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