Last year I broke a finger playing cricket. I'd like to tell of a noble wound sustained during an epic duel of leather and willow, but I can't sadly. I just fell over, plain and simple. I'm still not sure which was worse, the pain or the embarrassment as I watched the batsmen joyfully running their fifth before I came to my senses and returned the ball.
Thankfully for my pride and my future at the club this failure wasn't all down to sporting ineptitude. Once the banter had settled at the bar the team fell to discussing the underlying cause of my fall. It seemed that I wasn't the first to have taken a tumble in the outfield and other sympathetic souls began to voice their concerns over the numerous troughs and scrapes that had recently been plaguing the pitch; the work of rabbits, one of the groundsman's oldest enemies.
Now we all know that prevention is better than cure so two hundred metres of mesh wire were dug into the existing fence at considerable cost in materials and time (we're a small village club) and great care was taken to address the weak points around the gates. We'd be safe next season; “There's no buck alive could get through that!” etc etc. However, turning up to the ground this year we found more holes in the pitch than a man could fill in two hours. This was dangerous as well as unsightly so we all agreed it was time to take a less passive approach to ground maintenance and provide another job for the 95K.
Our club sits within open parkland, the pavilion end bordering a lake and a tree line that's home to some very well established warrens. I walked the whole boundary fence a couple of times to check for entry points or places where the wire had been broken and there were several damaged areas where the fence had been undermined and even chewed clean through. Curious to find out exactly when and where the rabbits were getting in I set up my trail camera on a fence post and returned several days later. Discovering the exact time at which the rabbits ventured out was useful information and I decided on a late dusk hunt when I could catch them far from cover.
After a quick call to the head keeper to confirm my plans, I drive across the parkland onto some rising ground about 160 yards from the pavilion and this provided a good spot where I could scan the area for activity before I moved closer.
Some readers may wonder why I didn't choose to set up a simple ambush from cover but it really doesn't get my adrenaline pounding in the same way as a tactical stalk. There are so many more challenges and surprises when you're on the move and being on the literal prowl tends to lead to a more diverse experience. There's a kind of trade off in stalking between stimulation and risk but you don't get the gentle monotony of lying in wait, something I've never been good at. The upshot of this approach is a real need to pay attention to fieldcraft and I enjoying seeing how close I can get before I'm spotted.
Sunset stalking requires good optics and with its 50mm objective, my scope offers decent light gathering but I don't always want to raise the rifle to scan and whilst my rangefinder is very useful in this role its small objective and fixed magnification is a tad murky in low light. A good pair of spotting binoculars will definitely be the next item on the wish list.
From my observation point above the ground I can see four rabbits near the warrens and another two on the pitch. The breeze is on my left ear and I'm confident that my scent won't carry. For my first stalk I choose a large rabbit feeding near the warren where my approach will be covered by an oak tree for the first 100 yards. The last light of the sun glows pale through the heavy cloud and it feels good to be alone with the rifle in such a serene place after a particularly challenging week at work.
Even though I'm currently concealed from my quarry I make a conscious effort to move slowly as any latent impatience needs to be banished at this stage lest it make an appearance when the animal is in my crosshairs. Similarly, hunger can play havoc with my concentration and I'm glad of the light meal I ate before coming out. I pause often and in doing so my deliberate movements slowly become those of a predator rather than a modern day man in a hurry.
As I come up to the oak, I take a knee and scan the warren fence with the rangefinder. I'm always glad that I take the time to do this as there's often another rabbit where I didn't expect one, well camouflaged to the naked eye. In this case, there's a pair of motionless ears 50 yards to my right and I'm concerned that this animal is already on low alert having seen me make my way down from my vehicle. If you move slowly and keep low you can normally get to within 45 yards of a suspicious rabbit before it makes the decision to return to cover but I'm wary lest it thump the earth, putting the immediate area on alert.
Moving carefully around the trunk and into potential view, I begin to crawl on my stomach with the rifle beside me. There's a growing burn in my right arm as I repeatedly grip the stock and drag the relativity light weight of the Weihrauch forward through the cool grass. Inching myself along with my close tucked forearms, I pause every five yards or less to observe both animals, checking that their body language remains relaxed and that they're still unaware of me. There's a very real sense of sporting challenge now as lying still I'm fairly safe from detection but when I move there's a very good chance that I'll be spotted.
At 40 yards from rabbit number one I catch the clip of my rangefinder on the butt of the rifle and the doe stops feeding at the noise, sniffing the air. I stay still for about two minutes before meticulously edging my way behind a tiny tuft of grass that will break up my outline over the last 10 yards. The rabbit senses danger but is still unsure of its direction and I'm glad to come to a reassuring dip in the ground that will provide the perfect place for a 30 yard shot. I'm tired from my efforts so I give myself a slow count to a sixty to allow the lactic acid in my right arm time to disperse, then I light up my scope's reticle and adopt a comfortable prone position. The rabbit sits in perfect profile, its head clear against the green crosshairs, I press the trigger blade and the crack of the impact rings surprisingly loud. The animal jumps once into the air and then lies motionless.
There are still about forty minutes of light remaining so I reload, retrieve my kill and take a long walk back around the ground to approach the top end of the warren from the opposite direction. The wind is still in my favour and by using the rolling landscape to conceal my movements I'm able to add another two healthy rabbits to the the match tea menu. It's been a great evening's sport and strangely for me, I'm really looking forward to some cooking.
For those seeking new permissions village cricket grounds present an interesting possibility. Urban clubs are often on civic parks and can present challenges from a safety standpoint but village clubs often border farmland and are usually populated with local farmers and landowners who are quite approachable, especially if you're in the pub after the game. If you're presentable, polite and you take a bit of time to get to know people then cricket can actually be a great way into making more friends and finding further shooting opportunities; just be sure to take care of those trigger fingers if you find yourself stepping out for a game!