The Countryman with Mat Manning

Mat Manning sets up a stakeout to bring the bunnies back under control after their springtime breeding boom.

The late spring and early summer months are peak breeding season for rabbits, which means you’ll often see a distinct spike in their numbers around this time.

Although the devastating impact of rabbit haemorrhagic disease has decimated rabbit populations in some parts of the country, this agricultural pest continues to thrive in many areas, and that’s certainly the case in my neck of the woods.

Today, I’m out responding to a call from a landowner who claims to be overrun with rabbits. Such a comment should always be taken with a pinch of salt, but judging by the damage around the field margins and the presence of a few young bunnies out feeding as I drove along the track, there do seem to be quite a few about.

The rabbits are causing several problems on this holding, and the main one is their burrowing. Ponies are kept in some of these paddocks, and there’s a real risk of one breaking its leg if a misplaced hoof finds its way into one of the numerous rabbit holes that are dotted along the outer edges of the fields.

On top of that, the swelling ranks of rabbits are munching a significant dent into the grass crop. They’ve also set up residence in the landowner’s garden, where they’ve been busily digging up the lawn and devouring the vegetables.

I’ll be using a variety of tactics to drive down rabbit numbers here over the coming weeks, including stalking and night shooting, but today I’m going for an ambush.

There are distinct areas where the rabbits are particularly active, and I hope to make some good bags by focusing on them with a static approach. Rabbits are excellent to eat, so my efforts should be rewarded with some tasty wild meat.

18:30 – Timing and location

Location and timing are very important when you’re planning an ambush. Get them wrong, and you’ll spend a boring and uncomfortable time in the field and end up with very little to show for your trouble. Get these two factors right, on the other hand, and the result is likely to be some hectic shooting resulting in a decent bag of bunnies.

Mat has opted for an evening session. Rabbits tend to become very active as night closes in, so the plan is to get into position a few hours before dusk, and find a prime spot to pick off any unsuspecting bunnies as they creep out from their burrows and feed on the grass.

Turning up at the right time is only half the battle – you also need to be in the right place. The main advantage of an ambush is that it eliminates the noise and movement of hunting on the move, but that won’t count for anything if you end up needing to creep and crawl around the field to get within range when the rabbits start coming out.

“Look for rabbits’ distinctive round droppings and areas of cropped grass”

Finding productive areas is relatively simple as rabbits leave plenty of calling cards, including burrows, scrapes and distinctive round droppings. Areas of closely cropped grass around the field margins are also a sign of intense rabbit activity.

After looking along the hedgerow where he spotted a couple of rabbits during his approach, Mat finds a busy-looking warren with plenty of encouraging signs, including fresh droppings and newly excavated soil, indicating recent activity.

He doesn’t want to cause too much disturbance around the burrows, so he heads out into the field to find a suitable ambush point.

18:40 – Settling in

It’s important to ensure that shots will be taken over comfortable ranges, so Mat has picked a spot about 30m from what appears to be the busiest part of the warren.

There is only a very light breeze and it is blowing into Mat’s face, which means that any human odours such as deodorant, soap and the smell of his car will be carried away from the rabbits.

Because the rabbits have nibbled the grass quite low, there is very little cover to get in the way of shots, which means Mat is able to shoot from the prone position. It may not be the most comfortable place, but getting down on your belly is a great way to keep out of sight by staying off the skyline.

Another advantage of shooting prone is that it offers great stability, which can be further enhanced by taking advantage of the support of a bipod. Mat has clipped on a low bipod with extendable legs that can be adjusted to suit the terrain.

It also features a swivel mechanism, which enables the gun to rock from left to right when mounted. This may sound like a small detail, but it makes a big difference, allowing you to keep the crosshairs dead upright and avoid accuracy problems caused by cant, even when setting up on uneven ground.

Even though Mat is off the skyline and has set up next to some useful natural cover, he will still put on his camouflage headnet. He doesn’t need such a wide field of vision as he would when stalking, so it makes sense to take advantage of the extra concealment.

Expert tip -Ultimate concealment

Getting down on your belly is a great way to boost concealment because it keeps your profile off the skyline, but there are ways you can still improve on the effect.

Look out for long tufts of grass and other vegetation when you’re choosing a spot to set up. Although you don’t want undergrowth like this getting in the way of your shots, it can help to make you even less conspicuous by breaking up your outline, and that of your gun, if you position yourself next to it.

Mat usually wears a headnet when ambushing rabbits. Although the restricted field of view can be a nuisance when you’re hunting on the move, it’s not really a problem for this type of shooting and the added camouflage it provides can make a significant difference when the rabbits are wary.

18:45 – Knowing the distance

The curved trajectory of a pellet fired from an air rifle means that it’s vitally important to know your ranges. Once you’ve established the distance to the target, it’s simply a matter of using the aim points you establish during your practice sessions to apply correct holdover or holdunder to compensate for the arced flightpath of the pellet and ensure that it strikes right on target.

