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

Air Gunner - - Contents -

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

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