There aren’t enough true countrymen around these days.
Hunters who rely on fieldcraft and experience to fill the game bag rather than pinning false hope in new-fangled gadgets and must-have camo patterns to hide the shortfalls in their fieldcraft.
Rob Collins – aka the Ole Hedge Creeper – is one of that rare breed, though. And I was fortunate enough to spend a few hours in his company, whiling away an autumn afternoon and evening on some of his awesome shooting permissions.
Full-time pest controller, author, mentor, chairman and founder of the Pass It On organisation that encourages young people to learn about the countryside under the guidance of an expert band of volunteers, Rob certainly knows the benefits of reliable, modern shooting gear.
But he also possesses an understanding of the countryside that has been handed down through several generations. He’s shot over the same patch for decades, as his father and grandfather did before him, and that intimate knowledge of his ground – and the wild creatures that live on it – is the vital factor when it comes to making the bumper bags that Rob’s Facebook followers and the readers of his books will be familiar with.
Rob and I had been trying to sort out a shooting trip since meeting at the Westcountry Game Fair last spring. Crammed work diaries and chaotic family lives meant it took us a lot longer to catch up than we had originally planned, but it was certainly worth the wait. The bag wasn’t an enormous one but, like me, Rob is a shooter who takes his pleasure simply by being out there, doing what he loves. We still had a whale of a time.
The plan was to take a whistle-stop tour of some of Rob’s many permissions. No doubt, we would have shot a lot more if we’d focused on one place – but my host is justly proud of the huge variety of sport he has on his doorstep and was keen for me to sample as much of it as possible. Blessed with a beautiful sunny afternoon, and the promise of some after-dark hunting to round off the session, I couldn’t get there quick enough.
Our first port of call was one of Rob’s farmyard shoots. This place was a traditional tumbledown farm – the sort of rural idyll you struggle to find these days as farmers ‘tidy away’ old barns, crumbling stone walls and overgrown hedges, to replace them with swathes of concrete and mile upon mile of wire fencing.
One glance out of the window of Rob’s truck and the value of these traditional farms was clear to see. There were wild birds everywhere we looked – the place was alive with sparrows and wagtails.
The nooks and crannies of the ramshackle holding obviously provided these birds with countless nesting sites, and the profusion of animal feed and insects was evidently helping them to prosper.
The songbirds themselves were creating opportunities for other birds to thrive, as the farm workers told us they’d seen sparrow hawks and peregrines hunting around the farm.
Of course, the abundance of food and habitat had also resulted in spiralling numbers of less desirable species – and that’s why this place was on Rob’s pest control round. Magpies had been tucking into the maize silage, and collared doves were nesting among the rafters. Suffice to say, we did a lot more than just peering through the windows.
Rob actually nailed the first magpie of the session from the window of his truck – and into an irretrievable resting place among a tangle of nettles. Being unfamiliar with shooting from vehicles, I thought Rob was trundling the wagon around the farm to save his legs, but he explained that there was more to it than that.
Farmyard pests become accustomed to the comings and goings of tractors, milk tankers and trucks, and therefore don’t treat them with the sort of suspicion they reserve for men creeping around with guns.
This, Rob pointed out, meant his truck provided us with a perfect mobile hide. It’s obvious when you think about it. Keen to follow suit, I changed the power-mode setting on my FAC-rated Daystate MK4 to reduce its muzzle energy, wound down the window… and immediately flopped over a magpie that was helping itself to a maize silage lunch.
A third magpie was soon added by Rob – this one landing in another inaccessible spot among a festering, and precarious-looking, heap of discarded tyres. However, I kept the Airgun Shooter flag flying by adding a long-range collared dove.
I was starting to enjoy the luxury of chauffer-driven farmyard pest control, although the vibration of the idling engine through the scope takes some getting used to when you’re trying to steady-up your crosshairs.
With several uninvited avian guests brought to book, Rob decided we should take a look around a nearby grain store, so we zipped the guns into their slips and trundled off down the road to our second venue – a large, open grain store.
It was pigeon paradise! Towering silos and shadowy barns provided perches and nesting sites for countless collared doves, and woodpigeons fluttered back and forth between the buildings and ancient oak trees that flanked the holding.
