Long-range gully rabbits

Sam Garro

Over the past few years in parts of country Victoria I’ve noticed a notable drop in rabbit numbers, as attested to by fellow hunters lamenting their general absence on properties previously holding good amounts. This may be attributed to the introduction of a more potent strain of calicivirus, the combined eradication efforts of farmers and the Department of Primary Industries, certainly the drought and perhaps all of the above.

Whatever the case, it’s working. When I received a request from a shooting companion to help cull rabbits on the property of a farmer concerned with their growing ranks, I welcomed the opportunity as it had been some time since I’d bagged a few for the pot. I later learned the farmer preferred shooting rather than poisons or the usual eradication methods, mainly as his cattle property with hilly terrain, stands of forest and gullies supported a variety of wildlife he didn’t want harmed or affected.

Furthermore, shooting by a trusted and licensed shooter would be cost-effective at a time when many farmers are struggling with their own hardships. Recent and welcomed soaking rains had promoted green growth everywhere, triggering and stimulating the propagation of wildlife in general, in particular the humble rabbit.

While there were a few small pockets of rabbit warrens about the property, the main concentration lay in a sizeable open gully strewn with large patches of dense ferns, tangled blackberry bushes and gumtree forest at the rear of the basin. Similar growth trailed up the hill to the right. Due to regular shooting and their subsequent skittish behaviour, distant shooting from the ridges was the more effective and productive method.

On arrival in mid-afternoon we were greeted by ominous grey skies and misty rain and hoped anything more serious would hold off until after our shoot. My introduction to the property owner was brief but necessary as, while an ongoing cordial relationship existed between my mate Mark and the owner, it was important I gained his trust and acceptance, not just for the afternoon buto for any future visits.

First order of the day was to check our rifles were properly sighted in as missing shots later due to complacency can prove disappointing and frustrating, even leading to loss of confidence. A paper target was erected at 100m in a shallow depression to prevent any bullet straying.

Just as well we made the effort as both our rifles needed some tweaking. Apart from a scope receiving an unnoticed bump or knock, a simple variation in a batch of handloads such as using a different primer, bullet design, change in bullet seating or crimping and the like can have an effect on accuracy. When satisfied with the bullet groupings we headed for the gully.

Nearing the location we kept to the high ground overlooking the gully and stuck close to a line of gum trees to remain undetected. It wasn’t long before we spied rabbits through the binoculars emerging from the undergrowth and burrows to feed. Some sat just outside the safety of their burrows while others hopped short distances to stop and feed. The moderate wind that blew across to where we were positioned was ideal as it would significantly muffle the sharp crack of our rifles.

For long-range shooting, Mark brought along his trusty and proven custom .17 Ackley Hornet rifle built on a 1950s Brno ZKW 465 action fitted with a heavy duty one-in-10” twist, 22” Shilen barrel mounted with a Leupold VX2 6-18x50 variable scope and fitted with an adjustable low mount bipod. The neat package spits out handloaded 20gr Hornady Z-MAX projectiles at around 3600fps, a very effective rabbit stopper.

I sported a 1970s Sako A1 HB in .222 Rem mounted with a Leupold VX2 3-9x40 scope and extendable 1m Vanguard bipod, enabling me to take shots either kneeling or sitting. My bullets were loaded with 50gr Sierra Blitz King projectiles in front of 21gr of AR2007 powder with a muzzle velocity around 3100fps, also very effective on small game. While I was smacking rabbits out to 200m with the scope set on maximum nine-power, they were mostly body shots. If I wanted to achieve consistent head shots for meat retrieval I’d need to upgrade or invest in a higher powered scope. 

With bipods extended and ammo by our sides, we settled into comfortable shooting positions, took time to line up the quarry and squeeze the trigger. One by one the distant rabbits started to drop to the just audible familiar thud of a high velocity bullet hitting home. From the high vantage point and favourable wind we were also far enough away not to be detected, enabling us to drop several rabbits in succession.

Within the first half hour or so we accounted for around 10 rabbits, although we started to lose count trying to fully focus on felling as many as we could. Not every shot hit the mark, some rabbits missed altogether requiring follow-up efforts, but when we did they dropped where they stood without moving, the high velocity little pills positively devastating.

After each shooting session it was only a matter of 15 minutes or so before more rabbits emerged and we resumed our positions. Even though the culling exercise had started several weeks earlier, they were still evident in numbers. We stayed on the hilltop until shortly before dark so had sufficient daylight to retrieve the felled rabbits, half a dozen on their sides clearly visible from the whites of their belly, the others we had to find among tussock grass, ferns and bracken. On the valley floor we collected them as quickly as possible as the blowflies were doing their best to infest the downed bunnies, the falling temperature and setting sun seemingly no deterrent.

Of the 20 or so rabbits collected, those that were chest shot or hit a little lower were a bit of a mess. As someone who’s always had an appreciation of game meat I couldn’t leave them without trying to retrieve the salvageable parts such as the upper body or hind legs, especially as they were mostly plump, three-quarter grown rabbits which would make excellent table fare. In the absence of a carry bag, a sturdy branch threaded through the coupled hind legs was used to haul them back to the vehicle where they were stowed in a large container, the skinning, cleaning and refrigeration done later at home.

While our efforts were appreciated by the owner, rabbit numbers will prevail or remain high when you have a situation where the adjoining property owners do little or nothing, or for good reason are unable to control pests on their own estate. The bunnies simply migrate across and take up residence and in such a scenario a trusted shooter is sometimes welcome to extend culling to bordering properties, hence the importance of the SSAA’s Farmer Assist program.

The few hours’ shooting passed quickly enough, rabbits which sat beyond 200m certainly challenging our shooting skills as we tried our best, but I wasn’t complaining. We’d enjoyed an afternoon in favourable conditions, retrieved some meat for the table and, more importantly, made a bit of a dent in rabbit numbers for the owner.

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