbling at the grass again.

With his quarry back off guard, Mat very slowly closes down the last few metres to his firing point and then settles down for the shot. Now is the time to be calm; the hardest job is done and the rabbit is unlikely to spook now Mat has stopped moving.

After making himself comfortable, Mat nestles the gun into his shoulder, steadily places the crosshairs between the rabbit’s eye and ear, and gently touches off the shot to make another addition to the bag.

21:20 – Homeward trek

With the light fading fast, Mat decides to start heading back to his car. There’s every chance that rabbits will have ventured back out into the fields he has already passed through, so he still moves with stealth even though the session is drawing to a close.

As he makes his way back, Mat returns to the places where he hocked his rabbits and left them for collection on his homeward journey. Having to carry rabbits by hand is a bit of a hindrance, but Mat wasn’t expecting to make a huge bag, and two rabbits are no great burden.

About halfway back, Mat spots a single rabbit feeding just out from the hedge. He puts down the shot rabbits and ranges it at 50m. With no obvious feature to pick out as a firing point, Mat creeps along the hedge until he reckons he’s about halfway from where he initially ranged the unsuspecting bunny. At around 25m, it’s another straightforward shot and Mat takes full advantage of the opportunity to add a third rabbit to the evening’s tally.

The rabbit is cleanly killed, so Mat nips back to pick up the two rabbits he left nestled in the tussocks at the start of the stalk before he walks in to collect what turns out to be the final kill of the session.

Mat is happy to have accounted for a trio of rabbits during this fairly short outing. It has only made a small contribution to pest control on the holding, but he has managed to harvest a decent haul of meat for the pot. Bigger bags will almost certainly come when he returns with his night vision gear as autumn approaches.

Mat’s gear

Air Arms S510 Superlite (.177, sub-12 ft-lb)

Hawke Vantage 3-9×40

Sportsmatch two-piece

Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign

Hawke LRF 400

jacketRidgeline No
Boundaries Fleece

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