Hunting with air rifles

Hunting with air rifles is challenging, demanding and, in the purest and best sense of the word, entirely sporting...

Hunting with air rifles is challenging, demanding and, in the purest and best sense of the word, entirely sporting.

A number of factors combine to make a clean, humane and effective shot at a rabbit a lot more than simply yanking on a trigger with hope in your heart, though.

It’s true, pests form the vast majority of legal and suitable air rifle quarry, but there’s more to simply knowing what you can shoot when you are out in the countryside. Fair enough, something defined as a pest doesn’t need much to qualify for a well-aimed pellet, but no matter how ‘lowly’ or ‘nasty’ a creature might seem to be, it still deserves a clean, quick and humane end with no suffering involved.

You, as an air rifle hunter, must behave with sportsmanship and with respect for your quarry at all times, and because of its relatively short range, using an air rifle will also make more demands of you than almost any other type of sporting arm. Fieldcraft, the ability to get close enough to your target to ensure an accurate and humane shot, will test your abilities to the utmost. Quite often you’ll be frustrated if a tiring stalk ends in failure, but you get a real sense of achievement, and pride, when you do succeed.

There are one or two ‘unwritten rules’ of air rifle hunting which make it clear that some species never qualify as legitimate or sporting quarry. All the game birds, for instance, will frequently present easy targets, but don’t be tempted because your permission to shoot will be very quickly withdrawn if you are seen to be poaching! Hares can become pests but they are too large to be shot humanely with airgun pellets, and that applies to foxes, too. There are plenty of sporting species that qualify as air rifle quarry and all of them will patience, without any need to look any further.

Also as an air rifle hunter, you must not only abide by the Country Code but uphold it too and possibly gain brownie points from the landowner in the process. If you see some example of the code being broken, like a dog worrying sheep, kids vandalising farm buildings or machinery, a picnic fire that’s not been properly extinguished, or simply rubbish left behind by thoughtless people – do something about it. As a privileged and authorised person – which you are, since you’re out hunting on some farmer’s land – you owe it to him to help ‘police’ his land, so even if you can’t immediately do anything about a problem, report it as soon as possible.

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The farmers’ ‘bush telegraph’ soon spreads good news and bad, so showing that you’re prepared to help will quickly become known and you’ll more than likely be made welcome on other farms. Even if you never see another soul when you’re out hunting with your air rifle, there are right and wrong ways to behave – and more often than not someone will be watching! Open gates carefully and ensure they shut behind you but don’t slam them – this only weakens the hinges. If the gate should be locked, climb over at the hinged end, not the latched end, because your weight will have far less effect if you cross where the gate is best supported, by the hinges.

If you have to cross a barbed-wire or stock-mesh fence, push the wire down at the centre of a run between two posts and, provided there’s enough slack for you to cock one leg and then the other over, hop over. If the fence is too tight, climb as close as possible to a fence-post, but don’t force the fence down and leave it sagging in the middle. Farm animals escaping into crops or neighbouring land is a sure-fire way to lose your shooting rights!

Whenever you cross from one field to another, make sure your rifle is safe. If it has a sling, which is best and safest whenever that’s possible, you can leave it on your shoulder when opening and closing a gate. But at all other times, especially when you have to climb and need both hands to cross an obstacle safely, make sure the rifle is unloaded and lay it down parallel with the fence or gate, so that you can reach over or through when on the other side, and retrieve it safely.

Resting the barrel on the wire is dangerous because the rifle might slip and fall if the fence wobbles as your weight is on it, and also because you might walk past the barrel once you’ve crossed the fence.

Even though you know the rifle is unloaded, never walk in front of a barrel that’s pointing at you.

When you fancy decoying pigeons you’ll often need to build a hide – but if you don’t take hide-poles to support the net with you, ask the farmer’s permission first before cutting any. Don’t cut slowgrowing hardwood sticks, such as ash, from close to where the hide is to be built, choose quick-growing species like hazel. Cut the poles with a fine-tooth saw or secateurs, at a steep angle, which gives you a point to make pushing them into the soil easier, and leaves behind a stump from which buds will more quickly sprout.

