After a winter layoff from rabbit shooting, Mat Manning makes a return to coney control with an evening on the pony paddocks.
Rabbit numbers have been up and down on my patch over the past few years. Myxomatosis, which has been around for decades, takes its toll, but there always seem to be a few resistant rabbits that make it through and create a new breeding stock.
Far more devastating over recent years has been the impact of rabbit haemorrhagic disease, usually referred to as RHD or RVHD. This highly infectious disease kills very quickly, leaves barely any external signs and has a mortality rate of between 70 and 100 percent. Rabbit populations can disappear very swiftly when it strikes.
RHD has been the reason for the decline in rabbit numbers where I live – certainly over the past two or three years. Last year it struck just as the bunnies appeared to be making a comeback, and the result was that I did almost no rabbit shooting at all through the winter and early spring months – there was simply no need to keep their numbers in check.
I am pleased to say that my local rabbit population has been doing a lot better over the last few months. Rabbits have a remarkable ability to bounce back from the brink. Their ability to rapidly multiply is the stuff of legend and it’s a reputation that they continue to live up to.
The rabbits’ return is patchy and while some areas remain almost devoid of them, others now have large numbers – so many that they are causing serious damage. The farm where I am shooting this evening is one such place.
Several fields are used as pony paddocks, and the rabbits here are burrowing around the field margins and the surrounding hedge banks. This is a serious problem on an equine holding as horses and ponies can break a leg when a hoof goes down a rabbit hole. For this reason, the owners are eager to see the offending bunnies thinned out.
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.
18:15 – EARLY RECONNAISSANCE
Mat is adopting a roving approach for this session. He hasn’t been out on this farm for several months so by keeping mobile he will be able to familiarise himself with the ground and identify the areas where the rabbits are most active, which will help him to make the best use of his time on future visits.
Getting your timings right can make a big difference when targeting rabbits in the springtime. Night sessions can be productive when the grass-gobbling rodents venture out to feed under the cover of darkness, but although they are usually less active by day, rabbits can also be encountered in good numbers at dawn and dusk.
Mat has opted for a dusk sortie so he can reacquaint himself with the ground before returning for an after-dark visit. He has arrived a couple of hours before nightfall, which should give him a decent amount of productive shooting time.
Before he heads out, Mat has a quick scan across the first field with his binoculars. The air is still so the wind won’t be dictating this evening’s stalking route. If Mat can spot any rabbits that are already out feeding, he will concentrate his efforts on getting within range of them.
18:25 – TRAVELLING LIGHT
Mat fails to spot any rabbits while scanning the first field but that’s not a problem. It is early in the evening, so there is plenty of time for them to emerge while there is still light to shoot by and Mat has other paddocks to investigate.
Because Mat is going to be on the move, he is travelling much lighter than usual. Apart from creating excess weight to carry around, unessential kit can also make a lot of noise as it bumps around in your bag, so accessories like hide poles and nets, decoys, seats and callers have no place here.
Apart from his gun, which is a compact and lightweight BSA Ultra, and a pocketful of pellets, Mat is carrying minimal gear. He is taking a rangefinder and a small, sharp knife, which will come in handy for paunching any rabbits that he manages to shoot. He also has a small backpack to carry shot rabbits, but the binoculars are left in the car as they would just be an unnecessary burden.
Mat’s clothing is also lighter than the all-weather gear he was wearing through the winter. His thick lined trousers have been replaced with a lighter pair that give him more freedom of movement, and he has swapped his welly boots for a bashed-up old pair of trainers that will enable him to move far more stealthily.
18:35 – KEEPING LOW-KEY
Successful rabbit stalking hinges on stealth, and that starts before you even leave the house. Rabbits have an extremely sensitive sense of smell, so avoid strong odours like aftershave and cigarette smoke or you may really struggle to get close enough for a shot.
Rabbits also have excellent hearing, so Mat does his best not to give his quarry an early warning by slamming the car doors. He also makes sure that his car keys are stuffed firmly in his pocket and are not able to jangle around noisily.
Even though he didn’t spot any rabbits when he checked the first field, he still moves slowly and carefully just in case there are any about. Apart from having excellent hearing, bunnies are also able to detect vibrations through the ground. With that in mind, Mat does his best to keep his footfalls as gentle as possible.
