It was my better half that reminded me that someone had a birthday on this hot July Thursday. Old Dylan, our Bedlington cross lurcher, was fifteen years old. Rescued (at a cost) from a ragtag tinker camp on the Norfolk / Suffolk border we had brought the pup home, covered in fleas for me to start his training. To this day I will never forget how he chose us, rather than let me choose one of the smooth brindle bitches I had come for. The pups were outdoors in an enclosure made of straw bales. As all his siblings scrabbled at the straw to get attention from my wife, a rough coated bundle of blue and white with chestnut eyes climbed over them all and leapt into my wife’s arms. I was to have no further choice in the matter! To be fair, I would never have bought one of his sisters. They were frail and timid. So the pup came home with us. He grew into a handsome dog, supremely intelligent and biddable. Many folk criticised me for choosing a lurcher as a gundog but it was a path well trodden … and I had raised lurchers in my youth. Dylan gave me thirteen years of shooting companionship before I decided to retire him, for his own safety. Dylan’s burgeoning blindness and increasing deafness had resulted in a serious accident when he had tried to blunder through a barbed wire fence to get back to me after straying along a scent-line. Even now, two years on, the old dog comes straight up to me when I return from shooting; to sniff at my boots and clothes and determine where I’ve been and what I’ve shot. You can remove an old dog from his hunting but you can’t remove hunting from the dog. The point of all this? On his birthday, reflecting on his loyalty, I decided that on Saturday I would take Dylan out hunting squirrels again, before we lost the opportunity. This would be his hunting day, not mine, and I would escort him safely around one of his favourite haunts.
On a day that was to prove blisteringly hot and would see England reach the World Cup Semi-Finals, I was up early. The wife took Charlie the cocker (our resident hooligan) for a walk while I smuggled Dylan into the back of the motor. It seemed appropriate to take Kylie along too, my little BSA Ultra .22 carbine. The pair had made quite a team, back in the day. The airgun spitting her pellets to great effect and the dog retrieving the fallen with a satisfying shake. In deference to Dylan’s age and limitations I drove straight to the wood. After loading the gun and shouldering the game-bag, I lifted the tailgate. The old boy scented the air and his clouded eyes scanned what must have been a green fugue to him. With a wag of his tail he leapt from the motor to land safely on the turf. I looked hard at his leash, lying in the back of the car and decided it wasn’t needed. He would be safe in this two acre spinney and I would be watching him carefully. Just into the wood, his nose went down and picked up a trail immediately. I followed behind and saw a wood witch lift from beneath a stand of box and lope quietly away. The dog could neither see or hear her but when his nose led him to the form in which the hare had lain all night, his left paw lifted and hung in the air, marking. I gave him a pat on the back. Moving on he picked up another line and moved into a layer of scrub and briar. A place where I didn’t want him to venture. His hearing is too poor for the finger flicks and low hisses that guided him in his youth. We used to make such silent progress as we stalked. I had to shout him out of the patch … and had to move about for his eyes to pick up where I was. He returned to heel and we moved on. I enjoyed watching him scenting the bases of trees and lifting his paw to tell me that our common enemy had climbed there. At one point, sniffing the air, he was looking up into a canopy he couldn’t possible see. So many times, in the past, he had alerted me to high squirrels that I hadn’t sensed. There were two chances in the wood where I could have shot a squirrel but neither had been flushed or ‘treed’ by Dylan so I let them pass. If this was to be Dylan’s last hunt, it would be his squirrels or nothing. The more his confidence grew, the more Dylan started to range using just his nose but always looking back for his ‘Master’. We quartered the two acres and shot nothing. With temperature rising I decided to get the old hound back to the car and to water. After a copious drink, Dylan hopped back into the tailgate and I drove out to a lush, shady grove on the exit from the estate.
Dylan hopped out again, enthusiastically, and barely cleared the two foot high trunk that guards the ride into the grove from dirt-bikers. There is a small rabbit warren here, which the dog seemed to remember and soon found with his nose. He scented at each bury and didn’t mark one. A testimony to the ravages of RHD. We moved on and Dylan, as I did, picked up the rank musk of fox. As in days past, the dogs hackles went up and he trotted back to stand behind me. Even though he has never been allowed to tackle a fox head-on due to that bastard Act, he has always had that inherited aggression towards Reynard that his Bedlington Terrier genes engender. For a moment I regretted not having a higher power gun with me but despite the obvious proximity, we never encountered the animal. By now, Dylan was panting and his tongue was lolling. His eagerness was outweighed by his physical capability. It was time to call it a day. I opened the tailgate back at the car and he sat in the shade while I disarmed the gun. While I still had the rifle in my hand he stood and tried to jump into the tailgate, landing half-in, half-out. I dropped the gun to the grass quickly and heaved his rear end into the car. Dylan’s hips had ‘locked out’, something that happens too frequently now. I massaged his rear end until his splayed back legs locked in again. He hadn’t made a sound, despite his obvious discomfort, but this again reminded me why I had retired my hunting partner.
