Wait and watch, look and learn, to understand your quarry, says Charlie
Charlie Portlock tells us we can learn so much from watching our quarry
I was standing by my kitchen window recently when I saw something quite rare. It was a summer’s evening a few weeks ago, and the greenery had just begun to re- emerge beneath a brown carpet of grass, and the glorious monotony of that heatwave had finally been broken. The rabbits, too, had felt the turn of the tide because they were noticeably more active in the evenings. As I stood there, I saw a rabbit bolt 10 yards and then stop just before cover. Something had spooked it, but bizarrely for a rabbit, it returned to grazing its immediate vicinity within about 20 seconds, hopping out another five yards or so fairly carelessly. It wasn’t playing.
A few seconds later it bolted, pausing in the same place as before only to repeat the process, never returning to heavier cover. Perhaps all that sun had got to it. After watching this odd behaviour for a minute or two, I twigged that I might not have been paying as much attention to the ground as I should have been, and it was only after searching the opposing undergrowth with my binoculars, that I spied the source of it.
The stoat was about 10-12 yards from the warren and was only visible for short periods of time as it dashed in and out of cover, leaving up to three minutes between appearances. It then ran three circles around a cherry tree, stopped, flipped upon its back and writhed on the ground with great enthusiasm, its body arching into impossibly strange positions before disappearing once again. The rabbit and I looked on in bewilderment until a small brown streak made a dash in the ruminant’s direction and both animals disappeared from sight. I heard the unmistakable cries of a rabbit in profound pain and distress and soon the sound had died, presumably along with the rabbit.
The stoat’s unusual display behaviour, known as ‘ the dance’ is also performed by excited ferrets, but nobody seems to be quite sure why they do it. Common consensus is that it ‘mesmerises’ the rabbit. This sounds a bit mystical. Far more likely that the rabbit becomes accustomed to the stoat’s presence,
“The rabbits, too, had felt the turn of the tide because they were noticeably more active in the evenings”
but doesn’t identify it as a threat from its movements. It’s confused; ‘ What’s this strange squirrel doing? If it were going to eat me it would have tried by now.’ The disguised stoat gradually moves within range and then goes in for the kill.
It’s yet another reminder of how amazing wildlife is and how much it has to teach us. I’m not suggesting that we attempt a waltz with squirrels - – although who knows? – but there’s a great deal that hunters can learn from observing animals, and not just the predatory ones. So ,what can other wildlife teach us about the hunt?
More than half of hunting is waiting. It would be easy to assume that all natural mammalian predators show great patience, and that we can learn from their powers of restraint and a supposed zen- like state of calm before the kill. I suspect that this would be nonsense, though – each animal will have its own inherited and learned characteristics that will determine how it behaves in the field, and prey species have genetically adapted to exploit these behaviours. If a rabbit finds a fox stalking a hedgerow, it will disappear into cover. Both animals can ill afford to spend too long in flight, or in patient pursuit, because there are calories to be had and the clock is ticking. The fox can’t afford to hang about once its heard the customary thump because the warren is on alert and it’s time to move on. The rabbit may consciously know this, it may just instinctively know it, but the effect is the same; the fox will retire in search of prey
that it can catch unawares.
The lesson here comes not from the fox, but from the rabbit. They’re masters of the wait. Unlike squirrels, whose ability to climb trees could make them less wary of terrestrial threats, rabbits can disappear for a very long time once spooked. I’ve watched them sit motionless for more than 30 minutes, before becoming bored and heading off into the dusk in frustration. They don’t feed when alerted because the sound of their jaws working would mask the approach of danger. They just wait and they’ve learned through the observation of their elders that waiting works. The trick is in finding the balance between safety and risk. The fearless hungry rarely survive.
I’m no good at waiting, but it’s a fine challenge. Having a friendly piece of foam beneath you and your back against a receptive oak is a good position from which to practise. Start with 10 minutes and see if you can manage it. My record is 43 minutes, but I was stiff and annoyed by the end of it. The advantage of doing this every so often, though, is that lesser waits won’t faze you. I now think little of taking 20 minutes to enjoy the sensory world of the woodlands and fields whilst waiting for quarry to emerge. Even if you don’t see it, you’ll likely discover something else about the world or yourself in those 20 minutes of stillness. However, it’s very hard to wait unless you know what to expect. Comfort is key, and as long as you’re comfortable, with the rifle within easy reach, you’ll find that your results improve exponentially when next stalking or ambushing because you’re conditioning your mind and body for a worst case scenario.
As a visually dominant, binocular species, we probably overestimate the importance of our sense of sight, both in our own lives and in the lives of animals. Unlike humans, most mammals have two distinct and segregated olfactory systems, whereas we only have one. Dogs have over 170cm2 of olfactory neurons to our 10cm2 and they’re much more densely packed. In short, we’re way too worried about what we look like, and one of the main reasons that we never seem to be able to surprise our prey is that we stink and we’re not paying enough attention to the wind.
If you’ve ever come around a corner to surprise a dog, deer or rabbit at close range then you’ve almost certainly had the wind in your favour – blowing toward you, if at all. In woodland, the soundscape is more varied and random. Branches, fall, wind rustles, twigs snap and blackbirds forage. This means that prey species in woodland will likely be more tolerant of the occasional non- bipedal twig snap than they would be along a peaceful hedgerow. I’ve almost bumped into squirrels several times, and come within 10 -15 yards of fallow deer grazing the rides, even though I was walking fairly carelessly. The primary reason for this is that the wind was in my face, and feeding was taking up the animal’s attention. Chewing or digging further masked the sound of my approach and rendered any odd snap innocuous. This danger of being crept up upon is why all prey species pause and look up every few seconds when feeding.
For protection, quarry species must rely on a cumulative array of sensory information to inform them about their immediate security, and as most of their time in the open is spent in chewing or looking to chew, they rely on their acute sense of smell to guard them whilst they feed. On courses, I always compare this to cigarette smoke or distant fire. If you’re a non-smoker, the odour of smoke will rapidly reach your brain and steal your attention, and I imagine that a sweaty, rifle-wielding omnivore smells dangerous to the majority of animals.
Natural predators don’t come into the world knowing how to hunt; they do so through trial, error and observation. It’s crucial that we make as many mistakes as possible because knowing what doesn’t work is just as useful as knowing what does. We can make our technical mistakes on the range, but in terms of fieldcraft there’s no place like the field. Burn a cigarette – but don’t smoke it! – 100 yards downwind of a rabbit and note its reaction; thump the earth 70 yards away; deliberately stalk without attention to shadow and camouflage to see where your quarry’s threshold to threat might lie. This approach might not result in a full bag, but there’s a lot more to being a successful outdoorsman than the kill, and mistake aren’t failures unless we fail to learn from them, they’re just lessons. If we can spend more time observing animals, we’ll probably learn a lot more than we think.
“knowing what doesn’t work is just as useful as knowing what does”
ABOVE: Rabbits are masters of patience
ABOVE LEFT: I can dance. Can you? ABOVE RIGHT: The best lesson is a long wait
BELOW: There’s more to shooting than a big bag
ABOVE: Try the cigarette test