Summer evenings are the prime time for targeting troublesome rabbits – Mat Manning details the tactics he uses when setting his sights on this infamous agricultural pest.
This article originally appeared in the July issue of Airgun Shooter Magazine
This evening I am shooting over grassland that is managed for cattle grazing and as pony paddocks. The lush meadows and sandy soil create perfect conditions for rabbits, which have bred rapidly through the spring.
Although a growing population of rabbits may sound appealing to shooters, it is very bad news for the landowner here. As most people who keep livestock know, rabbit burrows pose a serious danger to large animals. When a misplaced hoof goes down a hole, the result can often be a broken leg.
As the rabbits here multiply, their excavations become larger and more abundant, and the chances of an accident increases. The landowner and the people who keep their horses in the fields are eager to see a reduction in bunny numbers.
Towards the start of the summer I did most of my shooting on the move, stalking around the fields and picking off rabbits as I encountered them. Those tactics yielded some good bags, but it’s getting harder as the remaining rabbits grow older and become more educated.
It is not at all unusual for rabbits to become increasingly skittish with age – it’s how they managed to outlive their siblings – but it doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to keep them in check.
Stalking becomes less effective because the necessary movement and inevitable noise provide savvy bunnies with an early warning. The best approach to adopt when confronted with this problem is an ambush, so you can keep dead still and let the rabbits come to you.
With that in mind, I will be using ambush tactics for this session. Simply keeping still is a great advantage with this approach, but I’ve got a few additional tips and tricks that should help to put more in the bag.
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: Animals 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.
19:50 – Right time, right place
Timing and location are vital factors to get right when planning to ambush your quarry, so it is very important to consider when the rabbits are likely to be most active and where they might appear.
The rabbits on this holding start emerging above ground during the last hour of daylight. Disturbance from farm workers and dog walkers usually decreases as the evening wears on and the rabbits have learned that this gives them an opportunity to feed undisturbed – this is when Mat will target them.
Areas favoured by rabbits aren’t always obvious at first glance, but there are usually plenty of clues to steer hunters in the right direction. The obvious signs are burrows with freshly excavated soil indicating recent activity. Overgrown burrows with twigs and leaves blocking the entrances are usually inactive.
Other clear signs are rabbits’ round droppings and well-worn runs through long grass and brambles around the field margins. Closely cropped grass around the edges of a field are a sign of nibbling.
Mat quickly finds a very promising spot. He actually saw a rabbit feeding there when he arrived, but the burrows, very short grass and abundance of droppings suggest that there are even more around.
20:05 – Digging in
Working out where the rabbits are likely to show themselves is only the first step. The next job is to find a place to snipe them from without being rumbled.
This is a narrow field, so Mat has decided to tuck himself into a spot on the opposite side from the area he is targeting. The location puts him about 30m from what he expects to be the main hotspot and also enables him to cover a good section of the hedge in both directions.
Mat has decided to get right down on his belly. Going prone has several advantages, and one of them is the fact that Mat will be very low to the ground and well off the skyline, which will make it much harder for rabbits to spot him when they emerge from their burrows.
Shooting from the prone position also makes for extremely steady shots. Mat has given his stability a further boost by attaching a bipod to his gun, which should iron out any wobbles and keep the crosshairs dead still on their mark. Getting down on your belly offers a further advantage as it gets you beneath the worst of the wind, which is an important consideration this evening as there is quite a strong breeze pushing across the fields.
20:10 – Going the distance
Reaching for the rangefinder when skittish rabbits are above ground is not a good idea, as there is a serious risk of the movement catching their eye and sending them bolting for cover. To eliminate any risk of his concealment being blown in this way, Mat checks his ranges before the action unfolds.
Using a laser rangefinder, Mat pings the distance to prominent markers including trees, fence posts and a trough. When rabbits emerge close to these reference points, Mat will be able to accurately estimate the range of the shot and apply relevant holdover or holdunder as necessary.
