Rabbiting by Lamplight in this month’s Countryman

Mat Manning sets up with a scope-mounted flashlight and heads out into the night for some traditional rabbit lamping

The ground I’m shooting over tonight is a mixed farm comprising several hundred acres of cattle grazing, cereal crops and pony paddocks. Rabbits are causing serious problems here, not just by munching through the grassland and cereal crops, but also through their burrowing; the field margins are littered with holes which pose a serious danger to livestock and could result in a broken leg.

This extensive farm is one of my regular haunts, and I have driven the rabbit population down to an acceptable level over recent years. Numbers of these rapid-breeding rodents can quickly spiral though, so their control is a year-round job.

The shortening days mean that it’s harder to fit in regular daylight sessions at this time of year, but I’m getting around that by venturing out after dark. This approach can be very productive, as rabbits tend to become more nocturnal in their habits during the autumn and winter months.

Although night vision equipment is becoming more and more affordable and simpler to use, lamping is still far less expensive and generally easier. I’m a big fan of night vision optics, and use this technology a lot in my own shooting, but it isn’t for everyone so it’s worth remembering that lamping is still as effective as it ever was.

The rabbits on this ground haven’t had a lot of after-dark shooting pressure so far this year, and have yet to become lamp-shy. Because of this, I’m treating myself to a traditional lamping session tonight, but I’ll probably switch to night vision tactics later in the year when they start to wise-up to the threat of the approaching beam.

It’s not just rabbits that might be concerned by the sight of bright beams shining across the countryside in the middle of the night, it can also alarm nearby residents.

With that in mind, I have notified local police and the landowner that I will be out lamping rabbits tonight. That way, if anybody picks up the phone to enquire about what’s going on up on the hills, the important parties have been informed and will know what’s happening. The last thing any shooter wants is an armed response unit turning up after a call from a worried neighbour.

Conditions for tonight’s session look good. The sky is overcast so there’s hardly any light from the moon and the stars, and there’s a steady breeze creating some background noise. Still, windless nights with a clear sky are useless for rabbit shooting, as they’ll see or hear you coming before you can get anywhere near them.

19:30 – Kitting up

One of the most important elements of night shooting is having reliable gear – you really don’t want a vital piece of kit letting you down when you’re out on the hills miles from anywhere.

The best place to ensure that everything is working as it should is at home, but Mat also has a final run-through at the car before he treks out into the fields.

Now is the time to make the most of having easy access to light and an organised space to work, so Mat sets up his scope-mounted lamp and makes sure that it’s working as it should before loading up a magazine with pellets. It’s good to have a source of illumination apart from your gun-light, so Mat is also wearing a headlamp and he’s got a compact torch in his pocket.

Other important items of kit include a backpack for carrying any shot rabbits and a small, sharp knife for preliminary game prep. Once he’s happy that he’s properly set up for the session, Mat locks up the car and heads out into the fields.

19:40 – Into the night

Although rabbits usually start to emerge from their burrows as soon as dusk starts to set in, Mat likes to wait until an hour or so after nightfall before he goes out lamping.

This gives the rabbits time to grow in confidence and venture right out into the fields and away from the hedges, which makes it easier to intercept them before they scuttle back into cover.

Even though conditions are favourable and Mat will be partially hidden by the darkness, rabbits are very wary animals so stealth is still very important. Clothing for this sort of shooting needs to be quiet – you won’t get close to rabbits if your jacket or trousers rustle.

Mat wraps his car keys in a handkerchief so they don’t jangle noisily in his pocket, and scent is also an important consideration. Don’t put on strong-smelling deodorant or aftershave if you’re planning to head out after rabbits as they’ll smell you and go to ground before you get near them.

Mat treats a lamping session much the same as daylight stalking, and creeps around the fields as stealthily as he can. His eyes soon adapt to the darkness, so he is able to see well enough to walk slowly across the ground without having to put a torch on. It’s too dark to spot the rabbits, though, so he stops every so often to scan with the lamp. 

19:50 – Bunny in the beam

Mat pauses to light up and search for rabbits every 50m or so. It varies from place to place, though, and you get a feel for where you are likely to encounter rabbits as you become familiar with a piece of ground.