This stop actually saw us leave the truck to mooch around the sheds. Judging by the amount of pests raiding the grain, I reckon we could have made quite a bag here had time not been so tight. Rob had an appointment to meet another shooter on a nearby farm, although I bagged a dove and my host added a woody to the tally before we were back on the road.
The next sets of gates we rolled through took us to a poultry and cider farm. Thousands of laying hens mean this place is on Rob’s foxing round, which obviously necessitates more firepower than an air rifle. However, chickens and rats go hand in hand, so we were hoping to nail one or two scaly-tails around the poultry sheds, and there was also the chance of a grey squirrel or rabbit in the cider orchard.
For this excursion, we were joined by the farmers’ son, Chris, who is one of the many young shots Rob has mentored over the years – but we didn’t get a single shot! My guess is that our cheerful banter probably spooked the rabbits and squirrels.
Good company brings a fantastic added dimension to a hunting trip, but chattering is a sure way to send your quarry running – as Ian Barnett pointed out with his Two/Three Tenet hypothesis in November’s issue. And I reckon we were a bit too early to cross paths with the rats that were no doubt planning to raid chicken feed under the cover of darkness.
So it was a good time to move on to our final venue – a golf course and adjoining pony paddocks, where Rob hoped we’d be able to bag a bunny or two as night closed in. There was just enough remaining light to shoot without a lamp as we arrived, so we split up to trek around separate areas before reconvening at the truck.
I spotted a couple of rabbits within minutes of leaving Rob and Chris, but the bunnies were gone in a flash. These rabbits have obviously seen a lot of pressure through Rob’s efforts to rid the greens of the burrowing menace, and they’ve learned to steer well clear of shooters.
Taking stock, I decided to slow down and move with extreme stealth as I made my way along the driving range. The tactics got me close to a bunny, but it scuttled back into the hedge just as I was shouldering the gun. It’s never easy hunting over unfamiliar territory – and reminded me of the importance of the intelligence you build up on your own permissions over the years.
The light was fading fast, so I turned around to make my way back to the rendezvous. I continued to creep stealthily along the track, and my cautious approach was rewarded when I spotted another rabbit out grazing in the gloom.
This one was more than 50 metres away, but on a dead calm evening, and with my rifle now reprogrammed to 30ft/lb output, it was a shot I was confident of making.
I steadied myself onto my knees, and cradled the gun across a fence rail for added stability. I allowed one mil-dot, and a whisker more, for pellet drop and touched off the trigger. The sound of lead on bone echoed through the night air as the head-shot rabbit crumpled onto the grass.
I paced out 56 metres to the pick-up, only to see Rob and Chris beaming at my retrieve. Shooting buddies may create additional disturbance, but it’s sure nice to have them around to witness shots like that!
With the light all but gone, we headed back to the truck to fetch Rob’s lamping gear in the hope of bagging one or two more rabbits. We gave it half an hour but the still, windless night really didn’t lend itself to lamping. Yes, we saw quite a few bunnies – but they were all on high alert and didn’t hang around for us to sneak within range. “Fox,” reckoned Rob – he’d need to get the rimfire out soon.
All too quickly, the clock had beaten us – or me at least. I had to head for home in readiness for an early start the following morning. But what a time we’d had. Getting a brief glimpse of Rob’s wonderful shooting permissions was a real treat.
These places are an airgunner’s dream come true – and the fact that we’d managed to make a decent mixed bag was just the icing on the cake.
I’m already looking forward to the next time I get to join The Ole Hedge Creeper on his patch – now I know it’s worth clearing my diary for!
Ramshackle holdings often attract quarry species including collared doves, feral pigeons, corvids and rats, so they present series pest control opportunities.
But tumbledown stone yards and gloomy barns are also home to less abundant species.
Rob and I saw countless songbirds taking advantage of the farmyard food and habitat, and even saw this tiny grass snake basking in the late-afternoon sun – a great reminder that a day in the hunting field isn’t all about pest control.
See Mat in action on The Shooting Show channel on Youtube!