Mat will also have to apply some aim-off to his shots to compensate for the wind, especially at longer ranges. Apart from keeping low to the ground, Mat has also opted for an FAC-rated airgun. Because this gun is running heavy .22 pellets at significant velocity it is less affected by the breeze than his usual .177 sub-12 setup.
If he was using that, he would limit his maximum range to 30m in these conditions. It is situations like this that make all the long hours shooting paper targets on the range worthwhile because the practice results in a greater understanding of how your setup will perform in the wind.
Expert tip – Exploit your spare hand
When you use a bipod your leading hand can seem redundant because it doesn’t need to support the forend of the stock. Some shooters still use their spare hand to hold onto the stock or grab the bipod, but this can transmit unwanted and unnecessary movement to what should be a very steady gun.
The best use for your spare hand when using a bipod is to tuck it under the butt of the gun. Not only does this provide very useful support for the rear of the rifle, it also allows you to make extremely precise adjustments to your aim.
When the target is framed in the crosshairs, you can shift aim by rolling, squeezing or relaxing your fist. This technique gives shots even more stability and enables you to place your pellet with absolute precision.
20:35 – Patience rewarded
Staking out rabbits is not for the impatient because long periods of inactivity are inevitable. Fortunately, there is usually plenty going on as dusk closes in on the countryside, so keep your eyes peeled for sightings of deer, foxes and hunting barn owls. This evening Mat is treated to the spectacle of soaring swifts and swallows snatching flying insects from the air.
Just as he begins to wonder if he has set up in the right place, Mat notices a movement close to the boundary on the opposite side of the narrow field. As his eyes focus on the buff blob it soon becomes apparent that it’s a rabbit coming out to feed.
Mat lifts his gun to raise the bipod legs just clear of the ground and lines it up on the rabbit. It is only a tiny movement, but Mat still makes it very slowly and with care in order to avoid attracting the rabbit’s attention.
Working on the rabbit’s close proximity to a post that Mat clocked with the rangefinder, it’s offering a shot at about 40m. Applying just a touch of aim-off to compensate for the breeze, Mat touches off the trigger and sends a pellet whizzing to its mark. The shot makes a solid connection, confirmed by the ringing crack of the impact, and the rabbit rolls over with hardly a twitch.
20:50 – More action
Although you need to be prepared for long waits during an ambush there can be times when the action comes thick and fast. It is inevitable the disturbance caused by your arrival will put the bunnies on edge, but once the first one feels confident enough to pop back up above ground, it is likely that others will soon follow.
The sport isn’t exactly hectic this evening, but Mat doesn’t have to while away too many minutes before he gets an opportunity to add a second bunny to the bag. This rabbit is around the same size as the first one – about three-quarters grown and perfect for the pot – and appears to be very confident.
After trundling out from the brambles, the rabbit immediately drops its head and begins to nibble at the grass. At just over 45m it is a slightly longer shot, but Mat has absolute faith in his kit and is happy to take it on.
The only problem now is the fact that the rabbit is so intent on feeding that its head is too low for Mat to get the crosshairs on it. Mat clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth and the rabbit sits up, straining its ears as it tries to locate the source of the sound. With the rabbit’s head now clearly presented, Mat lines up and squeezes off the shot to make a second addition to the evening’s bag.
21:40 – Moving on
The time and effort Mat invested in working out where to base his ambush have been rewarded, and he adds a third rabbit from the same area. But despite a very encouraging first hour, the sport then comes to a complete halt and no further rabbits show themselves.
Sprawling out on uneven ground while waiting for rabbits to show up is not the most comfortable way to spend an evening and after a long and uneventful wait Mat feels like he needs to move. He is pleased to have accounted for a trio of rabbits – it’s a worthwhile contribution to ongoing pest control efforts on this holding and will provide some delicious free-range meat – but there is about an hour of daylight left and he wants to make the most of it.
After retrieving his shot rabbits and squeezing down their bellies to empty their bladders – the first step of prepping them for the table – Mat hocks them to a fence ready for collection and paunching at the close of the session. With the bunnies safely stowed, Mat makes his way into another field in the hope of accounting for one or two more before he runs out of light.