Char­lie Port­lock dis­cusses just how much scent af­fects the hunter’s suc­cess

Air Gunner - - Contents -

Try the sniff test on your­self, says Char­lie. If you can smell your­self, so can your quarry

Last year, I found my­self ly­ing on my belly, stock still upon a wood­land ride. Al­though I’d never seen rab­bits there on walks, there were plenty of ter­ri­to­rial drop­pings and signs of dig­ging for the suc­cu­lent bulbs of var­i­ous flow­ers. I was tired from the early start, so I lay still with my ri­fle by my side and my head in my hands. I must have looked odd, but it was com­fort­able. Un­usu­ally, I wasn’t bored and I was en­joy­ing the sounds and sights of a bright and fresh spring morn­ing. I was there for rab­bits, but at that point I wasn’t much both­ered whether one made an ap­pear­ance or if I was des­tined to lie there for an­other ten min­utes.

Lost in thought, I came back to re­al­ity when I de­tected move­ment in the pe­riph­ery of my vi­sion and a rab­bit came over the brow of the steep bank to my left and hopped on to the ride. There was no wind and it was less than five yards away. A shot was im­pos­si­ble at that range and I was so at peace with the world that I’m not sure I’d have taken it any­way. The rab­bit sniffed about un­per­turbed and came hop­ping ever closer. At about three yards, fi­nally smelling me, it froze, turned and bolted in one fluid move­ment.

I was fas­ci­nated and amazed that it hadn’t de­tected me sooner – per­haps the re­sult of my cloth­ing be­ing stored out of doors and the heady, mask­ing aroma of damp earth. I have a feel­ing that a large part of the rea­son for the prox­im­ity of the en­counter was sheer com­pla­cence on be­half of the rab­bit. Bang in the mid­dle of a well- kept pheas­ant drive, there were few preda­tors to worry about at that time of day and I was very likely the last

thing that it ex­pected to en­counter. I’ve had sim­i­lar run- ins with fal­low deer and squir­rels even when stand­ing up, and it got me think­ing about smell. Just how much do we stink and how care­ful do we need to be in man­ag­ing that stink in the pres­ence of our quarry?


When stalk­ing with the wind be­hind me I’ll of­ten see rab­bits and deer, who cer­tainly can’t see me, make off at a run. Not the kind of half­hearted, ‘Let’s run a bit and turn back to look what that was’ kind of run, but the full tilt bolt of an an­i­mal that has iden­ti­fied a clear threat. The sim­plest way to avoid these odor­ous pit­falls is to stay down­wind all the time, and whilst this is good prac­tice, it’s not al­ways pos­si­ble or re­al­is­tic when safe shots and gust­ing val­leys are to be con­sid­ered. One op­tion would be to use cover scent, and I’ve never tried it, but I know that the Amer­i­cans use it reg­u­larly when bow hunt­ing and the ranges are typ­i­cally less than 30 yards. In its place I carry an old pel­let tin of wood ash and if I get blood on my trousers or if I sweat a great deal then I’ll rub it on. It’s hard to tell if it works, but it’s cer­tainly a strong neu­tral odour that’s not out of place in the ol­fac­tory world of our quarry.

Leav­ing your stalk­ing clothes out­side def­i­nitely works, as does crawl­ing around in mud and sheep poo. I hang my garb on a hook out­side the door. It also makes sense to avoid af­ter­shave and man­made toi­letries for a few days. If a hu­man can smell you, and cer­tainly if you can smell your­self, you might as well leave the gun in the slip un­less you can guar­an­tee to be down­wind all day.


Re­cent re­search is de­bunk­ing the idea that hu­mans have a bad sense of smell. Like most pri­mates we’re vis­ually dom­i­nant, but we can still dis­cern the odour of ripe fruit bet­ter than dogs be­cause we have some evo­lu­tion­ary spe­cial­i­sa­tions due to our var­ied diet. It’s thought that there are two fac­tors in smell; the con­cen­tra­tion of smell re­cep­tors in the nose it­self and the num­ber of ac­tive and ded­i­cated genes we carry for smelling things. Be­low are some fig­ures for smell re­cep­tors in the noses of dif­fer­ent an­i­mals:

So, if a rab­bit’s sense of smell is roughly 50 times greater than ours, by crude cal­cu­la­tion we can es­ti­mate the range at which we might be de­tectable on a wind­less day. If you can smell your wife’s per­fume at five yards then could a rab­bit at 250? Do squir­rels even care if they smell us? Should we pay more at­ten­tion to wind di­rec­tion when shoot­ing squir­rels and sit­ing bait points? All in­ter­est­ing ques­tions to which there are no con­crete an­swers, but con­sid­er­ing smell as a greater fac­tor in the suc­cess of our out­ings can only make us more ef­fec­tive.

