With rabbits growing wary by daylight, Mat Manning adopts thermal tactics to keep them in check
Rabbits have a reputation for being able to breed quickly. That reputation is based on fact and means that they are able to bounce back after a slump.
A few years ago rabbits went from being abundant to alarmingly scarce across much of the country.
This was down to several reasons; I don’t think the huge numbers of badgers helped, and myxomatosis was a factor, but rabbit haemorrhagic disease played the biggest part – and the rapid decline points to this virulent disease.
Thankfully, we have seen a marked recovery in the rabbit population in my locality over the past year or so.
Numbers seem to be more or less back to where they were before the sudden drop, and in some areas they are noticeably higher.
Although I am delighted to see an abundance of rabbits in the countryside again, several landowners are not so excited. Where numbers have spiked, crops are decimated, banks are undermined and young trees are nibbled. In these cases, I am happy to keep them in check.
Apart from being very good at breeding, rabbits have a talent for learning how to avoid danger. Back in the summer when there were lots of gullible young bunnies in the fields, it was easy to make decent bags but it’s not so easy picking off educated overwintered rabbits.
Most of the rabbits on my permissions have grown wary of my daytime forays, and don’t tend to let me get very close when it’s still light. So I have moved over to a nocturnal approach, and tonight I’m using some hi-tech gear to swing the odds in my favour.
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.
18:20 – embracing the night
The early part of the year presents rabbit shooters with two main obstacles to overcome. The first is that overwintered rabbits that have learnt how to evade danger are usually very wary, and the second is that rabbits don’t spend much time above ground during the hours of daylight when the days are still short at this time of year.
Mat is hoping to overcome both of those problems by targeting his quarry at night. This approach should mean that he is out when the rabbits are above ground, and the concealment provided by the darkness should help him to creep closer to them without being detected.
Infrared is usually Mat’s first choice for night vision optics, but tonight he is using a thermal riflescope. Although it’s not part of his regular kit, Mat has been loaned the InfiRay Rico for a long-term test and he has been very impressed with this high-end sight – so much so that he has drafted it in for tonight’s sortie.
Mat has paired the Rico with his sub-12ft/lb Weihrauch HW100 BP. Although he was tempted to opt for an FAC-rated airgun to increase his striking range, the BP won because of its near-silent operation, which should be a real asset when targeting skittish rabbits on a still evening.
18:35 – into the darkness
Ideal conditions for after-dark shooting are mild with an overcast sky and a gentle breeze to create background noise to help to mask the sounds of a hunter creeping around the fields. Cold, cloudless nights with a large moon are usually a waste of time – with so much ambient light from the sky, rabbits will be able to see you from a long way off, and if it’s frosty they’ll hear the crunch of your feet too.
Although there is little wind, Mat is happy with the conditions as there is reasonable cloud. The lack of breeze means he will have to move as quietly as he can, but at least it won’t cause pellet drift and interfere with his shot placement.
After creeping into the first field, Mat has a scan through his thermal spotter. This hi-tech item will reveal the heat signatures of rabbits that might have been missed. Mat could scan through the Rico, but it makes for a cumbersome spotter and is set on high zoom for precise shooting, so offers a narrow field of view.
Mat keeps his Zeiss spotter on 1x magnification, which gives him a very broad view of the field. Straightaway, it picks up the heat signatures of several feeding rabbits. Now Mat just needs to get within range of them.
Expert tip – patience pays off
Tempting as it is to head out after rabbits as soon as dusk starts to set in, it can really help to hold off for another hour or two.
Although rabbits usually start to venture above ground when the light begins to fade, they grow more and more confident the longer they are out. As a consequence, they tend to travel further out into the fields in search of thicker, lusher grass as the night wears on.
If you don’t mind putting in a late shift, you should find more rabbits further from their burrows by making a later start. That makes it easier to stalk within range because they will be reluctant to run past you to reach their burrows on the field’s edge.
18:45 – closing in
The rabbits Mat has spotted are quite far out in the field and are oblivious to his presence, which is a good start. The challenging part is getting close enough for the shot without being rumbled.
Mat estimates the rabbits to be about 100m away, and he won’t think about pulling the trigger until he is within 40m of them. To reduce the distance, Mat creeps close to the field edge, moving slowly in their direction while placing his feet extremely carefully.
