THE HUNTER’S WAY

Ed­die Jones shares his knowl­edge about the air­gun­ner’s num­ber one quarry

Air Gunner - - Contents -

Want to im­prove your hunt­ing skills? Ed­die Jones is here to help as he re­veals the se­crets of wild rab­bits

Now spring is upon us, it is time to talk about the one pest that most air­gun hunters will en­counter. The wild rab­bit is more com­monly known as the ‘ Euro­pean rab­bit’ and orig­i­nates from warmer cli­mates like France, Spain and Por­tu­gal. The rab­bit was in­tro­duced to Eng­land in the 12th cen­tury AD by the Nor­mans and kept in cap­tiv­ity in war­rens as a source of meat and fur, but we know what hap­pens to most an­i­mals that are kept in cap­tiv­ity, many es­cape and start to pop­u­late ar­eas pretty quickly. The rab­bit has been per­se­cuted from the minute it started to get a hold of the land­scape. Farm crops and even grass fields can be­come dec­i­mated if the pop­u­la­tion of rab­bits is high enough.

HELP!

I can re­mem­ber get­ting a call from a dairy farmer, many years ago. He was at his wit’s end be­cause the rab­bits were eat­ing more grass than his cows, and when he showed me around the ground I couldn’t be­lieve the num­ber of rab­bits I was see­ing – wave af­ter wave of brown fur ran into the wood­land as we got closer to them. I was in heaven; this was a dream for me. The first three months of shoot­ing this ground with the help of a friend re­sulted in over 2000 rab­bits shot. It was a re­mark­able achieve­ment back then, and one mem­ory I will take with me un­til the end. I still shoot the ground now, af­ter 25 years, and on a good night with a ther­mal spot­ter I will see around 40 rab­bits. This is now a healthy pop­u­la­tion to man­age and take the odd one for the pot, but as soon as sum­mer ar­rives, I know I will have to have one or two se­ri­ous out­ings to make, to keep the lev­els down af­ter the breed­ing sea­son.

LIV­ING UN­DER­GROUND

The rab­bit is well known for dig­ging many con­nect­ing bur­rows that form a war­ren. This is where they spend most of its time when not feed­ing, and in win­ter they will spend most of their time be­low ground un­less they are in wood­land, where you may see the odd rab­bit mov­ing about. This is when lamp­ing with the aid of a torch, or night-vi­sion de­vices, comes into its own. With­out doubt, lamp­ing is the best way to get good num­bers

of rab­bits if the farmer is pres­sur­ing you to con­trol them pretty dras­ti­cally. They’ll have up to seven young at any one time, which are al­tri­cial – born blind and fur­less, and to­tally de­pen­dent upon the mother. The doe will usu­ally give birth in a fur-lined nest in the war­ren nest­ing cham­ber, but if there are more dom­i­nant fe­males about, you will find a doe mak­ing a sin­gle- en­trance cham­ber away from the main war­ren to have her lit­ter. I have seen this a few times as I’ve walked around the fields. Some­times, you will see where a badger has dug down and killed the ba­bies, and no other signs of a war­ren are ap­par­ent.

RECORD RAB­BIT

An adult rab­bit can mea­sure 40 cen­time­tres in length, and weigh be­tween 2½ – 4½lbs. The hind foot mea­sures 8.5 –10 cen­time­tres in length, whilst the ears are 6.5–7.5 cen­time­tres long from the base to the tip. Size and weight varies ac­cord­ing to food and habi­tat qual­ity, so rab­bits liv­ing on light soil with noth­ing but grass to feed on will be no­tice­ably smaller than spec­i­mens liv­ing on highly cul­ti­vated farm­lands with plenty of roots and clover; one large spec­i­men, caught in Fe­bru­ary 1890, not far from where I live in Lich­field, was weighed at 2.8 kilo­grams (6lb 2oz). The fur of the rab­bit is gen­er­ally grey­ish- brown, but I have shot rab­bits that look gin­ger, and black ones too. This change of colour is al­most cer­tainly a mixed breed­ing of a wild rab­bit and an es­caped pet.