As hu­mans, we’re lim­ited in the type of re­cep­tors that we have. Rab­bits, deer, dogs and squir­rels (as ro­dents) can smell things that we can’t even com­pre­hend, much in the same way that pi­geons can see within a spec­trum of ul­tra- vi­o­let that we can’t. African rats can smell land­mines and cer­tain dogs can smell in­di­vid­ual chem­i­cals upon hu­man breath as well as track an in­di­vid­ual from over 10,000 peo­ple up to 24 hours af­ter they’ve passed.

Data is quite hard to come by be­cause the area is still un­der re­search and I couldn’t find any­thing on a wood­pi­geon’s sense of smell, but the idea that birds don’t smell is cur­rently be­ing chal­lenged, and it’s thought that these birds use their noses to smell mag­netic north. If you’re shoot­ing wood­pi­geon then

ef­fec­tive con­ceal­ment will be your best tac­tic.

It’s thought that most prey species can age scent. It doesn’t pay to run from the stench of a long rot­ted car­cass in the same way as it might from that of fresh blood, for ex­am­ple. If this is true, it stands to rea­son that most in­di­vid­ual an­i­mals will make a con­scious de­ci­sion about what ac­tion to take, based upon the sen­sory in­for­ma­tion at their dis­posal. Squir­rels rarely seem both­ered by my manly odour, but this might well be be­cause they don’t see it as a threat. Even when ob­served by other squir­rels, death from a ri­fle must seem rather ab­stract to a species that has evolved to con­tend with aerial and ar­bo­real preda­tors. This could be why they con­tinue to feed at a bait point even when sur­rounded by fresh blood and their fallen peers; there’s sim­ply not enough sen­sory in­for­ma­tion there to elicit a flight re­sponse.


It’s in an an­i­mal’s in­ter­est to learn from its ex­pe­ri­ences and if a cer­tain smell is associated with the death of one of its so­cial group, then it stands to rea­son that this smell will trig­ger a height­ened alarm re­sponse for that in­di­vid­ual, and po­ten­tially the en­tire com­mu­nity or war­ren. If this sounds a bit un­likely then re­mem­ber that war­rens (and foxes) quickly be­come lamp shy once put un­der shoot­ing pres­sure. The ol­fac­tory world should be no dif­fer­ent to the vis­ual in this sense.

Younger an­i­mals are likely to be more tol­er­ant be­cause many smells are new and strange and they’ve yet to learn whether they’re a threat or not; there’s the huge mound of or­ganic fer­tiliser, the smell of spilled mo­tor oil, freshly mown grass, chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides, fox urine, and stale cig­a­rette smoke. Ur­ban squir­rels are un­used to hu­man pre­da­tion and will hap­pily feed within yards of us. The same can also be said of the road­side rab­bit who’ll seem com­pletely un­fazed by pass­ing traf­fic, but will bolt when it hears the rum­ble of the quad.


We’re a vis­ual species and so we un­con­sciously trans­fer this bias to an­i­mals. Rab­bits, squir­rels and rats have not evolved to use sight as their pri­mary means of find­ing food and de­tect­ing preda­tors. Pi­geons have, which may go some way to ex­plain­ing why they’re nigh on im­pos­si­ble to stalk. Prey species rely pre­dom­i­nantly on scent and sound for threat de­tec­tion, hence their radar- like ears, and deer will nor­mally choose to ru­mi­nate on a hill where they can see preda­tors ap­proach­ing from one di­rec­tion and smell them from the other. Al­though there’s no need to as­sume that an­i­mals have su­per­pow­ers, they do have su­per­senses, of­ten much more re­fined than ours. If you’re strug­gling to close the dis­tance to your quarry then per­haps con­sider the wind and pay as much at­ten­tion to your odour as you do to cam­ou­flage. It all adds up. Best wishes for the field, Char­lie.

Free cover scent?

Not­ing wind di­rec­tion be­fore you set out is vi­tal

RIGHT: Cam­ou­flage can count for noth­ing if you get winded

LEFT: The smell of suc­cess will be un­de­tectable

ABOVE: Squir­rels have an in­cred­i­ble sense of smell

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