How long has it been since you last cooked rabbit? Recently, my granny and I were talking about the food she ate growing up in Birmingham during the 1920s and 30s (she's just turned 93). Her father died after the Great War and during those hard times it was difficult for her mother to feed five growing girls. Like many people of her generation my grandmother once ate a lot of rabbit but it turns out that she hasn't actually tasted one since her marriage in the summer of 1940. I thought that 75 years was probably a long enough gap to rest the palette, so for my first article I'll be heading out with a very special purpose; to bake granny a birthday pie.
Now to an even more pertinent question; how long has it been since you were last out in the field? Maybe you were out this morning, perhaps you're still looking for that first permission or possibly you're an experienced shooter who'd appreciate some more liberty? Whenever you last opened your gun slip, this is the perfect time to be out with the rifle. As the countryside prepares to shake off its threadbare winter coat, the woods and fields will soon be teeming with verdant growth and increasingly active quarry.
If you're having trouble remembering your last hunting trip you're not alone. I know how it feels to go without. Having grown up stalking small game in my native Sussex I moved to the Midlands in my teens exchanging a rural life for a very urban one. However, two years ago I moved from Birmingham to Shropshire and I'm now lucky enough to be out hunting up to six times a week. I'm joyfully re-addicted.
Sport is a tiny word to describe the experience of air rifle hunting. There's something very ancient in hunting for food and it's wonderful to be able to enjoy this deeply rooted pursuit in a culture that has largely forgotten the lessons of the land. I'm sure that most hunters will agree that there are few satisfactions as simple and profound as mastering a tool and using it to put good, free range food onto the plates of those we care for. Airgun hunting really is both an art and a craft; I love it.
Although I often stalk rabbits in the warmer months my preferred quarry is the ubiquitous grey squirrel and as I plan today's hunt I'll be thinking carefully about how I can bag one of these wonderful but troublesome creatures. In addition to their well known unpopularity with foresters, greys also win few allies among nonagenarian ladies due to their penchant for suburban flower bulbs and their bothersome digging among the rockery. I've broached the subject and my grandmother, a wonderfully open minded woman, has given greys the green light.
I've opted for a dusk outing and having checked my zero during the day, I sharpen my knife and confirm the weather forecast and wind direction for my hunt location. I also lay out my equipment near the door with what I hope is a balanced combination of professional solemnity and boyish excitement.
I have a couple of options within walking distance so I choose to stalk a bank side warren bordering a ride through a local pheasant drive. Although my accuracy is better then ever I've found that my winter focus on shooting greys has made me complacent in terms of field craft. Squirrels are a challenging hunt but I don't need quite the kind of scent and sound discipline that's crucial for taking rabbits. If you keep still and silent even startled squirrels can venture out again within minutes. Rabbits however are rarely as forgiving, so I've spent several evenings this week working on my stealth and concealment by way of preparation. I'm keen on my twilight rabbit stalking and I want to make sure that my skills are back up to scratch in time for the long summer evenings.
Noting the wind direction, I set out half an hour before technical sunset which gives me time to take a leisurely walk around a field border well out of sight of my objective and where I can get into place undetected with a full hour of day-light still to shoot by.
As I move south along the field boundary a young rabbit hops towards the hedgerow on my left, taking me completely by surprise. I freeze, my rifle still slung over my shoulder, my face net crumpled around my neck. Slowly, incredibly slowly, I unsling the rifle and descend to earth. I estimate the range at around 30 yards and ensure that the animal is far enough from cover. Every second that I spend composing this shot gives the animal another chance to bolt as not only am I silhouetted against the pale maize but the wind is carrying my scent straight to it.
I gently relax into the kneeling position, hoping that my low profile may buy me some extra time. I take a deep breath and steady the crosshairs on the kill zone. The combination of a fine rifle and long training instinctively tell me that I won't miss. The soft click of the safety sounds harsh in the gathering dusk, then my finger finds the trigger and the shot flies home; the impact a dull crack over the cooling fields. A clean kill. I've come out without my game bag so I use my knife to hock the rabbit, tie it onto my belt and then pause to focus my thoughts and slow down my movements before commencing my bending stalk northwards.
As I move through the estate's timber yard I'm careful to pause regularly, scanning the lumber stacks and the undergrowth through the scope. This is a useful tactic at any time of day and has often allowed me to spot well camouflaged rabbits half hidden in the looming shadows. Coming up to the ride, I pay close attention to my footfall. Not only am I loath to crush the plethora of springtime snowdrops but the crisping carpet of last year's beech mast is sure to advertise my presence should I grind the husks underfoot.
This is challenging stalking ground but these lofty beeches do make the likelihood of encountering squirrels a very likely possibility. About half way along the ride I stop, crouch and scan. I'm still a bit early for rabbits and I'm looking to find suitable cover to sit and wait for them to appear. But, as I pause I spot movement in the undergrowth about 40 yards away; it's a young grey squirrel trying to cram calories into the end of its day. As a spring gun shooter I now have a choice, either I quietly continue in my pursuit of rabbits, hoping for something larger or I take this small squirrel, giving my granny's ninety three year old tastebuds the opportunity to try something new.
The animal is just within my effective range but I'm enjoying this so I opt for a patch of bare earth five yards closer to where it's feeding. As it eats I freeze, only moving when it returns to searching the ground. I've watched cats hunting this area and I imitate their movements by keeping low, bringing the rifle to earth beside me as I find a silent place for my hands and knees.
Clumsily, I place my left hand on a dry twig and the ensuing snap brings the squirrel to attention. Luckily, I'm almost prone at this point and after a frozen minute the grey returns to the task in hand. When I reach my position I take up the rifle, vainly hoping that the sound of the safety release will be covered by the squirrel's scratchings. It freezes at the unaccustomed sound, its kill zone clearly contrasted against the red glow of the crosshairs and I take my shot. The pellet meets its mark and it's over quickly. Taking the squirrel by the tail I make my way back home through the twilight, grateful, satisfied and thinking of pastry.
I've found that hunting on behalf of a loved one has done a great deal for my fieldcraft and determination. I often lose heart after a mistake but having the clear goal of finding food for a relative served to focus my mind and body in an unusual way. I'd recommend this strategy to others as it's probably closer to the emotional root of hunting than the more clinical objective of pest control.
If you're looking for a good excuse to get out with the rifle you need look no further than the kitchen window. The flower beds are breaking out in colour, the days are lengthening and there's so much for the air gunner to look forward to. It really is time to get back out there, so be it in garden or glade, I wish you all the very best of spring-time sport.