Charlie Portlock makes the real connection with the food on our plates and where it comes from
Charlie sets out to educate the masses on food - from field to plate, and everything between
There’s a missing link somewhere and it’s not hard to find. In fact, the modern food chain is chock full of them. I’m not always fascinated by the answers children give when questioned on the source of their food. For very young children I accept that water comes from the ‘ tap’ and food comes from mummy. However, for those over the age of eight or so there should be some concept of the journey that all of our food takes to reach the kitchen. For those fortunate enough to have a vegetable garden or access to an allotment, these places can quickly ground and connect children with the process of growing food and most children can tell you that milk comes from cows and eggs come from chickens (or vice versa ...). However, many struggle to associate meat with the cute little animals they read about in many children’s books.
Adults are often no different in this regard and I’ve recently had the pleasure of introducing people to the process of game preparation on some of my courses. For the majority of those who I’ve worked with so far, handling a dead animal is a bit daunting, but I’m continually reminded of how profound an experience it is for people; for all of us really, but especially for grown men and women who’ve eaten meat their whole lives, but never had the chance to handle a carcass in fur or feather. Not everybody wants to dirty their hands, but people seem compelled and fascinated by the ancient and humbling process of transforming an animal into the dressed and jointed product that eventually resembles the cellophane- clad offers seen on supermarket shelves.
I had six clients booked for the following day, there were no rabbits at the local game dealer, and I needed to bag a couple to ensure that my visitors had the chance to field dress them and take them home for the freezer. It’s been a while since I’ve been out shooting with a sense of urgency and I didn’t want to miss because I’d be letting people down.
On a recent walk I spotted a very active warren beneath and around the fence of a pheasant release pen. There were plenty of fresh scrapes and signs so I made a note to revisit the place with the rifle at a later date. I don’t like to overshoot a warren. I’m not a pest controller or crop guardian, but a simple pot hunter and as there are seldom more than 10 individuals per territory, so taking more than two at a time is unnecessary and counterproductive. I’d rather shoot elsewhere or eat something else than annihilate an entire community for the freezer.
With the prevalence of airgun gear it’s easy to head out a bit overloaded with kit, so partly due to the clammy weather and partly out of a desire for simplicity, I set out with just the pellet pouch, knife and rifle. I even left the face mask behind. This minimalist approach feels considerably more fluid and enjoyable than taking my usual 30-litre pack with head-torch, plastic bags, water canteen medical kit etc, but as I was only going out for a simple summer stalk I didn’t need any of these extras. In addition, I nearly always take binoculars when shooting rabbits because they’re invaluable in spotting animals in light cover and shadow along fence-lines and hedgerows. However, in this instance my rifle scope, although more cumbersome to raise, was adequate in this role.
One of the many joys to be found in our elusive summers is when it becomes light enough to step out into the cooling day for an evening’s shooting. When the weather’s been fine and warm all afternoon, the air hums slightly as it stills, and the birds provide a gentle chorus to beckon a farflung dusk. There are many beautiful places in the world, but there’s nothing quite like the evening of an English summer.
I left the house at around 7.30pm, and began my walk down to some of the rolling parkland that makes up one of the more scenic portions of my permission. Open parkland itself might not be awash with warrens, but it provides the perfect counterpoint to the woodland and hedgerows where rabbits normally make their homes; the places between habitats with plenty of grazing, cover and an open line of sight.
After, taking a possibly overcautious detour to avoid some protective cows and young calves, I emerged at the top of a 50-foot bank sweating and out of breath – I still haven’t found any lightweight, summer stalking gear that I like. I’ve been charged twice before, and once had to re- enact Withnail and I in order to repel a herd on the North Downs Way. Not my proudest moment and I’m still wary.
The front release pen faced west over the park and as I approached from the direction of the setting sun, I needed to be vigilant that my long shadow did not move too quickly across the open ground in front of the warren. I kept low and made use of the many trees to absorb it, pausing to scan the fence-line as I reached each one. After I’d spotted two rabbits feeding at about ten yards from the fence, I was able to move quite quickly, keeping the tree trunks between me and my quarry.
As I came to within about 50 yards I ran out of trees to use for cover and I knew that I’d have to hug the earth in order to come within range. Lying on your belly completely changes the landscape and as I came to earth, my target animal disappeared behind a gently undulating piece of ground. The grass was lush, but dry and leaf strewn, and although I felt confident that I could stalk in unobserved, it would be more challenging to do so unheard. With this in mind, I began to wish for the rangefinder that I’d left at home, but by using the two-yard fence posts as markers, I ranged the first animal at 55 yards and belly- crawled the slow 20 over open ground to take a solid headshot from prone.
The second animal moved a few yards closer to the warren, but was unsure of the direction of the danger and froze, so I paused for a few minutes to see if it would continue feeding. When it remained alert and motionless, I reloaded – never easy lying face down with a springer – and closed the range to 30 yards. At this point I almost edged closer, but was worried that the buck would bolt at some rustling twig, so I took my shot and then stood up to retrieve my
two kills. The first animal, a young doe, had been completely unaware of any threat and had died with grass in her mouth. The second was highly alert and took a long time to cease post-mortem movement. I’ve heard it said that this phenomenon is more common in young rabbits, but this was an old buck, large with yellow teeth, and it was just as energetic as any I’ve seen. The duration and intensity of this display is more likely a reflection of the animal’s state of alert than its age because its nervous system attempts to carry out its flight response. An interesting, if somewhat macabre topic for future study.
A gentle reminder?
For many of us in the airgunning community, paunching, hocking and field dressing a rabbit is a part of life, but it’s worth remembering how unusual this is; as hunters we’re privileged to be able to witness the full circle of life, but our society doesn’t like to speak about death in any context and would seemingly like to ignore its existence. Whether you think it’s right to shield children from the morbid truths of reality, or not, it can’t be denied that eventually, children grow up and if society won’t teach them, then who will? For life to flourish anywhere there must be death, decay and regeneration. So many people are unaware of this, particularly within the context of the food chain and as hunters we have the chance to remind them. This may be the gifting of a rabbit to somebody at the local pub; it could be inviting a non-shooting friend out for an evening with the rifle, or it might be taking your son or daughter along with you for the very first time. We should remember that there are very few of us now who are fortunate enough to witness and facilitate this process, and so many people have forgotten how to do it. Perhaps this summer will provide us with a chance to remind them. Best of luck on the field. Charlie.
The trees were useful when concealing my approach
I lay down to move in closer as there was cover to hide me Two for somebody else’s’ pot People have been fascinated by game prep (photo by Paul Blakemore) Main Image: These fence posts were two yards apart so a useful measure A satisfying result and the food I needed