Putting rabbit shooting advice into practice
The early spring bank holiday proves just the time to have a go at the bunnies once again and put some rabbit shooting advice into practice
In January, I whiled away the New Year’s Day bank holiday meandering through the woods in search of a rabbit. While it is always a joy to be out in the woods, the rabbits well and truly beat me that day, and I returned home without a single bunny in the bag. It was very disheartening and, in truth, it set me back for the rest of the season. I had several frustrating days thereafter.
Such was my frustration with the whole day, I took myself off to a nearby clay ground to practise on rabbits; I think I shot at 50 clays, all of them flinging along the ground and bouncing erratically. By the end of the day, I’d been consistently back in business.
On the first May bank holiday, when the sun finally seemed to put some warmth into the air, I decided I needed to try to put those rabbit demons to bed for good and planned for another bunny outing on May Day.
I set out to a different part of the estate to last time; open farmland criss-crossed with tracks and hedges, surrounding a 60-acre mature woodland. I knew this would be a likely hunting ground and might yield some results.
Early May has to be one of the most glorious times of the year. When I reached the woods, I was greeted by the sweet scent of blooming flowers and fresh foliage.
The explosion of life that erupts from the leaf-covered floor every spring makes you wonder where that life has been hiding through the long winter months. The trees, previously bare and stark, were adorned with vibrant leaves that rustled softly in the gentle breeze.
The carpet of lush green grass and wildflowers stretched out before me, each petal and blade illuminated by the dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy. Everything seemed to be hopeful, from the birds singing their merry tunes and the flower-laden hawthorn to the insects kicking up from the nettles and bluebells as I wandered through.
One of the farm tracks was bounded on either side by thick hedges and long, overgrown verges. They were thick with flowers; primroses, daffodils, cowslips and bluebells all vying for position, showing off their rich colours. I don’t think the track had been used by the farm for several years. The hedges hadn’t been cut and there was grass appearing out of the cracks in the old concrete.
I stood at one end of the tunnel-like track and, for a while, watched a muntjac wander quietly up the road towards me, taking its time to pick off a few juicy-looking flowers. It saw me when I moved and we had a momentary stand-off, staring at one another before, in a single bound, it disappeared into the hedge and away.
There and gone again
It wasn’t long before I saw the first rabbit, dashing from one foliage-clad haven on one side of the track to another on the other side. I didn’t take a shot; it was there and gone again in seconds.
I was put on high alert though, so when a second rabbit flashed on to the track just a moment later, I got a shot away and the rabbit rolled to a stop. I was off the mark and seemingly my practice had paid off.
Tom Payne kindly offered up some advice on how to shoot rabbits after my last outing and, reflecting on it, I’m sure he was right. His view was that often, rabbits are given too much lead and that actually they are travelling much slower than they appear. It’s logical when you think about it.
At full tilt, a pheasant could be travelling as fast as 60mph, whereas a rabbit would have to be really going some to top 40mph. Furthermore, when you shoot at a pheasant, it has normally had time to build some speed up, whereas a rabbit is usually going from a standing start. Tom suggested the best thing to do is just to aim for its nose, and I held this thought in my mind as I went on.
I pottered on down the track, keeping the dogs close to hand. I didn’t need them to be charging around in the undergrowth here; surprise was going to be a better weapon against the rabbits than a spaniel. It was one of the first outings for my young spaniel Jura. She was beside herself with excitement but did well to stay to heel and not dash off when rabbits appeared and gunshots went off. She even managed to keep herself contained when a fox appeared from around the corner.
The big dog fox, deep red in colour and in great condition, hunted its way along the track, perhaps after the same rabbits that I was. We accidentally created a pincer movement on an unsuspecting rabbit, as the fox startled a young one out of the long grass. It fled away from the fox up the track towards me and the fox set off in pursuit.
The rabbit was 30 yards from me, with the fox another 30 behind when I aimed at the rabbit’s nose and fired. The fox stopped in its tracks as the rabbit folded into the soft verge. It took the fox a few seconds to work out what was going on, before it disappeared without a trace into the hedge and on into the tall oilseed rape field behind.
The end of the track fizzled out into thick bramble and then woodland; it was a road to nowhere. I pushed my way through the hawthorn hedge and let the dogs go off exploring. A few pigeons flicked out of the woods to my left as I worked my way down the side of them. I tried to keep focus on the rabbits though and left the pigeons alone.
We worked our way around an old assault-course obstacle, a feature that had been in the farm landscape for several years and left as a hangover from when the estate hosted a mud run. The rabbits had taken over custody of the banks of earth around it and, where the security fence reached a hedge on the far side, a rabbit sat munching on a fresh spring flower. Millie was thrilled to retrieve it.
We eventually made our way up to the 60-acre wood. With the perimeter bounded on all sides by arable land, the rabbits find the wood a complete haven. I often go deerstalking in the woods, and without fail I see rabbits every time. I decided to follow a similar route to the one I use for stalking, taking the track that runs in a loop all the way around the woods, 20m or so in from the woodland edge.
Millie and Jura were beside themselves with excitement and off they charged, noses to the ground as I sent them away. Which one it was that came up trumps first I’m not sure, but a rabbit came galloping out of the bluebells and across the muddy track. I needed two shots to bring it to a standstill but importantly I had hit it. Jura was a little unsure about the retrieve, more intent on guarding it than bringing it to me, which she did after a lot of encouragement.
We had a couple more successes in a similar fashion, with the spaniels working well together to hunt out our targets. The bag gently climbed past seven as we completed our lap of the woods, and a quick out and back along another hedge line completed our afternoon with one more to add.
I felt exceptionally pleased with the outing. I had only missed a couple and connected with the rest. It felt very much like a bit of hard work and practice had paid off. Not overthinking it and trying hard not to over-lead them seemed to be the key. Aim for their nose and you won’t go too far wrong. It was a lesson well learned for next time and a spring bank holiday well spent.