At home, I lifted Dylan from the car and let him trot into the house. Charlie the cocker came to greet him with his usual fervour and Dylan just shouldered him aside. As the cocker sniffed all over the lurcher, Dylan’s ears went up and his tail wagged. I swear there was a glint in the old boys eyes. His body language said “I’ve been hunting again but Master was useless!” A critique I’ve lived with for all his faithful years.
Copyright Wildscribbler, Ian Barnett. July 2018
Accurate shooting is simply a combination of discipline and practise. It isn’t a ‘black art’. Anyone can master the skills necessary to be effective. Here are Wildscribblers top ten tips.
Airgun actions, their scopes and their barrels can be fickle companions. Scope zero’s drift from true for many reasons. Knocks and bangs to the gun, temperature shift, barrel distortion. Checking zero before hunting (or during hunting if you’ve had a calamity) should become second nature. It costs nothing but a few puffs of air and a few pellets. Just knock a stone or a crab-apple off a fencepost at your zero range to check that all is well. Do it out of sound range of your intended shooting position. You know it makes sense.
The Sharp Intake Of Breath
Just before you take a shot, breathe deeply. The best way to relax the tense muscles in your arms and shoulders is to oxygenate them. Ease into the shot as you exhale slowly and hold your breath for the shot itself. If you’re not ready to shoot (perhaps the quarry has moved or you feel unsure of the range) stop, inhale and start again. Breathing is so important. It has a direct impact on your central nervous system and how you fine-tune your instincts, judgement and emotions.
Clear Your Mind
Precision shooting with the accuracy needed for air rifle hunting demands absolute focus on the shot itself. A muddled mind worrying about missing or injuring will focus negatively on the task in hand. Even worse is assuming that the kill is assured. Presumption is the route to failure. Focus your mind positively by quickly estimating range, taking the breath, aligning the reticule and focusing on the kill zone. You only need that focus for a maximum of five seconds. Beyond that, you need to start again and your quarry will probably have moved away anyway!
The ability to watch the shot from muzzle to target is the most important discipline that any rifleman, of any calibre or power, must master to be effective. Until (through your riflescope) you have seen the pellet impact on the target, the shot hasn’t finished. If you tickle the trigger and immediately pull your eye from the scope, you will have probably missed. Because your mind, anticipating the hit, has lifted your arm with your eyes fractionally. Enough to adjust the flight of the pellet before it has left the muzzle. Therefore enough to miss. Keep your scope on the quarry for at least half a second after releasing the shot.
‘Cant’ is a strange word meaning deviation from a vertical line. In airgunning terms this means twisting your rifle from it’s zeroed vertical plane when taking a shot. Thus a shot doomed to failure. Keep the vertical plane of your reticule aligned whether shooting level, upward or downward. When you zeroed your scope, you aligned it to the barrel in the square position, avoiding tilting. Respect that alignment at all times.
One Rifle, Ten Thousand Shots
There is an old martial arts wisdom which states “Fear not the man who has practised ten thousand kicks, one time. Fear the man who has practised one kick, ten thousand times”. This advice is true of riflecraft too. Put together one rifle, scope and pellet combination. Practise and hunt with that combination exclusively. You will learn its potential and its limits intimately. The scope reticule ‘map’ will imprint on your brain so that you know how to align for any distance and elevation in milliseconds. This will increase your skill and confidence so that you can push the boundaries.
Elevations And Depressions
Gravity is a perplexing opponent of the hunter. The gravitational pull on your tiny projectile will affect the shot you place either high up into a tree or low down, into a valley. So compensation from true, level zero is needed to adjust for gravitational pull. I passed my O’ Level Physics exam back in the day but I wouldn’t dare try explain here why you need to ‘shoot low’ whether the target is above or below the horizontal? As a general rule, if a target is 45o up or down, shoot as if the target was 0.7 of the actual distance (i.e. 30 yard target, use your aim point for 21 yards). If 30o up or down, use 0.9 of actual distance (i.e.30 yard target, use the 27 yard aim point). If less than 30o up or down, aim dead on.
Practise Random Ranges
Becoming an experienced shooter means shooting as often as you can. At anything. You are surrounded by natural objects on which to practise, every time you take the rifle out. Fungi, pine cones, conkers, crab apples, flower heads, dead wood. You have myriad choices. Just ensure you have safe backstops and be conscious of potential ricochets. Wild quarry won’t sit, posing, at the 30 yards you’ve zeroed to and level with your muzzle. They could be at 23 yards up at a 40o elevation or 33 yards away at the bottom of a gulley. Practise scenarios like this by placing natural objects and shooting them. It’s fun!
Walkabout (rough) shooting involves taking instant opportunities with little time to compose the shot. We airgunners don’t have the luxury of a dinner-plate sized spread of lead shot (but we have the benefit of silence). Learning how to balance the rifle for free-standing or kneeling shots is essential. Practise this on inert targets before shooting live quarry, along with the advice above about breathing and follow -through. Snap-shooting wild quarry is inevitable if you want to hunt for the pot. Make sure your legs and arms are strong enough to sustain the weight of your rifle and scope combo for the duration of the shot. Learn how to use surrounding objects such as branches or fence rails for support. Sometimes simply leaning against a tree trunk can stabilise your shot.
