Airgun Hunter: Winter Rabbits with NV
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- Last updated: 29/11/2016
Regular readers will know I like taking on challenges in my airgun hunting, some of which I’ve related in the past – stalking and successfully bagging a Blue Hare in the Scottish Highlands being just one of the most memorable. In that respect this challenge was memorable due to the adverse weather conditions and the seemingly impossibility of it.
It was during the winter of 2009/2010 when we had one of the worst snow falls of recent times, hitting us equally as hard up here in the North West of England as they did in many other parts of the country.
During the day, when it wasn’t snowing the landscape took on a typical picture postcard ‘winter wonderland’ appearance but it was very barren of quarry suitable for the airgun hunter. At the time my hunting exploits during the day were very limited, with most of my shooting time being spent at night in cold drafty barns using and testing various Nightvision kit to shoot rats. Or very occasionally I’d be asked to undertake an indoor feral pigeon cull.
However, it was my good friend and now regular Shooting Sports contributor Howard Heywood who casually mentioned during one of our ‘meet ups’ that he was surprised at the amount of rabbits he’d seen out on a patch of ground while out doing his fox control duties. Yip, despite the weather, when foxes are causing problems like other good pest controllers he has to go and sort it and sort it he does. As ‘luck’ would have it, this area was also where he’d kindly helped me gain permission to shoot in the woods and adjoining fields so I knew it well.
Like me, Howard regularly uses and gets NV kit to test. At the time I’d been giving the Yukon Sentinel 2.5 x 50 Gen 1 Analogue Nightvision Rifle Scope from Thomas Jacks Ltd to put through its paces. I specifically remember the unit and the fact it was a traditional ‘tubed’ scope because it was one of the last of its type I tested as during that same year.
Thomas Jacks Ltd. brought us the first Digital NV Riflescope - the Pulsar N550, so like many other enthusiasts I was smitten by trying anything digital that came my way.
I’d done a lot of shooting with the Sentinel and found it to be a highly capable unit for rats and rabbits at sensible air rifle hunting ranges long before the snow almost sank the UK. Now although Howard said there were a lot of rabbits he didn’t really stress the fact they were very twitchy, as obviously the local foxes are out and about more when food is harder to obtain. So came the challenge: half- jokingly he dropped in the conversation “Y’know what, bet you can’t get one at night using nightvision kit”. Well, right there the gauntlet had been thrown down and more so my interest in the possibility of trying to achieve the task
Mr Heywood’s got a wry sense of humour; we’d left the conversation with me saying I’d seriously ‘think’ about ‘trying’ to bag a bunny in these conditions. Well, he didn’t give me the chance to consider it or forget it because he phoned the landowner to let them know I’d be out with him that week. Sure enough, he phoned me immediately after, reminded me of the challenge. He wanted to be there to see it done, obviously he had a centrefire rigged up with his Maxi-Kite should a fox turn up while I attempted this seemingly impossible task. Trying to stalk rabbits at night over snow is a definite no-no. For one reason they see you coming a mile off and they hear you scrunching along the ground long before that. Obviously this was going to be a sit and wait job, this tactic being very much key to achieving the goal. After parking up well away from the shooting area, we both trudged over a few fields and over five bar gates to get to the shooting position I’d pre-chosen as I knew it was the only place I’d be within range of a shot.
As we made our way to the side of the wood, we saw lots of rabbit tracks but unfortunately also fresh fox tracks, mostly following the rabbit trails and headed in the same direction as us! This likely meant the fox’s presence would have put them down back safe underground! Hopefully it had passed by and they’d soon be back out, but in winter, rabbits feed quite infrequently and can even for what seem like nights on end just ‘switch off!’.
However there were quite a few signs that rabbits had been out, such as tracks and small open patches in the snow where they’d been digging down to get at the grass underneath. Not ideal or fresh but to a rabbit, it gives them much needed nourishment - in winter as it does in summer.
As we walked alongside the wood, we virtually followed in the Coney’s footsteps as they were obviously staying close to cover to avoid overly exposing themselves to the danger of natural predation. Eventually I chose a spot where I could lean comfortably against one of the many large trees at the perimeter of the dense woodland in wait for them to venture out. Wearing multiple layers of clothing under my hunting suit, wellington style boots, fleece balaclava, fingerless mitts and ‘cradling’ my Ben Taylor regulated and Hydrographics Custom stocked .20 Calibre Theoben Rapid 7 also rested on my knee, I was soon settled in-position for what proved to be a very long wait.
After an hour or so, Howard decided I was mad and headed off in the opposite direction in search of old Reynard. He’s patient, but not insanely so, particularly if he’s only watching. It seemed like an eternity before anything stirred, only my mobile set on ‘vibrate’ broke the monotony intermittently indicating ‘H’ was trying to contact me to see if I’d got anything so we could call it a night.
Obviously keeping deathly quiet was of utmost importance so I couldn’t let him know I was still ‘toughing’ it out. However, a word of caution: in these types of conditions, hyperthermia can easily creep up on you when staying still for lengthy periods of time and I must admit every so often I felt my eyes drooping so I did realise sooner rather than later I’d possibly have to admit defeat - for that night at least. After a long, long wait as I gazed at the blank white canvas, quick as a flash a large rabbit seemed to just appear alongside the wood hardly 20yds from where I was waiting in ambush. Clearly visible with the naked eye against the white bright backdrop of snow it sat stock still less than a foot from cover, not a difficult shot, but using an NV scope makes rangefinding trickier. This is the reason I always use a laser in my set up to help give me an indication of the quarry in relation to my position.
I didn’t want to use the laser too much as I feel rabbits do see the light it emits. Also, I wasn’t using the scopes integral on-board IR unit, not only wasn’t it needed in these conditions but I’m sure rabbits (and rats) can at close to medium range see and spook at the infra-red light emitted. Eventually the rabbit lolloped further out from the safety of the wood, stopped and began to dig to feed. Very slowly I raised my NV combo that was rested not far lower on my knee to sight in on the lone bunny.
Just ‘dabbing’ on the laser showed the target was now only a few yards over my set 25-yd zero. Just as I was about to slip the trigger, it suddenly turned and sat bolt up-right to face my direction – obviously aware of something it was now very alert. With no time to hesitate I carefully adjusted my aim to take a full on heart/lung shot. A kill-zone area I don’t often aim for with a 12ft lb air rifle but at this range I was confident of a clean clinical kill.
So with the recoilless PCP held rock solidly on aim and allowing a slight amount of holdover, I squeezed the trigger and quite literally dropped him stone dead in its tracks. Now if you think shooting rabbits is ‘un-sporting’ during such hard lean times – as I mentioned at the beginning of the piece, in this area they’re very plentiful and still cause damage ‘gnawing’ at the bark of trees. Also, I only intended taking one and - this was the unlucky one to fancy having a hop out for a feed at the wrong time.
After retrieving the rabbit, I looked at my mobile showing eight missed calls; obviously my host had been getting rather ‘naffed off’ at my stubbornness to sit it out for so long. But a challenge is a challenge and none better than when the task set is achieved. The shot might have been a sitter - but believe me, in those weather conditions it was ‘snow joke…’