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Wall-to-wall rabbit shooting

Ayrton Wright is typical of many 21-year-olds in this sporting region of North Yorkshire. With an experience of shooting and country lore that belies his youthful appearance, he provided excellent company on an early evening’s rabbit shooting a few days ago. Tracked by his springers, Jen and Reuben — a mother and son team he bred and trained — a stroll with a .22 offered a perfect excuse to enjoy the farmland around the village of Askrigg, in Wensleydale.

Just an hour earlier, ugly clouds had soaked the surrounding hills, threatening to render any shooting a damp squib. But the deluge had been chased away by clear skies and a pleasant sun that brought the rabbits out to feed by the dozen. Patches of fresh nettles scented the warm evening
Sir while lambs, keen to catch up on a late start, vigorously demanded milk from their patient mothers before charging about with their playmates.

“The farmers are keen for me to stay on top of the rabbits throughout the year,
especially in the lower fields, where they want to protect the better grass for stock, hay and silage,” said Ayrton. “Further up, the rabbits can damage the heather, so I have a wide area to manage. At this time of year, a .22 is by far the best tool for the job. If we took ferrets out for bolting the rabbits, we’d spend most of the day digging them out, as there are that many young families underground.”

Ayrton’s .22 rimfire of choice was a CZ 452 sighted by a Shooter’s Edge 3x9x50 scope with illuminated reticule.

“It’s cheap and cheerful,” he said, “but it shoots straight.” Concealed movements Ancient drystone walls criss-cross the landscape of the Dales. For rabbits, the steep slopes, man-made cover and fresh vegetation provide the ideal conditions for a reproductive bonanza.

“When you think how many miles of walls have been built through the Dales, it’s an astonishing feat of construction,” said Ayrton as he loaded a magazine. The walls may give cover to rabbits, but they also give cover to the shooter. Ayrton was largely concealed in his movements from one wall to the next, requiring minimal stealth to creep within range of the rabbits, which were more interested in feeding and breeding. The first shots were easy pickings, as the unsuspecting creatures were knocked over without an inkling that danger was approaching. The cannier rabbits bolted for safety, but the more naive ones — or those that hadn’t heard the muffled shot — either carried on eating or sank low into the grass, believing they were invisible.

A second shot proved they were not. Those rabbits that found refuge beneath a wall, behind a tussock or hidden within a tuft of long grass, were not yet safe either. Ayrton coaxed them back into the open with the squeak of a distressed comrade. Curiosity would overwhelm their better judgement, and any rabbit that stuck its head up or ventured out to take a better look was making a big mistake.

A favourite technique of Ayrton’s is to quarter his spaniels through the long grass and reeds that give cover along the sides of streams and boggy marshes. But again, the season was against us.

“I’m a shotgun man, really,” he said. “But every shooter has to think with their conservation hat on. There’s a good chance I could disturb or even destroy a ground nest at this time of year. Mallard, lapwing, curlew and oystercatchers will all have clutches at the moment.”

Indeed, when he sent Jen to retrieve one rabbit, an irritable lapwing began dive-bombing her as she moved near a clump of reeds. The bunny was lying to Jen’s right, so Ayrton peeped on his whistle and gesticulated for the springer to search afresh. The lapwing followed Jen for 10 paces before returning to its nest, content that the threat had been removed.

The walls made life more difficult for the dogs, as any retrieve was a blind retrieve from their point of view. Jen, being six years old and more experienced, was happy to wait by her master’s feet until called into action. Reuben, however, is not yet two, and sometimes let enthusiasm get the better of patience. Showing considerable spring and agility, he bounced above the top of the wall to see what was on the other side, much to Ayrton’s annoyance. He would even scramble up to join his master, who would let out a growl of exasperation as the rabbits in his sights bolted for cover.

