A comparatively gentle winter has resulted in a population boom in the numbers of rabbits around. Bruce Potts takes to the field and shares his tips for shooting rabbits and improving your strike rate
Rabbits seem to have exploded in volume this year. The early wet weather but milder winter has seen an ever-increasing population boom in the home counties and the torrential rain followed by long, hot days has turned sparse fields into verdant scenes from Land of the Giants where I shoot. This is good for herbivorous rabbits, providing them with abundant food and endless cover. The surplus of food makes rabbits fussier with the result that they will deviate from their normal eating habits, while the dense cover makes finding them tough. All good sport in my view. This, and the use of .22 rimfires or one of my favourite air rifles, adds to the challenge.
Rabbits yield fantastic meat
Not only does this prolific yet wary quarry challenge a shooter’s skill in the field, but after a successful stalk, rabbits yield fantastic meat — a personal favourite. Their habitat is varied from sandy dune systems, low-lying plant cover to heaths and woodland areas. They are common in their desire to be warm and dry and rarely venture past an altitude of 1,250ft to 1,500ft. The best place to find rabbits of a morning is out in the open, sunning themselves, sheltered from the wind.
Purely vegetarian, rabbits forage for grasses, bulbs, bark, roots and herbs and this dictates that they live on the fringes of cultivated areas or woodland margins in several large family groups. The mating season is usually between February and July, but with climate change a full seasonal breeding regime is commonplace.
Gestation is 28-31 days with between four to six litters a year of four to six young, which allows a rapid and successful regeneration of rabbit numbers despite heavy hunting pressure. Suckled within four weeks, they are then independent and the cycle begins again.
Due to their clear hierarchy, rabbits commonly scent-mark their territory using a gland located under their chin (called “chinning”).
Male rabbits, or bucks, in particular will chin anything they consider theirs, often logs or stones. Learn to look for these and a clear rabbit-living regime will emerge, making your shooting a lot easier.
When to hunt rabbits
Hot weather encourages rabbit activity, but to me it means getting too hot stalking on your belly. Early mornings before the sun becomes too hot is usually my modus operandi for rabbits in summer, when they are eagerly seeking the first sun rays of the day and aren’t expecting human activity. However, evenings are better for sitting still and waiting for the rabbits to emerge. Whichever time you choose, though, it is the weather conditions that most affect the rabbit’s habits and good times to see them.
Always watch the weather forecast. A mild, breezy and moonlit night will mean the rabbits will have already filled their bellies and will be back underground or in thick cover before daylight, where they will spend the rest of the day.
The point when the sun first hits the fields in the morning will usually find rabbits out and above ground; they will be wary but feeding. But the best time to go out is just after a rainstorm during the night. The rabbits will have been kept underground and as the rain clears they will be eager to feed, so even more abundant first thing in the morning.
Also if rain, or disturbance by predators such as foxes, has caused them not to feed and they are especially hungry, they will be more reluctant to escape down their holes giving you two or three shot opportunities. So don’t be too keen not to reload and follow a group of running rabbits. In situations where rabbits have fed overnight and are full up, if you disturb or shoot one it can often be a long wait for a re-emergence.
Wind direction is not only crucial for your stalk but the rabbits have a preference, too. If the wind blows a rabbit’s scent into the hedgeline they can be very nervous as a fox can smell them and sneak up on them unseen. Rabbits are more relaxed with the wind blowing from the hedges out towards them as they feed. This is because their scent is being blown across the field, where they can keep a look out. Plus, if you are sneaking along the hedgeline, your scent will reach them first. Scent, as with wind, means you should always stalk with your back to a bush, scrub, tree or hedgeline. Ensure that you are never a silhouette against the skyline; crouch if necessary.
Sometimes when all else fails let the wind work for you: if there is no cover available get them down the burrows with your scent and then get into position, downwind this time, and wait for them to re-emerge.
