To break up the monotony of driving, I find myself scanning the fields for rabbits. Rabbit fever is addictive. The sun has finally surfaced and a lot of rabbits are making up for lost time, basking, bucking and bobbing their tails wherever they are safe from predation.
These will be perfect for my air rifle and hide combination in the months to come. I’ve also noticed that the horse paddocks, which adorn every contour of the East Anglian landscape, are increasingly becoming inundated with rabbits yet the owners seem happy to have them feed alongside their charges. I wonder if they would feel the same if they knew of the hidden dangers.
A short distance from our home, we have our own horses stabled. I know of the trouble and expense my family goes to so that their pride and joys can be stabled, tacked and fed in the right manner. Their paddocks are meticulously poo-picked to avoid any tainting of the grass, but my visit to the farm recently wasn’t to pull a barrow full of manure about or to mend fences.
With the horses moved to another paddock for the day, I moved in to control the rabbits. In the green cropped grass were plenty of yellowy tainted patches where the rabbits’ urine had scorched the grass, scrapes that offered a potential ankle twister or ligament damage and a single hole that had “broken leg” written all over it. The hole was filled in but soon reopened, so the only cure was to remove the culprits.
I had removed many rabbits during the darkness of winter, but now, with all the movement and breeding, a spring clean was in order. It wasn’t only the amount of grass they were eating or the extra cost of haylage to compensate for this, it was the fact that they were actually on our paddock.
Rather than use a rifle, I planned to ferret old-school style with a few long-nets, my lurcher Bella and an incredibly smelly in-season hob ferret. With the shotgun safely back in its cabinet the silence was deafening as I began to lay the nets while the wind whipped up around me. The bagging of the long-nets billowed, offering some potential difficulties if the rabbits decided to hit it at the wrong time from the wrong direction.
After so much time spent shooting bolting rabbits, this “not seen nor heard” ferreting was quite a departure. Nothing changes though and no grace was offered to the rabbit. The hedge had small 10-yard stop-nets placed at strategic points between warrens to stop any running up and down the hedge. Bella replaced the need to use many purse-nets and I planned to work a single hob ferret, Bad Boy — BB for short. He has great stamina and prey drive — and holds no prisoners.
The sandy soil would be easy to shift and I knew from previous encounters that this wasn’t a deep place. I had to clear the rabbits, so they would either bolt or be dug out, but I hoped that Bella and BB would do all the work today.
The earth moved
My diminutive lurcher stood motionless beside the end warren with her characteristic raised paw indicating rabbits at home. Would they bolt in this wind? Only time would tell. I entered the ferret to honour Bella’s mark and it wasn’t long before the ground sprang up and down from the battle under the earth’s crust signalling an impending bolt. I could see Bella’s senses going into overdrive. Her eyes were almost popping out as she stared at a hole in the rising angelica.
Suddenly she lurched forward to grab her prize but in what seemed like a nanosecond she then let it go again. She backed off and stood watching. Momentarily, I wondered why, but when I approached, I spotted the stowaway. BB was on the back of the rabbit and it was going nowhere. I swiftly despatched the bolter and returned the ferret into his office. BB is one powerful and determined ferret and wherever he mooched the rabbits bolted, or he stayed put. The ferret finder was used intermittently but once BB was stuck on something he was stuck.
Ten minutes in one spot passed before I decided to open up the earth. A short four-and-a-half-feet dig saw me return the ferret to his straw-laden ferret box and place the rabbit on the game carrier.
As is the case when shooting, all holes were filled in and when the rabbit evaded us, it didn’t make it to safety. Bella proved this point on a few occasions, giving her confidence a boost. She was used in a snatch-and-grab style, confined to the hedging but she did get the chance to stretch her spring-like legs.
Bella gives chase
A few rabbits hit the dividing stop-nets, were accounted for while hole-hopping and a few were dug to, but the most memorable rabbit of the day was one that had a suicide mission on its mind. On a small set, it used its low centre of gravity to evade Bella while hopping to and from holes that were inches apart. It had looked as if the ferret had caught up with this crafty customer when suddenly, for no apparent reason, it bolted into the middle of the paddock. It was heading nowhere.
Bella was quick off the mark and on a bowling green surface the rabbit was giving a good account of itself to the point of making Bella look as though she was treading water. A quick jink left Bella for dead but she soon regained momentum. As she lunged for a strike another jink just at the right moment turned the fleeing rabbit towards the hedge.
This was the luck Bella was looking for as I had filled in all the holes and the rabbit had nowhere to hide. As the rabbit closed in on what it perceived as safety, Bella stepped up a gear. The rabbit slowed momentarily to see which hole to go down, and Bella struck. Both the hunter and hunted crashed into the hedge. An untidy retrieve brought the rabbit back and if nothing else, it illustrated why I backfill the holes and use a dog, as the extra time taken filling in was more than compensated by the results.
At the end of a short day I had removed a whole game carrier’s worth of grass- munching, dirt-digging rabbits. Man, dog, hob and a modern ferret finder proved that us rabbiters can beat Mother Nature’s ultimate survivor. Well, sometimes…