Unnatural odours can blow your cover long before you catch sight of your quarry. Mat Manning offers some tips to keep your shooting gear free from telltale smells
Airgun hunters have a reputation for taking concealment extremely seriously. And that’s for a very good reason: we use relatively low-powered guns to tackle wary quarry that offers a very small killzone.
The ability to get on close terms with whatever it is you are pursuing is essential if you’re going to stand any chance of putting it in the bag. Most of us like to be within 35m of our target before taking a shot – and preferably much closer if possible.
To that end, we usually walk around looking like trees; dressed from head to toe in the latest tree-print camouflage and even going as far as to cover up with a head net and gloves to ensure there’s no chance of our quarry getting the slightest peep of those telltale human features. We also go to great lengths building hides, utilising every last scrap of natural cover and even venturing out under the cover of darkness to eliminate any chance of being spotted by suspicious eyes.
Apart from striving to go unseen, we also go out of our way to be quiet. Most hunters know that rabbits will bolt readily at the sound of a clumsy footfall, and pigeons will fly from the trees if they detect the slightest rustle from the woodland floor. We spend frustrating hours honing our stalking skills and go to the lengths of clearing dry leaves and twigs from the ground around our woodland hiding places to reduce the risk of being heard. We even fit our guns with expensive sound suppressors to further mute the modest report from their muzzles.
All of these small factors add up to bring a significant boost to our concealment – a boost that makes the effort worthwhile and no doubt results in many extra successes over the course of a hunting year. When you consider all of these carefully considered steps, and the undeniable benefits they bring, it’s amazing how careless many hunters are when it comes to odour.
Rabbits, grey squirrels and rats have a finely tuned sense of smell, which plays a huge part when it comes to survival. It helps them to locate food and, very importantly, it gives them advance warning of approaching danger. And many naturalists believe birds, especially corvids, have a similarly acute sense of smell.
Most hunters have a cursory grasp of the importance of avoiding scent detection, and consequently do their best to ensure that they stalk into the wind, so that the smells they carry from the human world are wafted away from their quarry’s twitching nostrils rather than towards them. But trying to make your way around a shooting permission with the wind constantly blowing into your face is far from easy – impossible, I’d say.
And, although it’s a technique that’s well worth employing whenever feasible, we often get caught out by swirling winds caused by undulating ground, stands of trees and hedgerows. The easier, and far more effective, method is to do your best to eliminate strong human odours before you head out hunting…
Clothing is a great place to start. It creates a layer between the hunter and the natural environment, and as well as helping us to blend in visually, it can also serve as a barrier to keep human odours contained.
I like my outer layers – namely my hunting jacket and trousers – to smell of the countryside. Crawling through mud, sitting amongst leaf litter and lying on grass helps to infuse clothing with natural odours that will mask human ones. For this reason, I don’t like putting my hunting jacket and trousers through the wash unless I have to.
A lot has been said and written about washing powders and liquids containing chemicals that might make clothing more visually conspicuous to wild animals. Therefore, it surprises me that little regard is paid to the strong, unnatural fragrances imparted by these products. If I can smell clean bedding from halfway up the stairs, I hate to think how far away a skittish rabbit can detect the whiff of laundered shooting clothes.
Of course, it is inevitable that jackets and trousers that are frequently subjected to pastings of mud, blood and goodness knows what else will eventually need a wash. I try to limit mine to once a year for jackets, however, and three or four times for trousers. And when these items do go through the laundry, it’s without the addition of any washing powder or liquid.
Keeping your clothes relatively odour-free should increase their ability to block unnatural smells, but you can enhance the effect greatly by limiting unwanted whiffs in the first place. I do my best to avoid wearing deodorant and aftershave if I know I’m going to be targeting keen-nosed quarry such as rabbits and rats – such strong and manufactured smells are sure to put them on edge. It’s not always possible, though – we all like to smell nice at work – but a quick shower with hot water and no soap or gel is a very effective way to rid yourself of quarry-spooking smells before you hit the field.
Cigarette smoke is another unnatural odour that will put quarry on edge – as will the smell of mints, menthol cough sweets and chewing gum. Try to avoid exposing your hunting clothes to the strong odour of tobacco because it really sticks, and certainly don’t light up during a hunting trip unless you want to give all resident wildlife a very clear sign of a nearby human presence.
Better still, jack the tobacco in and do your lungs a favour, while saving money that’s better spent on shooting gear. I did it more than 10 years ago and it has certainly benefited my shooting – not least by making me feel a heck of a lot less wheezy while trekking across difficult ground with heavy gear.
The last, and most often overlooked, hurdle in odour elimination is the smell inside your car. The effort of keeping your clothing fragrance-free, leaving off the aftershave and avoiding tobacco smoke will all be wasted if you sit in a car that stinks of artificial air freshener on your way to the shoot. The fabric fibres of car seats soak up odours like a sponge, and will mop up whatever whiffs happen to be lingering in your car, keeping them around.
A mate of mine insists on stinking out his car with stench-infused cardboard decorations that dangle from his rear-view mirror. Needless to say, he struggles to get close to rabbits and rats – even when he’s using night vision. The chemical pong in his car is so bad that I stopped sharing lifts with him a long time ago.
My favourite strategy is to prevent my car from getting smelly in the first place. Wet shooting and fishing gear is removed as soon as I get home, and a quick drive round with the windows down is usually enough to keep the residual whiff down to a level that’s acceptable to the rest of the family. Muddy wellies are permanently stowed in the boot, which I like to think helps to maintain a natural earthy smell ready for when the rest of my hunting gear goes in there on the way to the shoot.
Although these little steps probably won’t make or break a day in the field, just like the camouflage and stalking methods I mentioned at the outset, they will nudge the odds a little more in your favour. Even if it’s not practical for you to employ every one of them – and I don’t all of the time – being mindful of some of them will boost your fieldcraft and ultimately help you to get closer to your quarry.