It?s been a long wait, but the summer rabbit flurry has finally arrived on my patch. With the long evenings, and a glut of tender bunnies getting fat on the pasture, now is the time to keep their numbers in check while filling the freezer with some fantastic free meat.
The winters tend to be pretty kind here in Somerset, and the new generation of rabbits are usually out nibbling the field margins by the end of February. However, this year I didn?t see a single young kit until April. This was no doubt due to a long, wet and harsh winter. The miserable conditions that were making life virtually impossible for farmers also seem to have taken their toll on crop-gobbling pests. The rabbits that survived the frosts and the floods clearly had precious little grass to sustain themselves, let alone to nourish hundreds of hungry young mouths.
Nature bounces back
Nature has a remarkable ability to bounce back, however, and after several weeks of relatively dry weather, with just enough rain to get things growing, the countryside is throbbing with life. To the delight of dairy farmers, the fields have taken on that characteristic glossy green hue of sugar-rich summer grassland.
The bunnies have bounced back too, and they?re already causing trouble. The distinctive thin patches of grass where they have been feasting on the field edges are clear to see in many places. Farmers who have spent months trying to sustain their herds on expensive fodder will be horrified to see an army of rabbits munching through this summer?s crop, but most of them simply can?t spare the time to do anything about it.
I do my best to get out on my ground and hit the rabbits before they get out of hand, and I regard it as something of a failure if a farmer has to phone and ask why I?ve not put in an appearance. For anyone seeking shooting permission, this can be a time of great opportunity. If you spot a field that?s overrun with rabbits, find out who the landowner is and pay them a visit. They may be grateful for your generous offer of some free, discreet and responsible pest control.
Using a bipod
Though I get tremendous satisfaction from stalking rabbits ? especially given the degree of skill it takes to sneak consistently within airgun range ? an ambush is much easier, and often far more productive. Fit your airgun with a bipod and it will be even more effective.
I favour a low bipod (mine?s a 6in to 9in extendable Harris model that snaps to a quick-release stud under the fore-end of the stock) because I prefer to snipe rabbits from the prone position, keeping myself out of sight by staying flat on the ground. Adjustable legs are handy for keeping the bipod level on uneven ground, and a swivelling base allows you to make further slight adjustments to keep the vertical cross-hair absolutely upright if you have to set up on a slope.
As with most shooting kit, my advice is to buy the best you can sensibly afford. There are some cheap bipods out there but most are lacking in the performance department. I?m particularly suspicious of those that clamp to the barrel; I don?t like the thought of my heavy airgun being supported by its barrel and can?t imagine it would do anything for accuracy.
The obvious advantage of shooting off a bipod is that it provides a steady shooting rest, eliminating a lot of the wobbles and quivers produced by a swaying body and straining muscles. I tend not to use them with spring-powered airguns, because they can make the effects of recoil difficult to predict, but the improvement they bring with a pre-charged gun has to be seen to be believed. The support provided by a bipod can increase hunting range by a good 10m or so (and that?s a lot if your previous limit was 30m) but, as with most things, you have to put in the groundwork to reap the rewards.
With the bipod giving a reassuringly stable sight picture, it?s easy to forget that wind and gravity will be influencing shot placement as much as ever ? and even more over longer distances. Achieving clean kills with a solid hit between eye and ear takes a considerable degree of accuracy, and holdover and adjustment for wind drift will often be required for precise shot placement.
The only way to understand where your pellet will strike as it drops away over an extended distance is to practise on paper and see where your shots group on the target card. This experience will enable you to compensate accurately for the fall of the pellet. Working out appropriate adjustment for breezes of varying strength and direction is a lot more complicated, especially in blustery or swirling wind. I prefer to limit my longrange airgun hunting to calm, windless evenings or those with just a gentle breeze.
Planning the ambush
Having acquired an understanding of pellet trajectory, it?s time to plan the ambush. Most of the time, I set up in areas known to contain a lot of rabbits. On other occasions, I?ll spot a few bunnies while out stalking and either hunker down then and there or return on another evening to catch them unawares.
Range is an important consideration when setting up an airgun ambush, because of that all-important shot placement. If I?m planning to shoot rabbits out to 40m, I?ll set up about 30m from where I expect the rabbits to emerge, so that I can also pick off any that hop out a little further along the hedgerow. Pacing out ranges isn?t a good move, because rabbits can be reluctant to venture out after someone?s been stamping about above their burrows ? though it?s fine if you?re just out on a recce and won?t be returning for a while.
My favourite solution is to use a laser rangefinder. That way, I can measure
the distance to a few prominent markers ? such as fence posts, trees or clumps of nettles and gorse ? and then quickly settle into position, knowing that I?ll be able to work out the range of my quarry relative to the features closest to it. I rarely go to the trouble of setting up a hide when ambushing rabbits. Their eyesight isn?t exceptionally good and, as I?m shooting off a bipod, I?ll be lying flat anyway.
One thing I do try to ensure is that the breeze, however gentle it may be, is pushing my scent away from the bunnies? twitching nostrils, and that there aren?t any obstacles between my position and wherever the rabbits are likely to present themselves. Nettle stems, docks, thistles and even tufts of long grass can obstruct shots and push an airgun pellet off its course. Fortunately, the greedy bunnies that I?m out to control have usually reduced the field edges to stubble with their persistent nibbling. This creates the perfect conditions for sniping with an airgun securely mounted on a low-set bipod.
This sort of ambush is generally most productive on fine summer evenings. Rabbits can be reluctant to venture out in the midday heat but will emerge at dusk to feed on the dew-softened grass. Long waits can get uncomfortable when you?re sprawling on the ground, especially if scorching sun has baked the soil as hard as rock. I tend to limit my sessions to one or two hours of what I expect to be the prime time, arriving when the sun gets low and shooting until nightfall.