Rabbit shooting is the ideal summer pest control exercise. Bag some bunnies this summer and improve your skill and ability to wait patiently for the shot. Charles Rangeley-Wilson describes his foray into the fields.
Rabbit shooting is the perfect summer pest control exercise. Wander the fields this summer and bag some bunnies while you’re at it.
Rabbit shooting is worth some study if you want to shoot them well. Have a look at our Top 10 airguns for use in the field, to ensure you have the right kit. If you are looking for some inspiration for rabbit recipies have a go at our rabbit cooked with mustard, fennel and cider with spring onions. Hoppingly good.
Rabbit shooting with an airgun takes skill and patience, but is definitely worth the dawn start. Charles Rangeley-Wilson goes summer rabbit shooting.
RABBIT SHOOTING: AIRGUNNING FOR SUMMER RABBITS
We arrived shortly before seven o’clock, a touch early, I thought, for midsummer rabbit shooting. The rabbits mightn’t be out yet, or might be easily scared if they were. As it happened, I watched three scoot away across the tightly grazed meadow as I stopped the car. Out already and easily scared. Farther away the field was dotted around its margins with dull brown lumps against the green, lumps that might have been dry, sandy molehills if they hadn’t lolloped forward once in a while, or changed shape as I opened the car door, becoming taller, triangular. And then scooting as Patrick, my son, closed his.
This hillside meadow, rising up from the river valley, is surrounded by an ancient, gnarled hawthorn hedge, perfect for rabbit shooting. Its tangled stumps root into dusty banks of chalk and, between the stumps, tongues of chalk spill away from the base through nettles, settling like scree in the lush grass of the water-meadow below. The excavations of a gazillion rabbits.
Mark Watson, the keeper, shoots this land most nights and is at permanent war with “da wabbits”. In this dry soil, on a well-kept estate with few predators, they breed like… well… rabbits. It may be that Mark, like Bishop Brennan in that painfully funny episode of Father Ted, also has nightmares about rabbits. But Patrick and I are here to give Mark a night off. He lets me do this when we feel like rabbit stew at home and though I might be less effective with my airgun than Mark is with a .22 and a lamp, I’ve shot my fair share.
RABBITS ARE SKIPPING
The airgun is too much maligned as a hunting tool for rabbit shooting. It has overtones of “chav” about it – too many cats shot in Castlefield – and often the airgun is not taken seriously as a weapon for the job. It is seen as something of a toy. But airguns have changed a lot since the day when a tired BSA came up for the bidding in a local auction and my dad shook his head and said not yet. I made do with imaginary gunfire and a piece of copper pipe pinned to an old stock for another year. And then, finally, when I was 14 he bought me one of my own. Though the door of the garden shed is still pimpled with squished .22 pellets, I might have launched several pounds of lead through the barrel of that gun and not brought in a single rat or crow. I still have the gun locked away in a cupboard; nowadays the spring is so weak I would be relatively happy to shoot myself in the foot with it and reckon on the shoe keeping the pellet out. Not so my current pre-charged, compressed air, 10-shot carbine; this thing would drill a hole right through shoe and foot. I have measured out a 50yd, clean head-shot of a pigeon brought off with this gun. And once by way of curious comparison I tried the same shed door alongside those squished .22s and bored a .177 hole straight through the middle of them, the pellet pinging off a spade hung on the far side.
Patrick is 14 now and so it is about time for the same rite of passage. Term has just ended and I have bought a basic pre-charged gun for him to use rabbit shooting under my supervision. He can’t own it until he’s 18: not only have guns changed, so has the law. But we’re on private land and we have permission to go rabbit shooting, so we won’t be spending the night in gaol. We might be spending it hungry though if the rate at which these bunnies are skipping into the hedgerow continues unabated.
GO FOR THE HEAD
Up the track beyond the car, another hedge rides away across the down to the west. A rusted five-bar gate is propped between two fence posts and opens along the line of hedge, across rough grass and a few thistles. I push my head slowly round the corner at ground level and see three rabbits. THe rabbit shooting is on. I pull back and gesture Patrick forward. By the time he peeks, there are none to begin our rabbit shooting. We shrug, stand slowly and lean against the gate. Farther out, one rabbit remains, oblivious and nibbling. It is a long shot and Patrick takes a while to steady himself on the wobbly gate. Because the track is so much lower he needs to stand on tip-toe, which hardly helps. I’m about to call off the shot when a new bunny skips out of the hedge 15yd away, stands tall and sniffs the air, blindly searching for clues. We’re not in camouflage: you can buy “realtree” clothing to make yourself look as mental as a walking tree if you want to. But for rabbit shooting perhaps not.
