Keepers depend not only on their own efforts, but also the assistance and goodwill of others to make a success of their shoots. For most of us, farmers and farm workers will be pretty near the top of the list of those we need on our side for success.
To some extent, when both shooting and farming interests are controlled and working for the same boss, it should make this relationship easier, but I bet someone is reading this and saying ‘you would think so!’ You would also assume that tenants who have paid a considerable sum to farm the land would be solely focused on the job, and not interested in the work of the shoot, but this doesn’t need to be the case.
I can recall an old keeper giving me the advice that farmers always count rabbits in hundreds, and that you will always have more trouble and disagreements with them over rabbits than anything else. It certainly is true that rabbits can significantly impact on a crop, and this is one of the many areas where we can do a little to help the relationship by helping ‘our’ farmer with what is often a major pest.
As the harvest progresses rabbits become very noticeable to farmers, as they are ejected from the fields as they are combined. It is not often possible for a keeper busy with birds to find the time to stand a field when it is being cut to shoot rabbits, but it is easy to get a few helpers who like to have a shot out there to cover it, with you popping back to check all is well. Seeing you making the effort to help is more likely to get a farmer to reciprocate when you want help back. I like the farm to cut from the centre out, rather than inwards in an ever decreasing circle. I think this method pushes any birds and wildlife towards the edge of the field, rather than into the middle, and hence away from harm. This is a lot easier to ask the farmer for when he can see me helping him.
For a period of time, until the ploughing and drilling get under way, lamping is another way of tackling the rabbit population that has largely been left hidden away from control, in among the standing crops. This is an enjoyable job and can be a welcome break from the daily routine. Everyone has their own thoughts on how to do this. My preferred option at this time of year is to get out on the back of a truck with a rimfire as part of a team. I always used to opt to use a .22, but now as I tend to lamp smaller fields – albeit ones where it is harder to get to the rabbits – I am starting use my .17 more when out at night. Fitted with a moderator, it is relatively quiet and is much more accurate over the longer ranges. Another member of the team might take his ‘fox’ rifle in case one is spotted, but this is left unloaded in its case in the truck, rather like a fire alarm to be used in emergency. I find that if going for rabbits it is best to concentrate on them and to concentrate on foxing on another outing. Like choosing a calibre, there is a wide range of opinion about which lamp is best and I have tried many types and colours. Nowadays, for the rabbits I tend to use a standard white light.
The low noise of a rimfire helps minimise disturbance of ground not yet done, but just as importantly, as we can be out until late it does not disturb anyone who lives nearby. There are a couple of houses near the shoot, and we call round before we go to explain what we are doing, to prevent any issues. What is perfectly ordinary to us can be alarming to others if they do not know what’s happening, and we should never underestimate the potential that our actions have to shape and form others’ opinions.
There are other basics which must be adhered to, and safety is paramount. I have used a wide range of vehicles, but my choice now is a four-wheel-drive pickup which allows a team of three or four people to work as one. On the back of the truck there is a proper frame, and my preference is to have a seat available too. As well as being comfortable, it always aids accurate shooting, and standing for several hours can become tiring. Never forget however, that what is allowed off road is not necessarily allowed on road, and traffic laws must be obeyed.
Everyone in the team needs to be fully briefed and know their role. Essentially, the driver needs to be totally familiar with the ground and needs to get the ‘gun’ into a shootable position. Any hazards, such as rough ground, need to be avoided for the comfort and safety of all. Someone who drives methodically and smoothly, letting the truck slow itself when a rabbit is spotted rather than slamming on the brakes is ideal. The speed should be steady, allowing the ground to be lamped properly. Most of the time there is not much need to go all over a field, and pootling round the edge is generally sufficient. Our driver decides the route based upon the lie of the land and weather conditions; going in one direction round a field can mean shots can be taken safely, whereas going the other way can be frustrating, as without a safe backstop shots must be passed up.
The second member of the team is the lamper, who is on the back of the truck to spot and ‘light’ the rabbit for the shooter. Next to him is the shooter, and even with the help of the others it is always their responsibility to ensure their shots are safe, and that they shoot accurately and within their abilities.
The final member of the team would be someone to pick up, and this is often a good job for a youngster who is interested in coming shooting. Sitting them in the passenger seat allows them to pop out and collect any shot rabbits. Before leaving the truck to do this, clearance from the shooter must be given. Having an agreed format of signals and operating procedures is essential. We also take a means of communication in case of emergency, plus items such as spare lamps. If a bulb is going to blow it will be on the best night when there are plenty of rabbits at the furthest point from home.
For more information
There is more information and guidance in the BASC lamping code at www.basc.org.uk/en/codes-of-practice/lamping.cfm