There is just about enough light for Mat to see where he is walking, but the rabbits are invisible in the gloom of the night. When he thinks he is about halfway to them, Mat peers through the Rico until he has the closest one framed in the sight picture before using the onboard laser rangefinder to ping the distance to it.
The rangefinder confirms that Mat is not quite as close as he thought he was, as the nearest rabbit is 57m from where he is standing. He flicks the Rico back into standby mode and inches closer, taking even more care not to blow his cover.
After another laboriously slow stalk, Mat switches the Rico back on and checks the range again. This time the closest rabbit is just 31m away and the shot is on.
18:55 – on target
A patient and careful stalk has been rewarded as Mat is within range of the rabbits. There are still four of them out feeding and they don’t appear to be aware of his presence.
The last thing Mat wants to do now is ruin all his hard work by spooking the rabbits, so he slowly settles onto one knee while trying not to make a sound. Times like this certainly bring home the importance of travelling light, because you really don’t want excess kit clunking and rattling around in your backpack in the still of the night.
Heavy rain has left the ground saturated and very boggy, so Mat decided against setting up with a bipod for prone shots. He also chose not to burden himself with his shooting sticks, so a kneeling shot is his most stable option.
After getting into position, Mat takes a brief moment to allow his breath to settle before he frames the nearest rabbit in the Rico’s display and pushes off the Weihrauch’s safety catch.
The glow of the rabbit’s heat signature stands out very clearly in the Rico’s sight picture – more than clear enough for Mat to see exactly where he wants to land his pellet. With the distance more or less exactly at his zero range, Mat settles the crosshair between the rabbit’s eye and ear before pushing through the trigger to send the pellet whizzing to its mark.
19:00 – two in the bag
The shot rabbit rolled over without a twitch and, thanks to the Weihrauch’s whisper-quiet muzzle report, two others make the mistake of lingering. Mat cycles the BP’s sidelever to re-cock and load another pellet before lining up on the closest of the two stragglers.
A touch further away than the first one, this rabbit is still comfortably within range so Mat shuffles himself around to line up for another shot.
Although it hasn’t bolted yet, this bunny looks much more alert and is clearly aware that something isn’t right. With the rabbit on full alert, Mat has no time to linger and squeezes off the trigger as the crosshairs come to rest on the centre of the rabbit’s skull. It’s another direct hit and another clean kill.
Two rabbits from a single stalk is a great achievement, and three is expecting too much. Predictably, the remaining rabbit takes to its heels and disappears into the hedgerow as the sound of the impacting pellet rings out through the still air.
The thermal spotter comes back into play now as it gives Mat a very clear view of where both the shot rabbits are lying. It’s then time to switch on his headlamp so he can pick them from the grass and squeeze down their bellies to empty their bladders of urine that could taint the meat before slipping them into his backpack.
20:05 – more for the pot
With lots of ground to cover, Mat continues to work his way around his permission and the routine remains the same as he moves from field to field. He stops from time to time to scan ahead for rabbits and shifts back into stalking mode each time he spots potential targets up ahead.
It doesn’t always go to plan, and plenty of bunnies make it safely to cover after hearing the squelch of a heavy footfall or the rustle of a bramble catching Mat’s jacket as he strays too close to the hedge. Being able to shoot lamp-free and in complete darkness has given him an edge though, and the tally reaches five before he passes the two-hour mark.
Trekking across soggy fields in the dark is tiring work, but Mat isn’t turning in just yet. There are still more fields to explore and he doesn’t want to waste the opportunity to make a respectable bag of bunnies.
Controlling rabbits as Mat is tonight is very beneficial for landowners who want to reduce damage caused by the burrowing, nibbling pests, but it also generates a welcome supply of healthy, free-range meat and this is a harvest that Mat is always happy to exploit.
When the session finally draws to a close, Mat will find a discreet corner where he can paunch his haul of rabbits and dispose of their innards in the undergrowth. Although Mat always does his late-night paunching away from public footpaths, he has never discovered any trace of his activities on the following morning because foxes do such an efficient job of clearing up after him.
Weihrauch HW100 BP
InfiRay Rico RL42
Zeiss DTI 3/25
Ridgeline Grizzly III Jacket
Macwet Long Cuff