It was nearing seven oclock by the time the juniors had vacated the pitches of the Nailsea & Backwell Rugby Club near Bristol, leaving the coast clear for the rabbits to re-emerge from the hedges. Soon these voracious nibblers were back out in the open to fill their bellies on the choice shoots that were thriving in the sunshine and showers of mid-May.
The main pitch in front of the clubs smart pavilion bore the pockmarks of rabbits at play. One particularly deep scrape on the halfway line, which was littered with telltale droppings, could easily cause a player to fall or twist an ankle. The rabbits had progressed from being a nuisance to a serious problem. It was time to call in a specialist.
Mike Stockwell is involved in restoring houses for most of the day, but as the afternoon passes through into the evening his mind turns to his passion for airguns. He caught the airgunning bug as a teenager and, 20 years on, he now counts himself as an incurable addict. Dressed from head to toe in camouflage, he would have clashed with the shorts, rugby shirts and tracksuits that usually charge across these pitches, but for the remaining two hours before the light failed, the arena belonged to him alone.
I spend a lot of my time clearing fields for farmers and equestrian landowners, he explained, filling the 10-pellet magazine on his Air Arms S410K .22 air rifle. The floating barrel and pre-charged pneumatic cylinder had been neatly stickered with camouflage tape to break up the surface but the pristine walnut stock remained uncovered. Rabbits are also quick to colonise more urban places such as this rugby club, so you can find yourself operating in some interesting locations, Mike continued.
The rifle was fitted with Nikko 4-12×50 sights, with a mill dot range to allow accurate estimations of distance, as well as a Weihrauch sound moderator to dampen the noise of the muzzel blast from the short barrel. Mike favours the Air Arms range of pellets, in particular the Diabolo field domed pellets. The round head seems to fly consistently and accurately, he explained, while the soft lead flattens well on impact, delivering a clean kill. It is a case of trying as many as possible until you find a pellet that works well with your rifle.
Confidence in your equipment is vitally important, according to Mike. He spends hours testing and honing his kit and skills to ensure that the pellet goes exactly where he aims. You must never take chances when shooting a live animal. Airgunners cannot rely on power, only on accuracy. It is no use simply aiming at the head you must be aiming to hit a tiny area on the head that will kill the animal as quickly as possible. I aim for between the ear and the eye. If I am not feeling confident that I will hit that target, I dont pull the trigger.
Earlier, he had shown off his prized Crossman Outdoorsman 2250XE rat-buster with a skeleton beech stock, which he uses to tackle rodents in local grain barns. Powered by CO² bottles, which can be replaced at 30p a throw, the dinky gun can fire 30 pellets before it needs a new bottle. It is such a smooth operator, he said, fondly. You can set yourself up with a night sight and keep knocking them over stone dead.
Mike is not a professional rabbit killer in so far as he does not charge for his pest control services, but the money he raises from selling gutted rabbits to a local butcher or a gamedealer on bonanza days more than pays for his fuel. It would be better if it was £2.50 a pop, he added. Then there would be bonus vouchers.
The rabbits attack the rugby pitches from the pasture fields that extend behind the pavilion, so that is the best place to stem their tide. It is a reliable destination known locally as rabbit alley and it is easy to see why. The cattle field where it lies is shaped like a funnel, which tapers down to a narrow strip about 20 yards wide between two hedges at the base. The result is a 150-yard by 20-yard channel of lush grass, protected on three sides by hawthorn and blackthorn hedges, which gives the resident rabbits cover, shelter and a glut of food.
Away from the open spaces of the rugby pitches, Mikes camouflage began to make more sense. He had covered his face and ears with a camouflage snood, which completed the illusion that he was no longer a man but a walking tree. Though the rabbits are used to dog walkers taking their pets for exercise along the footpath, their sense of survival allows them quickly to differentiate between friendly passerby and sinister foe. At the first sign of danger, their ears go up and they scurry back to the cover of the long grass or into a nearby warren.
Sometimes, however, fright overrules flight. Instead of obeying the brains call to run for safety, the rabbit freezes and it sinks low to the ground in the hope that it has not been seen. This may work better than we think. After all, we cannot count the rabbits that we dont see. If spotted, however, the bunny becomes a sitting duck.
Mike leaned over the stile into rabbit alley and peered down the hedgeline for signs of life. Five rabbits were feeding at the other end, 130 yards away and well out of range. He ignored them, concentrating instead on the young rabbit only 20 yards away in the grass that had chosen to flatten itself rather than raise the alarm. If survival is about the fittest, then this bunny had no place in the gene pool.
Noiselessly, Mike lifted the stock of his .22 rifle to his cheek, pressing the safety catch in a fluid movement. He crept into position, bringing the crosshairs down to the base of an ear that was pushed back on the rabbits back. He pulled the trigger. There was a quiet whoosh of air and a thwack as the pellet hit home. The rabbit wriggled on the ground for five seconds and then lay still. Further up the alley, the other bunnies bolted for safety. Hes not a big fella, said Mike, lifting the rabbit up by the back legs, But hell be mighty tasty. Lets go and see if we can find his friends.