If you’ve followed all the advice given above, you should be confident about hunting and culling live quarry. If the hunters ‘toolbox’ comprises 30% kit and 60% knowledge then the missing 10% that contributes to hunting success is confidence. If you have done everything possible to ensure that you can get within range of live quarry and kill it cleanly, go for it. If you make mistakes, you will learn from them. If you are successful, you will remember what you did right.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2018
The decline of the humble rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, across many areas of the UK has been notable. This has been reported by many country folk, hunters and conservationists. Yet the dearth of rabbits in distinct areas is matched by reports from some areas that the rabbit is alive and kicking in healthy numbers. So what’s going on?
There is a specific reason for the rabbit famine, of course. A very worrying reason. The proliferation of any ‘species-specific’ disease is cause for concern. Even more so when there is suspicion of deliberate introduction into the UK for purely commercial reasons. No, I’m not talking about myxomatosis this time. I’m talking about both RHDV1 and RHDV2. The rabbit haemorrhagic disease viruses.
Viruses that effect rabbits or hares are known as lagoviruses. In China (in 1984) a new lagovirus emerged amongst a population of Angoran rabbits which had been imported from Germany just days before the outbreak. The new disease proved unstoppable and wiped out around 140 million farmed and domestic rabbits in Asia. The disease was RHDV1. In 1986, it turned up again in Europe and spread like wildfire from Italy to Scandinavia. By 1988 it had infected the European wild rabbit population. In 1990, the disease reached the famous rabbit population on the island of Gotland in Sweden. Almost the entire population was dead within one week. The start of the spread of the disease two decades ago was largely attributed to contaminated rabbit meat … a popular product in Europe. Our Antipodean friends, as they did with myxomatosis, saw RHVD as a potential for biological pest control (not as a threat). Unfortunately the Australian Government’s experiments on Warranga Island (4km off the mainland) resulted in accidental transmission to the mainland, probably through flies. The New Zealand government, to be fair, decided not to adopt RHVD as a pest control medium. So someone introduced it illegally in 1997!
It is now spread by many different vectors. Insects, flies and fleas can carry the virus from infected host rabbits to other rabbits. It travels in animal faeces. Birds such as carrion eaters can carry it in their beaks, mammals such as fox, dog or badger can carry it in their mouths and their faeces. It transmits by ‘aerosol’ means too (breath, sneezing, breeze). One of the most important vectors for the spread of RHVD is us, humans. We can carry the virus on our hands and on our footwear.
The virus is extremely robust. Chinese experiments have shown that it survived in rabbit livers frozen at -20oC for 560 days. It also survived temperature of +50oC for 60 minutes. It can survive on clothing at 20oC for over 100 days. In short, RHVD is the rabbits worst nightmare. So what is the difference between RHVD1 and RHVD2? And why does the virus seem to have completely missed many geographical areas of Britain?
To answer the first question, RHVD2 (sometimes called RHVD Variant) emerged in France in 2010. Latter research has shown that it has been in the UK since 2010, too. It ‘variance’ is allowing it to attack rabbit populations which had previously built up resistance the RHVD2 and many rabbits are now exposed to the new lagovirus. The most devastating property of RHVD2 is that newly born rabbits have no resistance to the virus. With RHVD1, kits under 5 weeks of age contracting the virus had a naturally immunity which would stay with them for life. That at least gave a life-line for survival for the wild rabbit. There is a worry that this new strain may carry its pathogens to other Lagomorphs, which could have huge consequences for the Brown Hare.
What of the second question, though? The random spread of the epidemic? There are two threads of research that may offer the answer to this enigma, yet neither are conclusive at the moment. Both relate to Rabbit Calicivirus (RCV).
The first possible explanation is the immunity built up to RCV. Many of us will recall the emergence of RCV during the mid-nineties?. A disease closely related to RHVD but non-pathogenic. Many rabbits survived RCV and built up anti-bodies which rejected the RHVD virus. So, ironically, it is possible that many colonies that have resisted the first wave of RHVD could be those who were strengthened by infection by RCV in their community.
The second possibility relates to research undertaken in Australia in 2014 which suggests that climatic conditions influenced the spread of RCV and has therefore reduced the pathogenicity of RHVD. A quick and simple summary of the research is that RCV was most infectious in the cool and damp areas of South East Australia. Therefore resistance to RHVD is most prevalent in those same areas. Great Britain has many areas with cool, damp micro-climates. Are these where the rabbits are holding out in numbers? If so, how long will it be before the new variant affects these colonies?
The rabbit became an established staple in the British countryside centuries ago and is sorely missed where it has lost its foothold. I know that from personal experience. I haven’t shot a rabbit for four months as I write this. Not that I haven’t seen a few here and there but you simply don’t shoot what has become rare. You only harvest what is abundant. That should be a hunters apothegm. But I don’t just miss the rabbit as ‘quarry’. As a primary prey species its loss will have an detrimental consequence on many other species and a knock-on effect, too. The fox and stoat, in the absence of rabbits, turn their attention to the hen-house or the ground nest. The buzzard, to the poults.
The British Countryside without the ubiquitous ‘coney’ would be unthinkable.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2018