Rabbit hunting at an equestrian centre

Richard Saunders gets to grips with some bunnies that have been causing all sorts of trouble at an equestrian centre.

Airgun shooters and rabbits have been pitting their wits against each other for as long as there have been, well, airguns and rabbits. And often the battleground is a paddock or field in which horses are kept.

The unfortunate truth is that by digging holes and scrapes, rabbits pose a real threat; a broken leg will result in a hefty vet’s bill, or worse still, the destruction of the horse.

One of my permissions is an equestrian centre and home to many millions of pounds’ worth of bloodstock. Racehorses as well as dressage, show jumping and cross-country horses roam around the many paddocks.

The threat of rabbit holes is ever-present and exacerbated by the fact that horses not only live at the centre, but train and compete there too. The thought of a horse galloping along a cross-country course and putting its foot down a rabbit hole just doesn’t bear thinking about – for the rider as well as the horse.

Consequently, my campaign against the bunnies is ongoing, and although there is a sizeable population, I have been able to keep on top of the numbers through a combination of ferreting and shooting. I’m reaching for a piece of wood to touch when I say that in the five years I’ve shot over this permission there hasn’t been a single rabbit-related injury.

Rabbits and horses are rarely a good combination, and holes dug in the show jumping arena were a danger that simply couldn’t be tolerated

It has got to the point now that large bags rarely occur, and two or three rabbits is a good session. However, somehow that makes shooting over the permission more enjoyable; I like the fact that as soon as the rabbits show any sign of increasing their numbers, I am able to crack down on them. 

Of course, the landowner is all too aware of the rabbit problem,
and although I visit the venue every couple of weeks, she’ll sometimes call me to report a sighting of rabbits in a new area or in significant numbers.

Like this afternoon, when she rang to say she’d seen several rabbits in the show jumping and dressage arena, which is located about 40 metres from some woods. Living in the cover of the trees, the rabbits were venturing out to eat the grass and dig in the soft ground of the arena.

When my landowner called, it just happened that I was at a loose end, and within a couple of hours I was parking the truck and unpacking
my gear.

I knew the area in question well, having spent many an hour stalking in the woods, and expected to take shots at distances of between 20 and 50 metres. Most of my hunting is with a sub-12 ft-lb rifle, but my pest control responsibilities at the equestrian centre are such that I want to exploit every opportunity I get, so I use an FAC-rated rifle. Tonight, I had my 30 ft-lb .22 calibre Daystate Wolverine R, which is fitted with an MTC King Cobra 6-24×50 first focal plane scope.

The Daystate Wolverine R magazine takes 10 pellets and Richard finds Air Arms Diabolo Field 5.52mm to be the best ammunition for it

With a couple of hours of daylight left, I made my way towards the show jumping arena. I planned to arrive before the rabbits ventured out, but took my time picking through a yard in which horse trailers are kept just in case. I eased around the last one and inched towards some fence posts.

As I did so, I spooked a pigeon that had been on the grass just a few yards in front of me; at least I knew my approach had been stealthy enough up to that point.

Despite not expecting to see any rabbits on the grassy area between the woods and show jumping arena, I was a little disappointed at the bunny-free zone, instantly wondering if there had been none all the time, or whether it had been full of them just seconds before I arrived.

However, as I scanned the area once more, I could make out a brown bump by a gate. Through my rangefinder I confirmed it was indeed a rabbit, sat low in the long grass, happily munching away. The rangefinder confirmed a distance of 53 metres, and easily within the Wolverine R’s capabilities.

The rabbits were living in the cover of nearby woodland, but were venturing out onto the show jumping arena and pastures to feed and dig

I’d brought my beanbag seat and trigger sticks with me, intending to sit somewhere comfortable, camo up and ambush the bunnies. I realised now though that placing the bean bag on top of a large post would provide me with the perfect standing shooting position.

Over the next 30 seconds or so, I went through the anguish all hunters can associate with, in which I shuffled into position quickly, but quietly, checking all the time to make sure the rabbit hadn’t scarpered. After what seemed an eternity, I was in position. Another check of the rangefinder confirmed the rabbit hadn’t moved and was still unaware of my presence.

I lined the King Cobra up, allowed the appropriate amount of holdover for the distance – and missed. I saw the pellet fly clear over the rabbit’s head and hit the grass behind. Needless to say, the rabbit didn’t hang around.

I cursed my ineptitude under my breath. Misses don’t normally bother me, but at this venue shots can be few and far between. I had no choice but to wait it out, so settled down for what I expected to be a long and potentially fruitless vigil. However, I was wrong; no more than 20 minutes later another rabbit appeared, this time exactly 30 metres away and a little to my left.

Making a note of your aim points means you won’t forget how much holdover you need to allow

The rifle was already perched on my bean bag and post rest, and I only needed to shuffle a few inches to my right. The rabbit had emerged from the woods, and was sniffing the air to check the coast was clear. As soon as he put his head down to feed, I dropped him with a clean-as-you-like head shot, evidenced by his stretching legs and splayed toes.

As much as I like the challenge of stalking, ambush tactics have always been more productive for me, and so it proved tonight. I left the rabbit where it lay and settled back, hoping more would appear. Not only did I have a stable and comfortable position to shoot from, the backdrop of horse trucks and trailers provided plenty of cover as well.

No more than 10 minutes later, a second rabbit appeared just a couple of metres further than the one I’d shot. However, it took an age to settle; each time I thought I had it lined up, the rabbit would move its head or hop a couple of feet.

In such situations, the temptation to let off a shot as soon as the rabbit pauses for a second is strong, but must be resisted as you’ll either miss, or worse, wound your quarry. Eventually the rabbit relaxed and sat still, enabling me to place an Air Arms Diabolo Field pellet for a humane and instant kill.

Two rabbits down in little more than half an hour is pretty good going for this venue, and I was pleased with myself. I toyed with the idea of moving to another part of the permission, but resisted the notion as I’d been asked specifically to deal with a problem at the arena.

A line of horse boxes provided plenty of cover, enabling Richard to sneak into position on the rabbits

For the next hour I shuffled about, drank some tea from my flask as unobtrusively as I could, and although there was plenty of light, began to realise that day’s sport was probably over.

I was rueing the missed long-distance rabbit, realising the error had been entirely down to me lining up on the wrong mildot, when a rabbit appeared in the same position – 53 metres away by the gate. It could have been the same one for all I knew.

This time I checked on the little chart that I have stuck to my rangefinder to make sure I used the correct holdover point. I tweaked the parallax adjustment on the King Cobra and adjusted the magnification to 16x. I breathed in deeply, let some of it out, and squeezed the trigger to be rewarded with the sight of another set of rear legs reaching for the sky as the pellet found its mark.

I collected my three rabbits and headed back to the truck. To round off a perfect night I bumped into the landowner on the way back and confirmed the rabbits had come from the problem area between the woods and the arena.

More from Richard Saunders


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