Rabbits present a serious threat to both agriculture and the environment. But they can also offer great summer sport, which is accessible, inexpensive and – if you stalk them with an airgun – is seriously challenging. MICK NELSON gives a beginners’ guide to gunning for bunnies.
A question I often get asked at the shows is “How do I get my first rabbit?” It’s the sort of question that needs far more explaining than simply telling someone to get up to a local farm. Usually, it turns out that the person asking already has some land, but for some reason or other, every outing has produced a big fat zero!
Trying to pin one particular reason down, though, is very difficult. Without actually following the guy, or girl, around, I thought I’d lay out a few vital tips and let you follow along with me, on one of my recent forays to show you how it’s done.
Using an airgun to hunt rabbits is an important method to help the landowner keep his pest population down and, if you’re successful, you get a free meal out of it too!
So, going right back to basics, let’s see what sort of kit you’ll need – and this is before you even venture out on your first real rabbit raid. Remember, this is just skimming the basics, a lot of these items are worth a page or two in their own right, and we’ll hopefully go over these in future articles.
First get your gun
Obviously, you’re going to need a rifle, not a pistol. Hunting should never be attempted with any air pistol as they simply do not have the power, or accuracy, for hunting work. So, what sort of rifle do you need?
There are plenty of good hunting rifles on the market that’ll be more than adequate, but, putting it simply, it comes down to basically two types.
• Recoiling rifles
These are powered by an internal spring that you compress by either cocking the action via a break-barrel, underlever or sidelever
• Precharged pneumatics
which run on compressed air and are totally recoilless when you fire them.
There’s pros and cons for both types but for our purposes today, all I’ll say is that you’ll need a rifle that’s got a maximum power output of 11.5 ft lbs. These rifles are available without a licence, but bear in mind the current laws of the land.
However, from the age of 14 you can shoot an airgun on your own, and without adult supervision, provided you are on private land and have the consent of the landowner. You’ll find the law explained, along with official advice on safety and security, here: https://basc.org.uk/firearms/airgun-guidance-and-fact-sheets/
What calibre do you use? An old adage used to go “Use .177 for feather and a .22 for fur” and although this is good advice, it’s not gospel. A well-placed shot, in any calibre, will result in a clean, humane kill. Again this debate has been going on since the dawn of airgunning so, my advice? Opt for your own personal choice and learn to use that properly. Now, having said that, there are times when one calibre may be better than the other, but I’ve found that with rabbits, a good head shot with any size pellet will humanely kill the coney.
Once you’ve got your rifle, you’re going to need a scope. For any type of hunting work, I honestly believe in the use of a decent set of optics. Telescopic sights comes in all sizes; but for hunting, I’d advise something in the range of a 3-9 magnification setting. This gives you the best compromise and versatility in that you can use the lower magnifications in dull light conditions, as this allows more light to reach your shooting eye, or due to the wider field of view the lower end gives you, you can check out the ground ahead for possible prey.
Once you’ve located your quarry, then it’s only a matter of moments to zoom up to a useful 9x magnification which makes the actual taking of the shot so much easier.
Pellets are also a top priority. It’s no good just shoving in any bit of old lead. Quality ammo is essential. After all, at the end of the day you want the best accuracy you can get. Essentially, although there’s plenty of specialist ammo around, you simply cannot beat a standard dome-head type pellet for both accuracy, and efficiency, in the field. Again, pellets are a separate article on their own – the basic rule though is buy a well-known brand that’s got a good reputation.
The right gear
And finally, your clothing. I honestly believe that wearing the right gear helps my hunting. Whether I’m stalking, using a hide or practising, I always wear my cammo. The reason is that I get used to moving and shooting in one set of clothes.
The idea behind wearing cammo, as opposed to your jeans and T-shirt, is to break-up your outline so your general shape cannot be seen by the rabbits. All you’ve got to do then, theoretically of course, is to move really slowly until you’re within range of them. On paper this sounds so easy, but in practice one little mistake in your approach and you’ve lost the shot.
To be honest, because of the closer ranges you’re working at, I’d rather stalk a deer than a rabbit. And, if you are a deerstalker, then practising on rabbits will certainly hone-your stalking skills.
What kit will you need
Rabbits prefer a drier, more sandy type of ground to heavy, damp clay, and it’s not long before a rabbit warren on a farm can start to make its presence felt by the landowner.
Rabbits are a nationwide countryside pest. They do untold damage to crops, fields and threaten livestock with their digging. They can be found almost anywhere where there’s a supply of nice, edible fodder – including golf courses! So finding somewhere where there are rabbits is relatively easy – it’s the potting them that’s hard.
Mick describes a typical stalk.
OK, you’ve got your rifle and other assorted equipment ready, your land’s ready so what’s the first thing you do? It may seem obvious but I always check that my rifle/scope combo is perfectly accurate before I set out on a stalk.
When approaching your prey, you should head into any breeze so that your scent is carried away from the rabbits, and this will also help drift away any small sounds you make – after all rabbits have big ears for a reason! Your movements must be slower than slow, especially on the final approach. You should never attempt to shoot a rabbit that’s more than 35 metres away, and only then with a headshot that will kill cleanly.
If you look at the map below, I’ve sketched out a recent foray for you, and I’ll take you through a typical day out from the moment I left my Jeep at the farm buildings to when I potted my first rabbit.
As you can see, the breeze was blowing from my left as I entered the woods. However, even though I was working my way towards the edge of the woods, I still stalked slowly through the undergrowth. It’s no good wandering through the woods, sending birds flying and branches breaking, because when you do get to your fields, that’s all you’ll find there – just the fields. You need to take every step as if it is the final one of your approach – silently, slowly and carefully.
As I got near the end of the woods, I used my scope to check out the fields. At the top, there’s a rabbit-run through the hedge and rabbits quite often come into this field for a feast. Spotting a couple, I checked for wind direction and realised that the only way I could approach unseen into the wind was by working my way down through the woods and then along the wrong side of the bank.
The woods posed no problem to me but when I had to come out of the woods, I had to do it on all fours. Wanting to keep as low a profile as possible, I had to keep my body below the level of the bank. Unfortunately, this meant getting lower as I moved away from the bank towards the short bushes.
This is what stalking is all about, there’s been many a time I’ve spent ages stalking a rabbit and maybe missed the shot or something else has spooked the rabbit before I could draw a bead on him. But, it’s the taking part that counts. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you finally arrive some 30 metres from a wild animal and it’s been all your effort that’s rewarded you.
This time though, I had the added urge that I was hungry and fancied some fried rabbit meat for my supper. Being hungry certainly makes you take more care. Moving as slowly as possible, at one stage I took over ten minutes to cross ten metres of open ground, I finally slipped into the relative cover of the bushes.
Even then, it’s not a done deal. Raising your rifle too fast can easily spook your prey so everything has to be done in absolute slo-mo. Sitting there at 30 metres from my position; the rabbit was totally unaware that he was gobbling the last of his grass.
And a well-placed pellet dropped him like a stone. A successful stalk does not always produce a result – but my belly would be glad this particular one had!
What it takes to bag that bunny…
Always stalk slowly and silently.
Be ready to crawl at the final approach.
Make maximum use of cover.
Raise the rifle in slow motion.