An advantage of shooting from a static position is that the ranges to your target area are not going to shift once you know what they are. Pacing out distances works perfectly well, but a laser rangefinder gives a fast and accurate reading at the press of a button, and it also saves you from putting the rabbits on edge by stomping around in the field.

Mat uses his laser rangefinder to ping the distance to distinctive features along the area where he expects to see rabbits. Fence posts, tree trunks, water troughs and gates all serve as useful markers that provide a reference point for you to quickly gauge the distance to your target, without having to reach for the rangefinder when your quarry is out.

There is no point in stretching shooting ranges recklessly far, as chancy shots carry an unacceptable risk of wounding. Mat’s self-imposed upper limit on this occasion is 35m – beyond that, the breeze could make shot placement unpredictable, and he doesn’t want to risk wounding a rabbit.

19:10 – Patience pays off

Ambushing rabbits is a waiting game, and it takes patience, but as long as you get the groundwork right your persistence should pay off. The disturbance caused by your arrival will usually send the rabbits to ground for a while. After some time, they will eventually venture back out – and within range if all goes to plan.

Mat has quite a wait, but there’s plenty going on to keep him distracted. Nestled down low, he’s very hard to spot, and it’s not long before the resident wildlife starts going about its business again.

Although Mat is keeping his eyes peeled for rabbits, it’s also a great opportunity to watch other animals and birds. Today’s sightings include a peregrine and a herd of roe deer.

A movement in the hedgerow snaps Mat’s attention back to the job in hand. There’s a small chestnut-coloured blob amongst the nettles that wasn’t there before, and close observation through the scope reveals it to be a rabbit’s head.

Clearly presented, and at about 30m away, it’s comfortably within range. Thanks to the bipod, the crosshairs come to aim on the bunny’s skull. Mat gives a touch of holdunder to compensate for his 35m zero and shoots.

The pellet slams home with a sharp crack; a direct hit, the rabbit cartwheeling forwards before it comes to rest just out from the hedgeline.

19:25 – Bunny bonanza

As the first rabbit was cleanly killed, Mat decides to leave it where it dropped. It is sometimes necessary to break cover to finish off wounded rabbits, but this isn’t the case here, and there is no point in causing more disturbance than you have to.

Mat’s decision to stay put soon pays dividends, as another chance crops up just a few minutes after the first one. Two young rabbits have ventured out at the same time, and they’re only about 25m away.

They’re not very big, but you can’t discriminate on a shoot like this – all rabbits have the potential to do the same harm, and younger ones also have the added advantage of being tenderer and tastier than their older, overwintered relatives.

Both rabbits go straight on the feed, making it frustratingly difficult for Mat to line up for a head shot as they hunker down to nibble at the grass. Mat clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth and both rabbits sit upright with their ears twitching as they try to locate the source of the sound.

The alert rabbits offer a much clearer target, and Mat soon topples one with a shot that catches it cleanly between the eye and ear. He was hoping that the other might hang around to offer him a shot, but it bolts away into the hedgerow before he has time to reload.

Expert tip – Make the most of your spare hand

Using a bipod to support your airgun can leave your left hand (or your right one if you’re left-handed) feeling redundant because you don’t need to hold the forend.

A lot of shooters make the mistake of grabbing the bipod or the front of the stock to give their spare hand something to do, but this can introduce unwanted wobbles, and anyway, it can be put to much better use.

The best thing to do with your spare hand when shooting with a low bipod is to place it beneath the butt of the gun. Not only does this give the back end of the gun even more support, it also enables you to make very precise adjustments to your aim.

By clenching, rolling and relaxing the hand beneath the butt, you can shift the crosshairs by tiny increments, and these little tweaks really do make all the difference when you’re lining up.

20:10 – Pick up and prep

The discomfort of being sprawled out on hard ground for long periods tends to slip to the back of your mind when you’re getting regular shots. Sooner or later, though, you’ll want to get moving, either because the action has tailed off, or because you simply need to stretch your legs.

Once he’s on his feet, Mat gathers up the shot rabbits, but instead of putting them straight into his backpack, he holds them up with their hind legs dangling, and uses his free hand to squeeze down their bellies to empty their bladders. This very simple bit of field prep prevents the urine from tainting the meat.

“All rabbits have the potential to do the same harm”

Mat is moving on now, but he may not be finished just yet. There’s still some light left so he’s going to have a wander around the fields and maybe settle down at another spot for a quick ambush before night closes in.

When Mat does draw the session to a close, he’ll paunch the rabbits in the field before heading home. Gutting them out here means one less messy job to do in the kitchen, and reduces the amount of waste he will have to dispose of. 

The entrails will be left in a discreet spot among the undergrowth, where foxes and badgers will discover them, and happily snaffle them up before sunrise.

Mat’s gear

Air Arms S510 Super-lite

Hawke Vantage 3-9×40 AO

Sportsmatch two-piece

Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign

Harris 6-9” Swivel Base

Hawke LRF 400

Ridgeline Pro Hunt

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