The feeding buck freezes, its haunches quivering as it scans the air for some threatening scent or sound. With its neck craning for illusive height, its whole twitching being is poised to bolt or beat the earth in alarm. But the drifting breeze bears no threat and only the well known hum of a distant engine is returned to its torn and ragged ears. A gentle wind strokes the tops of the lightest trees and the rabbit's nose detects whispers of warm sheep, freshly scraped earth and only the merest hint of a wood fire, long gone cold. A fixed stare belies a murky but panoramic gaze that keens deeply for some cumbrous shape or the clumsy haste of a hungry predator.
This rabbit never knew I was there, downwind and less than 35 yards away. After two failed stalking attempts in another field, I'd managed to crawl 60 yards in the lee of a hawthorn hedge to take my shot from prone as it tried to confirm exactly where and what I was. I'd taken my normal approach of identifying an individual animal in the binoculars from 70-100 yards away and then planned my route to come within effective range. Stalking rabbits is exciting sport and is overflowing with the kind of tactical and physical challenges that make it one of my favourite kinds of small game hunting.
Observation is the crux of it; as hunters we need to read the land as well as decipher the movements and the language of the creatures within it. Ignoring this idea isn't hunting, it's just walking around with a rifle. When a wood pigeon clatters from the tree tops the rabbit is wary and when a distant pheasant calls in alarm, foraging squirrels look out for the fox. Whilst we may not be able to speak the language of the woods and fields we can certainly learn to understand it.
A key part of this understanding lies in deciphering our quarry's various states of alert. The rough shotgun shooter will prize those moments when their quarry is already alarmed, in motion and heading for cover whilst the extended range of rimfire rifles will allow distant shots, taking rabbits completely unawares. For the air gunner, an appreciation of our animal's evolved defences is crucial if we're going to remain undetected at close quarters.
Rabbits rely upon their senses to trigger their alarm response and eventual flight to safety. If we know how these senses work we can outmanoeuvre them.
Like most prey species rabbits have monocular vision which trades detail and definition for an improved field of view and better movement detection. If you don't move quickly or hastily you won't put them on alert (you can practice on motion sensitive security cameras as they have almost exactly the right level of sensitivity). Equally, if you break up your outline through the effective use of cover and camouflage you'll remain completely undetected or register as a neutral presence, much like a grazing animal. Keep the sun behind you, make use of shadow and pause often staying low and slow.
A rabbit has good hearing but try not to overestimate its auditory prowess; it's just a rabbit and does not possess superpowers. As long as the noises you make are low in volume and at irregular intervals you won't trigger an escalation in the alert level. If you sound like a sheep and you don't smell or appear threatening then small rustles, light snaps and the click of the safety catch shouldn't cause a problem. They may know you're there but they won't be too suspicious.
Like sound there are some smells that a rabbit will tolerate without reaction but wind direction is a deciding factor so be certain to keep the gentlest breeze upon face or flank. They also age odour so if the smell is threatening but old (ancient bloodstains, your great aunt's dog etc) it won't register as a serious threat. Similarly, if you leave your clothes outside and you don't smell like a perfumery you'll likely go undetected. Whist lying motionless in windless conditions I've had rabbits cross my path less than ten yards away and had others even venturing within five before they've smelt me and bolted for cover. Wood ash is an effective scent masker and I often carry an old pellet tin-full to shake over recent blood stains and sweat points (it's also great for precisely determining wind direction). At this time of year the crushed and pungent leaves of wild garlic will give similar results.
Rabbits can detect your footfall from the ground so keep it light and irregular and avoid landing heavily if crossing gates or styles as the vibrations will carry. Their familiar beating of the earth with their hindquarters is a form of seismic communication (a technical term, not poetic licence) and whilst it can be felt and heard by those animals within earshot it'll be a much louder warning to those still in the warren.
Sound the alarm
Imagine a rabbit's state of alert as a vertical green bar slowly changing to red as the perceived threat level increases or falling as its sense of security returns. This helps you to gauge how your presence is being perceived, whether you're still undetected and how long you may have to wait before seeing a resumption of normal activity.
Deep green. When the animal feels safe the bar is at level one, a green gauge hovering around the mark as it takes regular breaks from feeding to pause and look up. You can tell how secure the individual is by how often it stops to look and listen and for how long. When observing larger groups it's a good sign if the younger animals are chasing each other. All rabbits will stay at this level of alert unless something triggers an escalation to the next stage. If you can get close enough to take your shot without leaving this level then you're doing very well. Reset time 3-10 seconds.
Light green. The rabbit stops feeding and freezes. It's unsure but not alarmed enough to stop feeding. They'll return to level one if you don't move or make a sound but might also hop a few places closer to cover to continue feeding where they feel slightly more secure. This an exciting part of the stalk as you move and pause in time with their actions. Reset time 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Yellow. The rabbit freezes and might raise itself upon its haunches to improve its field of view. It's alert but uncertain. Feeding rabbits will do this if you make a wet smacking sound with your lips and it's good way to get them to present for a shot. The rear legs will quiver, ready to thump the earth and alert the warren to danger. At this level some rabbits will hop purposefully to light cover where they feel safer from aerial attack and can make better use of camouflage. They will return to feeding when they feel safe but the alert level will take longer to fall than it does at lower levels. Like many mammals, rabbits feel safer when near other rabbits so you can often get away with more mistakes when approaching larger groups. Reset time 2-5 mins.
Orange. The rabbit is on high alert and is certain of a threat but still unsure of its nature or direction. It will either freeze and thump the ground with its hind legs or bolt for heavy cover and then pound the earth in relative safety. Some rabbits may remain frozen if far enough from the burrow and can still present a shot. Reset time 10-20 mins.
Red. It's goodbye rabbits as they head for the burrow and I rarely stick around to wait them out as they'll need a long time to recover their sense of security. Reset time 25 mins plus. However, your presence may still be unknown to nearby warrens and other quarry. It's not unusual to see nearby rabbits bolt and thump whilst others are still happily feeding 70 yards away so you'll undo all of your good work at this stage by standing up and cursing the sky. This part of the warren may be on level five but the rabbits in the next field still have no idea that you're there, and neither do the squirrels on the edge of that wood!
All animals are instinctive and have largely predictable and exploitable patterns of behaviour. There's no dark art or high magic in fieldcraft and by-passing an animal's defences all comes down to triggers. Remember Mission Impossible and that intricate web of lasers? If you break the beam it's game over but if you're slow and careful it's bon appetite.
The long, warm afternoons and newly sprouted foliage make this a fine time for rabbit stalking during the day or at dusk. If you normally go lamping or shoot from a fixed hide then this kind of hunting will shake the cobwebs from your fieldcraft and get the adrenaline coursing in a very different way. Good luck, and may the lead fly true!