Moult­ing oc­curs once a year, be­gin­ning in March on the face and spread­ing over the back. The un­der-fur is com­pletely re­placed by Oc­to­ber/ No­vem­ber. You can see why they were re­garded as a valu­able meat source,

“The rab­bit rarely strays far from its bur­row; it typ­i­cally only moves 30- 40 me­tres away”

and it would not take many skins to knock up some warm clothes.

BREED­ING SUC­CESS

Rab­bits live in war­rens that con­tain from 4 to 10 other in­di­vid­u­als, to en­sure greater breed­ing suc­cess. The rab­bit is very ter­ri­to­rial and will stick to one area, and for this rea­son in sum­mer months, I get out into the field in front of the war­ren and shoot the rab­bits as they come out to feed. I use a small blind that I made, and it is a very suc­cess­ful way to bag a few on warm evenings. The rab­bit rarely strays far from its bur­row; it typ­i­cally only moves 30- 40 me­tres away – un­less there is bet­ter food com­ing through in neigh­bour­ing fields. A lot of grounds might have some sort of preda­tor con­trol, and this can also de­ter­mine how far a rab­bit will ven­ture away from its war­ren. If there is a smaller risk of be­ing caught by a fox or badger, it will go fur­ther out into the fields.

Many of you who shoot rab­bits will have heard of myx­o­mato­sis. This dis­ease was first in­tro­duced in Aus­tralia, and the virus was field-tested for pop­u­la­tion con­trol in 1938. A full-scale re­lease was per­formed in 1950 and it was dev­as­tat­ingly ef­fec­tive, re­duc­ing the es­ti­mated rab­bit pop­u­la­tion from 600 mil­lion to 100 mil­lion in two years. That is some drop in pop­u­la­tion! Thank­fully, re­leas­ing in­fected rab­bits to virus-free grounds is now banned in the UK. At first, the dis­ease is usu­ally vis­i­ble by lumps and puffi­ness around the head and gen­i­tals. It might progress to acute con­junc­tivi­tis, which I have seen many times in the past, and this also can be the first vis­i­ble symp­tom of the dis­ease. The rab­bits be­come list­less, lose ap­petite, and de­velop a fever. Se­condary bac­te­rial in­fec­tions oc­cur in most cases, which cause pneu­mo­nia and in­flam­ma­tion of the lungs. In cases where the rab­bit has lit­tle or no re­sis­tance, death may take place rapidly, of­ten in as lit­tle as 48 hours, but most cases re­sult in death within 14 days. Re­sis­tance has been in­creas­ing slowly since the 1970s, but the dis­ease still kills about 50% of in­fected rab­bits. It is a hor­ri­ble sight and see­ing a rab­bit suf­fer­ing be­cause of the ef­fects still up­sets me to this day.

MORE SHOTS

So, there’s a lit­tle bit of in­for­ma­tion about the rab­bit and how this re­mark­able mam­mal has sur­vived to be­come one of the big­gest pests that we have to con­trol to­day. I use sev­eral meth­ods of con­trol­ling rab­bits with the air ri­fle, in­clud­ing shoot­ing them from be­hind a blind, stalk­ing, and at night with the aid of torch and night-vi­sion gear. I hope these fea­tures will help you to get some ex­tra shots off, and bag a few for the pot. Next month, I will be show­ing you how ef­fec­tive shoot­ing be­hind the blind can be, and mak­ing the most of the warm sum­mer evenings – if we get any sum­mer, that is.

Be­hind my home-made ‘blind’ i’m al­most in­vis­i­ble

Rab­bits won’t stray far from their war­ren

Make use of any cover to break up your out­line

Young rab­bits are of­ten less wary but still le­git­i­mate quarry

Here we see the signs of myx­o­mato­sis

This shows just how good cam­ou­flage can be High- qual­ity ‘lamps’ like this are quite su­perb I use night vi­sion when the rab­bit num­bers are re­ally high

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