Whether at dawn or dusk, if the sunlight is bright and strong, rabbits will often feed farther back in the cover where it is warm, so they may see you before you see them.
Longer evenings make this time of day appealing but you will often need to wait for the rabbits to appear rather than stalking them as you might in the morning. That said, undisturbed rabbits will often be out. When that’s the case, try to approach with the ebbing sunlight behind you to blind them and not you, wind permitting.
Hiding next to a burrow lit by the last light on a summer’s day can be very rewarding, and if you aren’t successful you can always lamp later.
Kit and clothing for rabbit shooting
- Camouflage is popular but I use a wool-checked top, which is natural-coloured but also silent, which is very important. I can forego camouflage but cannot shoot without gloves.
- Silhouettes, rangefinding, setting out wind tape, and whether to stalk or hide are all valid considerations before you set out on any rabbit shoot. I like rabbit shooting on the hoof as you travel light, unlike hide shooting with poles, hides and decoys. It feels more natural to me.
- A good-quality pellet or bullet pouch to protect your cartridges and keep them from getting wet is worth having.
Know your ground
- The best spots to stalk are where there is plenty of gorse, thorn bushes and brambles interspersed with open cauldrons and hollows where you can use a crawl-in stalking technique.
- Sheep-grazed fields still offer rabbits plenty to feed but make it easier to spot them as the grass is short. Look on the lee side of the hedges where it is warmer.
- Where cover is short, a disturbed rabbit will often dither before running off. It will be hoping you have not seen it and thinking that any more movement would give itself away. In this instance, raise your rifle when it is on the move and wait for that second stop, then shoot.
- Know your ground: keep records of the wind, temperature, crops and so on, so that you can switch tactics in an instant and stalk the most productive areas.
- Rabbits can sneak through and under tiny holes in fences but will prefer to use any holes made by sheep, deer, badgers or foxes as these are easier. These are a good place to sit and wait.
- Brambles, thorn bushes and gorse with interspersed bracken are perfect rabbit hide-outs and should alert you to stop and wait to see what emerges.
- Rabbits like to burrow into easy soil that is dry, so sandy ridges are good places to look first.
- The abundance of scratches for roots indicates a good rabbit presence, as do any elevated platforms that rabbits often use as dropping toilets.
- Move when rabbits’ heads are down. Rabbits have keen eyesight, making them alert to movement. Their eyes are also positioned to see at a wider angle than ours, so take care.
- Calling to mimic a wounded rabbit or a magpie as it chatters at the sight of a fox can cause rabbits to reveal their position, as they will get on their hind legs from cover, so a shot can be taken. If small rabbits are the first to emerge, leave them and use them as confidence decoys to lure out the mature rabbits.
- Shoot one rabbit and if the others make a bolt for it wait until they dither near a stop, for example a fence or bush. Line up your shot there, ready.
- If you are stalking on foot, move in the long grass and shoot at the short. When you are among taller crops or longer grass you can reposition your feet or pick up a spare magazine out of sight of rabbits, as rabbits will only see your top half.
- Take things really slowly. As with most game, rabbits are less bothered by a slow movement as they are likely to be used to slow-moving cattle and sheep, but a flighty bird or you raising the rifle into the aim will get them running quickly for cover.
- Always stalk rabbits with your scope set on low power. This increases the field of view and if a rabbit pops out close it can be located in the scope quicker.
- It is often better to leave the fallen rabbit in situ, as others may be nearby and to break cover may spoil that second shot. But do not leave them too long — foxes have a very good sense of smell.
Rewards of shooting rabbits
It does not matter if you are a seasoned big game hunter, deerstalker or wildfowler, the humble rabbit still ranks as some of the best sport you can have. It’s never about the round or head count for me, rather a good morning or evening out and about in the fields and woods watching and listening.
Rabbit shooting will tell you a lot about how animals evade humans and predators, all of which adds to any hunter’s skills for the future.