As he shines the lamp around the fields, sweeping the beam back and forth and left to right so nowhere is missed, Mat is looking for the tell-tale glint of light reflected back from rabbits’ eyes. Droplets of dew usually create a few false alarms, but it’s not long before Mat picks up a bunny in the lamplight.

There are actually two rabbits out, and they are about 100m away, well out in the field. Mat is going to have to get a lot closer for the shot so he switches off the lamp and creeps another 50 paces before flicking the light on again.

A quick shine of the beam confirms that both rabbits are still there and apparently unconcerned. It’s still a long shot, though, so Mat switches off the light once more and slowly closes down the range by another 20 paces.

Both rabbits are still out when Mat lights up again, and the closest one is now less than 30m away – comfortably within range. Mat settles down onto his knees and takes a while to catch his breath and compose himself before he lines up for the shot.

As the crosshairs steady on the rabbit’s head, Mat makes a tiny amount of allowance to the left to compensate for the light wind and pushes through the trigger.

The pellet is momentarily visible as a rapid flicker in the sight picture as it whizzes through the lamplight before connecting with the unsuspecting rabbit’s skull and sending it into a cartwheel.

19:55 – One for the pot

The rabbit is cleanly killed, but although Mat quickly cycles the sidelever of his FX Impact to re-cock and reload, its mate bolts for cover before offering the chance of another shot to make it a brace.

The rabbit wasn’t spooked so much by the modest muzzle report from Mat’s silenced airgun as much as the crack of the impacting pellet, which is often the case when targeting bunnies. Nevertheless, Mat is happy to have one in the bag.

Mat has a quick scan around to check there are no other rabbits above ground, but it doesn’t pay to linger for too long before picking up shot quarry when hunting by night.

Slumped down in the grass, dead rabbits can be hard to spot in the beam of a torch, so Mat tries to mark the area where the rabbit dropped and then walks in to make the retrieve as quickly as he can because he doesn’t want that tasty meat going to waste.

The hand torch comes out and Mat soon manages to locate the dead rabbit in its beam. Once he gets in close, the headlamp comes into play, providing useful light wherever Mat looks as he picks up the rabbit, squeezes down its belly to drain the bladder of any urine that might taint the meat, and then places it into his backpack.

With the rabbit bagged up, Mat switches off the lights and plods on into the darkness in the hope of adding more bunnies to the night’s tally.

20:30 – Obstacle time

Mat soon bags another rabbit and then finds himself faced with a tricky obstacle. As hard as you try to plan stalking routes that avoid noisy gates, it’s very likely that you will have to pass through or over one at some point, and Mat has just reached that stage.

This gate can’t be opened so Mat will have to climb over it, and that needs to be done safely. When out lamping on his own, Mat keeps his gun loaded and cocked with the safety catch on, so he doesn’t have to make additional noise by cycling the sidelever when chances arise. So, before crossing the gate, he unloads his gun into the ground, just to be on the safe side.

The gun is then slipped through to the opposite side of the gate and laid down. The lamp is switched on, and Mat also places his lit hand torch on to the gun. All the illumination makes the position of the rifle very obvious, so there’s no risk of it being trampled by a misplaced boot.

With the gun safely on the opposite side of the gate, Mat then climbs over, using his headlamp so he can see what he’s doing. He stays close to the hinges to avoid putting too much strain on the gate – this also helps to reduce noise by preventing the gate from creaking up and down too much.

Once over the gate, Mat picks up and reloads his rifle before re-engaging the safety catch, switches off and pockets his torch and flicks off the headlamp before continuing across the fields.

21:15 – Building the bag

After-dark forays can be a great time to make big bags. That means they’re a prime opportunity to keep this agricultural pest in check and also to fill the freezer.

Some nights can be so productive that you have to pop back to the car to unload shot quarry from your heavy backpack before heading out for more – it really can be that good.

The process remains the same as Mat moves across the farm. He passes through gateways as quietly as he can to avoid causing too much disturbance to any rabbits that are out feeding, and creeps along the hedgerows as quietly as he can before stopping every so often to scan ahead and around for signs of his quarry.

All being well, his backpack will be full by the time he decides to call it a night and wrap up the session by paunching his quarry. Carrying out this job in the field does away with the hassle of having to dispose of entrails at home.

Discreetly deposited in the corner of a field, anything he leaves behind will be devoured by foxes and badgers before the morning sun pokes its head up over the hills.

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