August 12, 2013: the start of the shooting season — a time when a diverse cross section of the shooting community pursues what many perceive as the ultimate sporting quarry, the red grouse. Wagers between London restaurateurs over who will become the first to have a brace of grouse plated up in their establishments have become legendary.
I’m usually the type of man who prefers not to be seen or heard while in the countryside, but on this day I made an exception, and I bucked my tendency to shy away from using my shotgun.
Suitably attired, I was about to experience driven game on the Glorious Twelfth. My beaten-up yet trusty Lincoln 12-bore over-and-under had undergone a thorough service in preparation for what could be an extremely busy start to the season. So with a clean gun and plenty of 30g No.6 cartridges in my belt, I stood with the other Guns listening intently as our host instructed us on what was and was not a safe shot.
When he finished, I took up my position, but I was feeling a little apprehensive about the standard of my shooting. I hadn’t picked up my gun at all during the summer, as I have been extremely busy during the show season, so the chance to go to my local clay ground for some practice had passed me by.
The last thing I wanted was to embarrass myself with poor shooting, but I was prepared mentally and physically. Looking the part, as I waited for the action to start I visualised my first shot of the day over and over. I was facing land that was being methodically beaten in from south to south-west. Every square inch of the land was covered. Suddenly, a brown flash emerged, hurtling towards me at a breathtaking pace. This was the moment I had been waiting for. The adrenalin kicked in as I experienced a monumental sensory overload, but I stayed focused and raised my gun, finger poised just in front of the trigger, thumb behind the safety. I took a deep breath as sweat dripped profusely from my brow into my eyes. I was clearly feeling the heat, but I was determined not to let anything distract me as I waited patiently for my quarry to come within range. This sporting missile hurtled towards me; instinctively, my thumb went forward, my index finger went back and… bang!
Unfortunately, I wasn’t on the heather-laden moors of Yorkshire taking shots at grouse but on the edge of a rapefield in Suffolk targeting the bunnies, with my friends Steve Nice and young Ryan Jackson. Knowing how much I like rabbit shooting, this invitation was never in danger of being ignored, and what we lacked in sporting delicacy we made up for with camaraderie.
Shooting in a jovial and relaxed manner is one thing, but as with all shooting disciplines, the safety aspect can never be overlooked. With people constantly moving around on foot, or hiding in a hedge waiting for a fox, and with combines and tractors constantly on the move, your peripheral vision has to be spot on, allowing nothing to distract you from ensuring a safe shot.
A gargantuan Claas combine was making the most of the perfect eight-to-nine per cent moisture count, pushing all manner of creatures towards our small band of enthusiastic men waiting with shotguns. Steve was adamant that we wouldn’t see a great deal of rabbits, but it must have been my lucky day, as wherever I moved I had the majority of the shooting. I walked hundreds of yards following the combine, and one unlucky rat meandered within range — along with a trio of quarter-grown rabbits shortly afterwards, it wouldn’t be bothering the farmer any more.
If standing rape presents a rabbit refuge, then harvested rapefields offer an escape route from the combine due to their thick stalks and the raised height of the cutter. Leaving a stalk of around 8in, it enables the rabbits to squat in the furrows, waiting for the 23-ton combine to go overhead before they attempt to hop to safety. Unfortunately for them, I have a different outcome in mind, and when those rabbits that had managed to skip out of range to the margins decided to come back to the stubble, this uncharacteristically naive reaction proved costly, and the first brace was accounted for in this way.
Dust was spouting up in almost biblical proportions, so I donned my dust mask and polarised glasses to ensure that nothing would distract me from focusing on good, safe shooting. I cannot call it “sporting” shooting, as on many occasions the rabbits were disorientated by the lack of shelter as the crop they were born and raised on was harvested, but I capitalised on their bewilderment, and the game carrier was filling up nicely.
Saved by the yell
My tactics were to stand on the outside of the field looking into the standing crop rather than standing by the crop and shooting back towards the margins.
Concentrating intensely on the edge of the cut, I saw those brown flashes that have the ability to unnerve even the safest of shooters. A hare passed by as my raised gun saluted its escape, and as I watched it meander off, I wondered whether we would see a fox departing the rest of the crop, as they love standing rape. No sooner had this thought entered my mind than I saw a beautiful dark red fox looking right at me. I barked out, “Fox!” in Steve and Ryan’s direction, but my dulcet tones were drowned out by the whizzes and whirrs of the heavy machinery working the field. It was soon way out of range, and as only a few Guns were present to cover such a huge area, this wily customer was able to make good its escape across the stubble.
Though the rabbits were not out in great numbers, the farmer likes to see a few Guns present, reassuring him that those that have made it through the summer have an armed welcoming party at harvest time. I have yet to meet a farmer who doesn’t raise a smile when presented with a game carrier full of rabbits going into the back of a truck rather than back into his fields.
We accounted for a dozen rabbits in our session. Ever the realist, my rabbiting glass is half full at harvest time, so I could console myself with the fact that if we had spent the day shooting hundreds of mature rabbits, all it would mean was that I hadn’t been doing my job properly for the rest of the year!