My airgun-crazed pal Simon likes to do this and I remember driving with him through a village in Wiltshire on our way out rabbit shooting, me in a Barbour and gumboots, him as a shrubbery, when he turned to me and said with all earnestness, “It’s really important that we look completely normal.” But this rabbit can’t see us because we’re still, in dull green clothes, and we’re not against the skyline. Patrick notices the new victim, lowers his sights – three, two, one and phut! The rabbit leaps 2ft, and lands: DOA.
Technically, airguns all operate to the same 12lb/ft max-imum pressure, though springs and air seals weaken over time. But a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air rifle as a hunting tool holds one big advantage that has nothing to do with power: accuracy. And this has made all the difference. This has taken it beyond any conception of being dinky or not serious. There is no recoil from a PCP gun. By contrast, even the best spring-powered guns jump. I shot a Wierauch for a while that leapt like a snake-bitten goat every time I pulled the trigger. This jumpiness makes them imperfect target guns. And with a critter it tempts a shot at the middle of the mass, just so you hit it somewhere. I don’t like this at all: pigeon clattered with a thump, taking off to crash-land somewhere far beyond sight or reach, rabbit dying back in the burrow. With my pre-charged gun I can group 10 shots over 25yd pretty much as tight as if I were using a .22 rimfire, and with a rabbit I can go for a head-shot. This sounds more gruesome but is far more humane: any miss is a miss and any hit is lethal. Patrick has heard my head-shot lecture and this rabbit is dead enough to prove he listened.
Patrick is about to jump over the gate to collect it when I notice that the far rabbit is still there, still oblivious, still nibbling. I have a sight with beads on the crosshairs and know my gun well enough to guess this rabbit is a one-bead drop: 30yd or so, maybe a bit more. My gun is zeroed to 25. Anything closer, I drop the crosshair down a bit, anything farther away, I lift it. And a one bead drop at about 35yd is the limit of the range. A range finder is on my shopping list.
I squeeze the trigger. The rabbit jumps, I see a kick of dust beyond and assume I’ve missed. But when Patrick climbs the hill to fetch his, he tells me I haven’t. “Pace it out,” I tell him, leaning against the gate thinking how a 14 year old to play fetch is a grand thing to bring rabbit shooting. “Thirty-two,” claims Patrick when he returns. “Not bad.” Far, far beyond was a village, all back gardens and trampolines and laundry in the sun. And there’s another grand thing about the sport of hunting with an airgun: though you can’t be careless, you can sleep easily knowing that stray shots will never do what a stray rifle shot once did, according to legend, in Dorset: depart the barrel in one valley to part the curtains of a vicarage in the next valley over. For close-quarter work, for vermin control in farmyards, near buildings and roads, airguns are peerless. Good sense with an airgun is pretty much common sense: the wind drops out of a pellet quite quickly after 50yd and any reasonable earth or wall backdrop, or just distance, ensures a safe shot. Ideal for rabbit shooting.
As is the way of things, we got little more rabbit shooting in our tramp around Mark’s acres. One buck rabbit was silly enough not to vacate a wide open meadow that all his pals had skipped away from the moment our scent rolled downwind towards them. We sat in the chalk quarry that is bunny metropolis, ate our sandwiches and watched trout rise in the chalkstream beyond, concluding there were worse places to sit not shooting rabbits. And though the sun dropped low and warmed the air above the hive of burrows, no rabbits came out as we crouched in ambush afterwards. Mark’s nightly efforts have Darwinated a race of super rabbits, alert to all threats. Either that or rabbit shooting with airguns is stalking in miniature, the ever-paranoid rabbit, assuming a headlamp is not making it stupid, being the noble stalking quarry of deposed kings or their former subjects.
And so we were back at the car before Patrick got his chance at another, back leaning on the same gate, while one more of this hedgerow’s strangely incautious rabbits sat on its haunches waiting for something. “Top of the ears,” I said before he fired. And then “Pace it out,” as he jumped the gate. It had been a good shot and I was curious. “Forty,” he said after a minute. And he was right. I’d counted.
Of course, sons are soon better than their fathers at rabbit shooting, though I think I can stretch this inevitable coup out a few years yet.