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Rabbits in old England

A hot, still evening with not a breath of wind to stir the leaves. The heat is oppressive and creeping leaden clouds in the far west threaten a storm and much-needed rain. Fifty yards ahead of me, Nick Millman, .22 rifle slung over his shoulder, bipod in one hand, slowly and quietly walks a wide strip of tall grasses and wild flowers bordering a field of barley. I follow, the yellow Labrador at heel, pausing when Nick stops, moving only when he goes forward. The barley, changing to golden yellow, is dotted with ox-eye daisies, for this is an organic farm where herbicides and pesticides are banned. It is, in fact, a pleasant reminder of old England at its best, for the conservation strips and flower-rich grasses are shimmering with butterflies and insect life. Scores of meadow browns, fast-flying painted ladies and the ubiquitous whites are a pleasant reminder that, given the right conditions, butterflies will thrive. There are, too, rabbits. Not in small or scattered pockets, but in their hundreds.

A wide vein of sand runs through the middle of the farm to provide perfect excavation facilities for coneys. Rabbits here are legion. So much so that the barley is defended by a sheet of metal dug two feet into the ground, with 18in showing and topped with wire. The thousand-acre mixed farm in Devon offers some excellent DIY shooting to a local group of Guns and part of the deal is rabbit control. This is where several lines of attack are in operation. Each year, until recently, the team has brought about 800 rabbits to book, but this year they are confident that in the order of a thousand will be killed. Yet the numbers do not appear to diminish. The overall attack on the rabbit population is three-pronged.

Ferrets and ferreting are used extensively in the winter months, often employing a combination of netting and shooting, while three costly box traps have also been installed and though initially labour intensive as they had to be dug in, they have proved highly effective. Average catches are in the region of six to eight rabbits, though recently a quite exceptional haul of 39 rabbits was taken from the three traps on one evening.The box traps also have the advantage, as Nick explained, of allowing one to exert humane discrimination. “If you catch a milky doe that is obviously feeding young, then you at least have the option of releasing her,” he said.

The third control method is by rifle, and it was on such an expedition that we were now employed. Nick, being a traditionalist and an old-style countryman, prefers to use his much loved BSA Supersport 5, a classic little British rifle, while another friend uses a recently acquired Marlin .17, a rifle that is incredible value for money at £250, but feels and handles like a full-bore rifle. While it is flat-shooting, accurate and capable of killing rabbits at 100 to 150 yards if held straight, the 17-grain polymer-tipped bullet is incredibly destructive. Nick told me that of eight rabbits shot a few nights previously, two were not even fit for the ferrets and a bullet in the shoulder seemed to blow the rabbits apart. If carcase damage is to be avoided, the only answer is to take head shots. The .17 may have a part to play in the shooting scene, but Nick prefers to stick to his .22 rifle and Eley hollowpoint bullets. Incidentally, until recently he used a largish sound moderator, but he found that its weight upset the balance and handling of his rifle. Instead he has now fitted a small, slim moderator which, as I later discovered, is extremely effective. From 50 yards or so one can hear only a slight phut as the rifle is fired.

Nick also carries a clip of 40-grain Velocitor cartridges for any possible encounter with a rogue fox. Used at sensible 50-yard ranges, a chest shot will drop the animal on the spot. On his farm he also employs .22 dust-shot cartridges, which are ideal for shooting rats in the garden or barns. The pattern at 10ft is the size of a dinner plate and while the No 9 or No 10 shot will scarcely dent a tin can, they will deal with small vermin most efficiently.

In order to carry around his cartridges Nick employs an ancient leather Madison machinegun clip holder, a piece of polished workmanship with distinctive appeal. But then Nick, like me, much prefers good traditional craftsmanship to modern hi-tech equipment and clothing. He is no fan of the modern craze for camo outfits and instead sports an ancient tweed jacket and a much beaten-up fedora. He has long since discovered that while one can spend a small fortune on turning oneself into a walking bush or tree it is entirely unnecessary. Rabbits, pigeon, deer and duck appear to accept his faintly eccentric or, as I prefer to think of it, normal turnout with equanimity if not indifference.

Rabbits neatly retrieved

Crossing into a grass field bordered by a thick thorny bramble hedge, Nick suddenly stopped, put up his bipod and took aim. A pause, then a faint report, followed a split second later by a distinctive plop. I walked forward and released the Labrador. Scent must have been bad, for she overshot it twice before bringing a fine buck rabbit with fight-torn ears to hand.

Slowly we walked several more hedges and fields, picking up a half-grown rabbit and then another well-grown buck. Each, shot at 40 or 50 yards, was killed instantly and, to my pleasure, neatly retrieved, the Labrador sitting, holding the rabbit and releasing on the command “dead”. Apart from regular dummy work, this was her first real retrieve with me.

You may, perchance, wonder at my delight in the dog work, but she is a relatively new addition to the Jackson household. She has been professionally trained and doesn’t it show. To be able to walk quietly, with or without a gun or rifle, and to know that one’s dog is at heel, answers to whistle, drops if a rabbit gets up in front of her and is constantly looking to you as her leader is, for me, a revelation. I’ve owned a good many dogs of several breeds, but she is on a different level. Long may it last.

By now the lowering sun had vanished behind a belt of darkening clouds and a faint breeze began to stir the grass and nettles. We walked slowly down to the edge of a lake, its placid water fringed by tall reeds and willows. This was a water familiar to anglers, for it holds carp and tench, fish that are also prey to a local otter, whose spraint we had seen on the bank. A bat, probably a serotine, flew low over the water hunting for insects and the dog, tongue lolling and panting from the heat, slipped into the water for a cooling dip.

It was the end of a perfect evening’s sport and it only remained to paunch the rabbits and feed the tame decoy magpie in a nearby Larsen trap some liver and kidneys and then, finally, to visit the teams of ferrets superbly housed in large wire-enclosed runs, equipped with plastic tunnels, couching areas and clean sawdust on the floor. Healthy and smelling sweet, this is how ferrets should be kept. Nick has 16 or so workers divided into sections for jills and hobs, and they are regularly fed on rabbit.

Shortly afterwards we repaired to a local inn and sat outside in the failing light, pints of ale to hand, to discuss the world and its ways. What better way to spend an evening?