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The Air Rifle Around The Farm

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Working farmyards are busy places; full of people, moving machinery and livestock. Being offered permission to shoot freely around a yard is a great privilege and a huge responsibility. It’s certainly not an environment for the shotgun but much useful vermin control can be carried out with a legal limit air rifle; silent, accurate and unlikely to cause structural damage if used wisely. The soft, lead pellets used by airgunners rarely ricochet though if they do they can cause damage to equipment, building or beast.

The purpose of this piece is to make you think about how to eliminate any such risk. Personally, I find the sporting opportunities available around a working farmyard are superb. Grain stores, midden piles and livestock feed attract pigeons, doves, corvids and rats. All vermin are ‘spoilers’; either stealing food or contaminating it. A farmer will appreciate safe pest clearance (free of charge) at the right time, which means avoiding interfering with the farms productivity.

Safety Before Sport

The range of shooting opportunities that present themselves around a farmyard can be overwhelming. Birds landing on rooftops, on beams and gates. Rats scurrying between feeding points. Vermin feeding amongst livestock or near equipment. The golden rule must always be ‘safety first, sport second’. The capacity for losing shooting permission due to unsafe practice is high. Take the time to walk the yard, learn it intimately and build a mental picture of potential risks and hazards.

 

Timing Your Visits

Though not always possible (for instance during harvest) it makes sense to visit the farmyard when it is quiet. Sunday afternoons are often a good time. Or when the weather is poor enough to stop the farm working. The vermin will still come, more-so when the yard is quiet or food is hard to find (snowfall is a good example).

Family And Staff

Particularly when the farmhouse is close to the yard, you need to consider your hosts family and workers at all times. Children, granny, grandad et al may be used to wandering around the farm buildings. It pays to establish a ‘warning system’ (see below) so that folk know you are around. The most precious advice I can offer, though, is to always expect the unexpected. Never shoot at any quarry in a farmyard unless 100% sure that no-one can come between your muzzle and your target. At any hint of a voice or movement, stay your shot. Find a safe shot position.

Visibility

Your farmer and family will always be present somewhere nearby. Often the farm workers too. The best way to ensure that they all know you are present, shooting, is to agree a visible signal. This can be as simple as parking your vehicle (if you have one) in a prominent position that doesn’t interfere with farm traffic. They can’t miss mine, due to it’s registration plate, which includes the letters GUN. I use directional parking too. The front of the motor will point at the buildings I will be occupying to shoot. Simple.

Livestock And Poultry

Cattle sheds, pig pens and poultry compounds offer great shooting prospects for the vermin controller. Yet we need to ensure the safety of the stock at all times. Jackdaws and magpies will peck for beetles and larvae that live in the straw and dung of the pens. Rats, too, will scavenge among the litter. There are rich pickings to be had for vermin but you need to avoid shooting between the legs or around livestock. Not just to avoid accidental injury to stock (which will get you a definite red-card from the farmer) but also to avoid dead vermin being left in a livestock pen.

 

Care For Infrastructure

Your farmer won’t be at all impressed if you fail to treat his farms infrastructure with respect. Farm buildings will contain a variety of fabrics which can be damaged by a stray airgun pellet. Wood, glass, plastic, plasterboard, PVC or fibre roofing. Pick your backstops carefully, especially when clearing jackdaws or ferals. Peppering the roof with holes will soon lose you permission. Watch out for water pipes and electrical cables too. Lots to think about isn’t there!

 

Beware Of The Dog (Or Cat)

There are two creatures that have more authority with the confines of a farmyard than you ever will. They are the farmers dog and the farms ‘mousers’. There may be more than one of either species, of course. If you don’t befriend the dog, you won’t make much progress anyway. It will probably just follow you around growling or barking. Take a pocket full of training treats and ensure the dogs see you as a benefactor. The cats? Just make you sure you don’t accidentally injure them.

Existing Controls

Don’t interfere with pest control functions that are already in place around the farm. These might include rat bait boxes, electronic fencing around poultry pens, fox snares or Fenn traps for stoats and mink. Keep your eye out for all vermin, though. Many farmers will claim (particularly where rats are concerned) that their ground is ‘clean’. Take that with a pinch of salt. They have the bait and traps down for a reason!

 Elevated Shooting

Farmyard pest control involves two types of elevated shooting. Internal and external. If shooting inside, beware of ricochets if there are livestock below. This is rare if you’re an accurate shooter. Soft targets like ferals and jakes absorb the pellet on impact. Remember what I said about peppering the roof. Don’t! External elevations need great care. Birds on roof eaves can be common … and tempting You need to know, in the event of a ‘miss’, where the pellet may end up? Through the farmhouse kitchen window will not enhance your reputation.

Substance Abuse

Farm buildings store all manner of chemicals, fuels and containers. Always shoot away from them, not towards them. There could be paints, solvents, oxidants, fertilisers, pesticides, timber preservers, lubricants and fuel. Any of these leaking onto surfaces or (worse still) finding their way into watercourses can cause serious environmental problems. Think about that shot!

 

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Oct 2018

Where Did All The Rabbits Go?

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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