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First stalk of the spring – pest control with air rifles

Richard Saunders finally manages to put away his winter gear and heads out for the first stalk of the spring

Personally, I find winter hunting more successful. A flick through my diary shows that to be the case too, whether it’s rats on a farm, squirrels from a hide or rabbits at night.

However, nothing epitomises the joy of air rifle hunting more than stalking the hedgerows in spring and summer. Perhaps that’s why people say “it’s just nice to be outside” when they draw a blank.

I’m fortunate to have a great rabbit shooting permission that can produce bags of 20 or more a night throughout the winter when I’m using an FAC-powered rifle and night vision equipment.

The farmer thinks that’s great. To him, every rabbit shot is money gained on the bottom line.

However, for reasons he’ll probably never understand, I find it more rewarding and exhilarating when I manage to stalk a single rabbit and execute a clean kill with a sub-12 ft-lb rifle. Pitting your bushcraft and lessons learned from previous failures against a wild animal that has evolved over thousands of years is the ultimate test.

The clocks going forward is the trigger for me to pack away most of my winter gear – heavy thermal boots, thick coats and the like – and break out the spring/summer stalking equipment.

Carrying a small air bottle means you’ll never get caught out, especially if using a lightweight hunting rifle like the Brocock Ranger XR

Of course, you can use just about any rifle to creep about the hedgerows, but I’ve been waiting all winter to try out my .177 Brocock Ranger XR – a super-light and compact rifle that’s designed to be carried mile after mile.

Over the winter I’ve used it for shooting squirrels from a hide and found that despite its diminutive 23 inch overall length and five-and-a-half pounds in weight, it packs a real legal-limit punch. And despite a barrel of just over 10 inches, it’s accurate too. (Read more here for advice on how to build your own hide and why location for your hide is so important).

For some, the downside is that the Ranger XR’s tiny dimensions compromise its shot capacity. I can just about wring out 40 shots. That would be hopeless on the range, but for hunting, which after all is what this rifle was built for, it’s perfect. (Read a guide to the basics of airgun hunting here). 

Having practised out to 40 metres on the range, I was more than confident of using it to kick off my summer rabbit stalking campaign. Zeroed at 30 metres, the point of aim is the same at 20 metres, and requires just a mildot of holdover over at 40.

My first hunting opportunity came a few days after the clocks changed. I arrived at the farm in the late afternoon. The hunting deities were obliging as the sky was a deep blue and the sun shone brightly. The breeze was just strong enough to help me plan the direction of my stalk, but not interfere with any shots.

This kind of hunting often results in only a single opportunity, so I used a target to check my zero before setting out, happy to use up some of the Ranger XR’s shot capacity as I’d bought a 1.5 litre air bottle for a top-up. (Learn more here about how to zero an air rifle

With the zero confirmed and confident that a miss would purely be down to me, I set off.

Before you head off, check the wind direction and plan your stalk to ensure the wind is in your face

Several years ago, the farmer created a long bank with his bulldozer. I always hoped it would be colonised by rabbits, and when I scanned the area through my binoculars I was relieved to see a couple of brown bumps sunning themselves at the foot of it.

The breeze was in my favour as I made my way towards them. The farmer keeps reindeer in an enclosure, and by walking down its edge I hoped the rabbits would dismiss me as another of Rudolph’s pals.

Stopping occasionally to check the rabbits were still in situ, I progressed slowly along the fence line. At the end, just before the bank, was a small open area created by a return on the enclosure.

It was very tempting to just cut the corner to get to the rabbits more quickly, but common sense prevailed and I continued to follow the fence, exploiting the cover as much as I could.

It worked, because the next binocular check showed the rabbits were still there. However, one of them was standing erect.

The breeze was still blowing towards me, so I knew that it had either seen me or used some other rabbity super-sense. Either way, moving on would spook the rabbit and he’d take his buddy with him.

So, we stood for 10 minutes in a David and Goliath kind of stand-off. Eventually the rabbit decided the coast was clear and resumed feeding. Over the years I’ve found it best to wait another few minutes, so I remained standing still until the rabbit hopped to a fresh area of grass.

By now I had probably covered about 200 metres and still had another 50 or 60 before the rabbits were in range of the 12 ft-lb Ranger XR. Traffic on a busy road provided plenty of background noise and the wind was still in my face, so I felt confident the odds were in my favour. I just had to take my time and avoid any sudden movements.

As I closed in, I risked checking the distance with my rangefinder. Keeping it in a side pocket means having to change your outline when you need to get it out, so I carry mine in the pouch at the front of my fleece. It means I can bring it to my eye and conceal any movement against my body.

Forty-seven metres. Too far for me to feel comfortable taking a shot and I judged I needed another 30 steps – short stalking steps, not full yard-long paces.

Conscious I was at the critical stage of the stalk when any mistake would give me away, I inched forward, counting my stalking steps and freezing whenever the body language of either of the rabbits gave me reason to. I scanned the ground immediately in front of me, mentally setting goals to reach a certain stick or piece of bramble.

I stopped when I reached a small patch of thick grass that was relatively clear of leaves and anything else that could make a noise. Resisting the urge to use the rangefinder, I was confident that I was now a little over 30 metres away.

Richard carries his rangefinder in a front pouch pocket because it’s easier to access without having to alter his profile too much

The next part was the trickiest. A freehand shot risked missing or injuring the rabbit. I had to transition from standing to sitting – a procedure that has spooked more rabbits than I care to remember.

Fortunately, the rabbits turned away at the same time, their attention taken by some weeds.

As a result, I was able to drop into position without startling my quarry. However, when I looked through the scope, all I could see was a pair of brown backsides.

I waited for one of them to lift its head and, running out of patience, resorted to clicking my tongue to catch their attention. Although I could see their ears rotate slightly, they refused to move.

Just then a particularly loud motorbike screamed in the distance. The noise was loud enough and sufficiently different to the constant hum of traffic to do the trick for me. I settled the SWAT Atom’s reticle on the nearest rabbit and, holding my breath for a split second, squeezed the trigger.

The rabbit slumped forward, the .177 pellet finding its mark in the back of its head. It rolled on to its side and through the scope I could see its back legs stretch out and its toes splay.

It didn’t take the rabbits long to colonise the bank that had been thrown up by the farmer

Unsurprisingly, the other rabbit had disappeared, or so I thought. I was just about to get up and collect my prize when it hopped back out of the long grass. It was clearly agitated, desperately looking around and trying to work out what was going on.

Out of habit I’d cycled the Ranger XR’s sidelever immediately after taking my shot. Now, still sitting down, it was a simple case of knocking the safety catch off and adjusting my aim slightly to the right.

The rabbit was frozen in profile, and I was able to drop it neatly with another clean head shot. The whole stalk had taken me a little over an hour. I just hope it’s a sign of what’s to come.