Rabbits aren’t as sharp-eyed as avian quarry such as crows and woodpigeons, but they will still spook if they spot movement. Mat doesn’t wear a camo headnet when stalking rabbits because he doesn’t like his vision to be obscured, but he does his best to take advantage of any natural cover. He keeps close to the hedgerows, using the vegetation to help to conceal his outline, and tries to keep in the shade when he can as this will make him much harder to spot.
EXPERT TIP: LIGHTEN THE LOAD
One of the most important factors in successful stalking is being able to move as quietly as possible, and you can’t do that if you are overburdened. Most shooters like to carry handy accessories, but how many of them are really essential and how many could be left at home when adopting a mobile approach?
Have a look at your kit and consider what you might be able to remove from your backpack or jacket pockets. Apart from making for lighter going, it will also make you a quieter hunter because it is very difficult to move with stealth when you’re bogged down with excess kit.
This rule applies to clothing as well as accessories, and you’re very unlikely to need the heavy, insulated clothing you needed to keep warm on winter forays when stalking around the fields in spring and summer. You should also be able to get away with lighter footwear, which will improve your ability to move quietly and to feel the ground through your feet.
19:05 –GOING THE DISTANCE
After a quiet start to the session, Mat eventually spots a group of three rabbits out feeding. They are well out from the hedge and oblivious to any lurking danger so the stalk is on.
Although Mat has been moving slowly and carefully since leaving his car, the stealth goes up another gear now. The rabbits are more than 100m away, and Mat creeps ever-closer, constantly watching for any signs of alarm from his quarry.
At around 40m, Mat stops and slips his rangefinder out of his pocket. A quick press of the button confirms that the nearest bunny is now 37m away. Shooting prone and with the support of a bipod, the shot would probably be on from here, but Mat wants to get in closer for this one.
Just a couple of steps after resuming the stalk, Mat’s shoe clips a fallen branch and the noise is enough to make one of the rabbits sit up. Mat freezes dead still until the rabbit settles back down and starts nibbling the grass again. This is his cue to proceed with extreme caution as he closes down the final few metres to get within comfortable striking distance.
19:10 – THE SHOT IS ON
Mat doesn’t want to risk blowing his cover by reaching for the rangefinder again as he gets in really close. He has taken about a dozen cautious steps since confirming the distance to the feeding bunnies. Confident that he is now well within 30m from his quarry, he settles himself down for a kneeling shot.
With more than 30 years of shooting experience under his belt, Mat has shot thousands of rabbits but that doesn’t stop his adrenaline from pumping as he reaches the end of a challenging stalk. The excitement of creeping within close range of your quarry never wears off, so Mat takes a moment to allow his heart rate to settle before he mounts his rifle.
As his breathing steadies, Mat slowly draws the gun up into his shoulder, pushes off the safety catch and frames the closest rabbit in the sight picture. There is no need for any aim-off as the distance between Mat and his target is more or less bang on his zero range. He settles the crosshairs between the rabbit’s eye and ear and touches off the trigger.
The pellet strikes the unsuspecting bunny’s skull with a crack, sending it into a cartwheel before it comes to rest with barely a twitch. The disturbance is too much for the other two rabbits to tolerate and they scramble back into cover and down a burrow before Mat even has time to reload.
20:10 – BUILDING THE BAG
After slipping the shot rabbit into his backpack, Mat continues to stalk around the paddocks. The tactics remain the same and he works his way slowly around the field margins, frequently pausing to scan for any signs of feeding rabbits up ahead.
As the light starts to fade, more rabbits begin to emerge above ground ready for their night-time grass binge. The increased activity brings more shooting opportunities and it isn’t long before Mat manages to sneak within range of another rabbit.
Not all of the evening’s stalks will go to plan, and plenty of rabbits manage to dash safely to cover before Mat is close enough for a shot. That’s the way it goes with stalking, and the challenge is what makes it so exciting – it certainly tests your fieldcraft to the limits.
By the time the evening draws to a close, Mat has managed to account for three rabbits. That is not a large bag compared with the amount of damage he has witnessed, but Mat expects to make bigger tallies on future visits now that he has earmarked a few busy-looking areas that should lend themselves well to ambush tactics.
The rabbits that Mat has shot are three-quarters grown and perfect for the pot. Mat concludes the evening by paunching them in a quiet corner of a paddock. This first stage of game prep is best done in the field, and you can usually rely on foxes and badgers to clear up the mess before daybreak.
Optisan HX 4-12×40 AO
Sports Match two-piece
Hawke Nature-Trek 10X42
Hawke LRF 400
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