Words by BEN MARKS-THOMSON
Photography by SAM SHAW
Personally, I find ‘rough shooting’ to be one of the most enjoyable and natural ways to fill my freezer with ethical, humanely sourced meat, while at the same time giving mother-nature a much-needed helping hand with removing an overpopulation of pests and keeping the local habitat in balance. With minimal hunting pressure, rough shooting conserves the natural wildlife stock and provides me with a mixed bag of wild meat. And while I hold the conservation aspect close to my heart, this method of hunting is how I choose to put the majority of the meat we consume in my household on the dinner table. Pigeon, pheasant, partridge, rabbit and hare are all regulars on our plates.
During the first hour of dawn light, I will be focusing on removing some grey squirrels from the woodland. In their current numbers, they are causing havoc amongst the other forest residents. Following this, I hope to encounter and harvest a brace or two of rabbits from the fields and hedgerows as I walk my permission. The rabbits are destined for the table this evening - a family dinner with a couple of friends joining us. The squirrels will also find their way to the table at a later date. Nothing goes to waste, and for the time being, I will store them in the game freezer.
Over the last fortnight, I have been paying attention to a small patch of woodland holding a large population of both squirrels and rabbits. The new rabbit runs, cutting swathes through the grass leading out from the woods are unmistakable, like a small road network leading to their favourite feeding ground. I have also spotted several squirrel drays within the uppermost branches of the tallest trees; mud and twig clad squirrel strongholds where they nest in between raiding food sources. If the numbers of either species increase any more, it will be to the detriment of the local ecosystem.
Not only do the rabbits pose a danger to livestock with their inherent digging, but their appetites can also demolish crop and pasture fields if left unchecked. The adage of, “Seven rabbits equal one sheep,” is entirely accurate. A single pair of breeding rabbits can transform into hundreds in a short space of time in ideal conditions, so management of the species is paramount in the early months of spring to avoid crop damage. Grey squirrels, on the other hand, are a constant problem. They are prolific raiders of songbird nests; they expose trees to disease by stripping off the bark and most noticeably in the UK, they are the primary contributing factor to the decline and near extinction of our native red squirrel through the transmission of the parapoxvirus.
I arrived at my permission at 6 am, just as the sun was beginning to crest over the hilltops, illuminating the sheep-filled fields that surround the land that I shoot on in the South Downs of Sussex. I had wrapped up warm as the early hours are cold and unforgiving at this time of year. Night time temperatures had plunged below freezing, and a sharp frost had frozen the ground hard. As the grass crunched underfoot, I thought to myself it would be a few hours before the sun had enough heat to melt the frost away and coax the rabbits from the subterranean warmth of their warrens. I took my pack and shotgun and made my way across the fields towards to the woods. I kept my eyes fixed on the treetops as I quietly approached the perimeter of the woodland. Squirrel hunting requires a considerable degree of stealth and patience, so I moved slowly and silently across the forest floor, waiting for them to scamper within range across the tree canopy.
I have tried to keep the squirrel numbers in check to help the songbirds through the winter, so they are very used to being stalked and can be extremely elusive and ‘flighty’ if they become aware of my presence before I have had an opportunity to shoot. So I use the trunk of a large oak tree for cover. From this position, I have an unobstructed field of view into the woodland and can keep my eyes turned toward the canopy, looking for any signs of movement. Sitting in silence, it took about twenty minutes for me to spot the first grey squirrel moving through the canopy.
As the squirrel came into range, unaware of my presence, I drew a bead on it, the slight movement of my shotgun caused it to pause, giving me enough time for a clean shot. I connected well knocking it from the canopy to the forest floor. A clean, humane dispatch and the first squirrel of the day to add to the game freezer. I repeated this process throughout the morning and managed to bag four squirrels in total. The songbirds and trees will be better off. With the sun higher in the sky and the morning temperature increasing, I decided that I had dedicated enough time to the squirrels. I still needed to bag some rabbits for this evening’s dinner, so I returned to the car to empty my game bag and change into some lighter clothes. The insulated camouflage over-trousers and hoodie work well if using ambush tactics and not moving much, but they hinder me when trying to stalk rabbits. Instead, I opt for a thinner camouflage long sleeved top and a pair of stalking trousers for hunting quietly on the move.
I made my way through to the opposite side of the woods and to the first rabbit warren that runs along the tree line. As I approached, I moved as slowly and as quietly as possible, using the headwind to carry my scent and any small noises I made into the distance behind me. There were no immediate signs of rabbits except for fresh droppings at the end of some of their runs leading out onto the grass. I kept tucked in tight using as much natural cover as I could, being careful not to step on any fallen twigs, only moving a few paces before pausing and scanning the landscape for rabbits feeding on the dew-soaked grass. About halfway along the woods, a rabbit bolted from behind a nearby thicket, thundering towards the cover of the woods. I flicked the safety from my shotgun and swung through the rabbit, pulling the trigger as I did so. The shot connected well, adding the first good-sized rabbit to the ingredients list. I proceeded to field dress the rabbit while waiting for calm to return to the forest after the shot of the 12-gauge. Feeling confident and optimistic about adding more rabbits to the game bag, I loaded another cartridge into the magazine of my Benelli and quietly moved on.
Remaining alert and ready to react to any sudden movements from the tree line and hedgerows, I slowly progressed along the remainder of my route. I missed a few rabbits but managed to bag two more before completing the walk of the permission. With three adult rabbits, I now had enough organic meat to feed everyone comfortably, so I decided to call it a day. The beauty of rough shooting is that you never know what you are going to get. On some occasions, you will return home with an empty bag, and on other days you’ll come back with enough meat for a week. Regardless, a day in the field is never a day wasted.
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