“At least he’s good at jumping,” Ayrton said drily, fishing a lead from his pocket. “He’s not normally this high-spirited, but he’s a strong dog with a fine nose and a good nature, so I’ll forgive him an off night. He likes to stay close to me, that’s all.”

Reuben has a lot to live up to, as Jen is a calm performer, seemingly programmed to do the right thing. “I’m not sure I’ll ever have a dog like her again,” Ayrton said proudly, stroking her ears. “She’ll not stop trying for me and seems to know what I want each time. I’d always thought I’d
end up with Labradors, but I can’t resist springers; they’re such characters.”

Ayrton gave Reuben the first attempt at most retrieves and he would usually trot back with a rabbit in his mouth. But often the young dog’s concentration would lapse after several passes and he’d return to his master for attention, so Jen was then sent in his place. She immediately adopted a more measured approach, searching in tighter corridors, quick to turn and consult the boss for updates. A sharp blast on the whistle would stop her in her tracks — she’d plant her bottom and look back for the next instruction, either a hand signal or a guttural “Vrrrack!” “That’s Yorkshire for ‘get back’,” Ayrton joked, as his dog eagerly obeyed.

Herriot country

Beneath us, the cosy village of Askrigg nestled by the Ure, one of several salmon rivers in the north of England enjoying an upturn in fortunes. Above the stone cottages and a 15th century church, which basked in the soft glow of the evening sun, loomed the distinctive outline of Addlebrough, Wensleydale’s answer to South Africa’s Table Mountain. These views have captured the imagination of many notable admirers, not least J. M. W. Turner when he visited with his sketchbook in the 19th century.

Perhaps the most famous influence, though, was Alf Wight, better known as James Herriot, whose veterinary capers took millions of followers on a journey across the Yorkshire Dales both in his books and in the television series All Creatures Great and Small. Askrigg’s streets and pubs provided the film set for the fictional village of Darrowby. In fact, Ayrton’s house was the location of Siegfried Farnon’s practice, where the hero finds the bottles of Chlorodyne, Formalin, Salammoniac, Hexamine, Linimentum Album, Perchloride of Mercury, Colic Drench and Red Blister to apply on the local livestock.

He may sound like a Brazilian racing car driver — his mother named him after Senna — but Ayrton is a Yorkshireman through and through. Brought up near Barnsley, he joined Newton Rigg College at the age of 16, where he took a four-year placement at the famous Gunnerside estate, in Swaledale. Ayrton now works in the Leyburn branch of Gilsan Sports, which has been owned and run by Gilbert Fenwick for the past 28 years. Well-known to local keepers, pest controllers and shooters, the traditional gunshop provides carbines, cartridges and clobber to an area of England where fieldsports play an important social and economic role. This year is Gilbert’s last before he retires and hands the reins over to his son Simon.

“We’re selling more guns than ever this year,” said Ayrton. “They tend to be the leading makes — Beretta, Browning, Benelli and Miroku — while semi-autos are increasingly popular with keepers. It’s great to keep in touch with the local keepers. They all expect a coffee when they come in, so we’re inevitably always up-to-date with the news.”

One last shot

As we moved back to the vehicles, with plenty of rabbits for both the larder and the gamedealer, a black rabbit was munching quietly by a wall, no more than 40 yards from the lane. Its distinctive fur stood out prominently against the green field. Ayrton had unloaded, but he quickly felt inside his pocket for the magazine.

“I ought to, really,” he said. “If the farmer found out I’d passed up an opportunity like this, he’d not be happy.”

Resting the rifle on a wall by the lane, Ayrton took aim, as he had many times already that evening. As the rifle twitched, I waited for the thump of a successful shot, but instead the bunny leapt into the air as the bullet ploughed into the turf at its feet. Once back on all fours, it scrambled for the cover of the wall, untouched. Ayrton raised his eyebrows and then smiled ruefully. “Too low,” he confirmed. But perhaps the rabbit had proved that old saying true: “If you can’t be good, be lucky.”