Use side branches to dress the hide netting to blend it in with the surroundings, and when you pack up, tuck these ‘brashings’ into the base of the hedge and leave the hide poles where you can find them next time, or take them with you.

Leave the area as you found it. That’s part of the Country Code too.

When rabbit shooting, it might seem to make sense to paunch the rabbits (taking out the stomach and intestines) to make carrying them easier, but in fact cleaning out rabbits that have cooled off for a few hours is much easier than cutting open warm and ‘floppy’ ones, and you won’t leave piles of guts around to attract foxes.

Most large areas are crossed by some form of path. As an authorised person, you must know where they are and make every effort to ensure that anyone using such paths is not in any way put at risk by any shots you might take. What this means is that the most sensible thing to do is keep well away from footpaths, tracks, rights of way and bridleways, and public roads.

All responsible air rifle hunters must know the laws on hunting – and as well as shooting safely.


This means you should be able to recognise your quarry and whether it is legal to shoot it or not. As long as you have permission to be on the land or property where you are shooting, you may legally shoot the following species:

GREY SQUIRREL : Common and destructive pest, especially damages  trees. Has displaced native, protected, Red squirrel in many parts of the UK. (E)

CARRION CROW : Major predator on game and songbirds, eggs and chicks, will also peck eyes from newborn lambs. Very wary and difficult to stalk.

FERAL PIGEON: Cheeky chappie town scrounger actually carries a variety of nasty diseases. Creates mess and damages buildings.

COLLARED DOVE: Same size as protected Turtle dove but Collared variety can steal and soil large quantities of stored grain in farmyards. Needs control. (E)

ROOK: Athough officially a pest and predator, at certain times of the year they can be beneficial to agriculture, eating harmful insect pests.

WOODPIGEON: Vast flocks hoover-up crops in all parts of the UK. Most destructive pest in constant need of control and very good to eat. (E)

RABBIT: Back in plague numbers in many areas, the rabbit is as destructive and greedy as the woodie and in need of continuous control.(E)

RAT: Public enemy number 1. Untold millions of poundsworth of damage worldwide plus carrier of several highly dangerous diseases.

MAGPIE: One of the most voracious and destructive predatory pests, hitting young broods of garden songbirds in particular.

There are other birds, like jays and jackdaws which are defined as pests, but don’t as a rule pose the same threat as those listed. Greater and lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls, although also on the list, are too big or because of habitat not to be considered as suitable air rifle quarry.

All birds, except the named pest species, are legally protected. Even pests may only be shot by authorised persons – defined as the landowner, or one who has permission to shoot on the land where the quarry is present. The Wildlife and Countryside Act, which governs avian pest species control, requires that a shooter must be sure that the quarry was causing or about to cause damage at the time it was shot. By definition a pest is a species whose numbers, appetite and destructive nature result in damage to food crops etc. so the need to control their numbers is obvious. Many pest species are also good to eat, as we have indicated with the letter (E) in each brief description (above).

Using an air rifle to hunt at night, together with hand-held or scopemounted lamps, red-dot sights or modern Night Vision devices, is exciting. Both rabbit and rat numbers have surged over recent years so, with permission, of course, there’s plenty of pest control available.

Hunting lamps, hand-held or scope mounted, are all you need for lamping success – that and a bit of commonsense, which you can read more about on page 95. The power source can be integral using re-chargeable batteries, or via a coiled flex to a 6v or 12v battery slung from a belt or your shoulder. Cordless lamps are more compact and simple but they are also heavier than flex types and you should remember this when making your mind up. Hand-held types are not so easy to hold out at arm’s length for very long, but smaller models with stock-mounted power-packs are worth trying.

Reflector sizes vary from an inch or so to over a foot – but air rifle models are mostly of the smaller variety, between 2in and 6in - which send the beam from a krypton or halogen bulb lancing out into the night to pick up the gleam from your quarry’s eyes. Most lamps have a trigger-switch, which you can pull with one finger and on some you can also lock the trigger on, so your finger doesn’t tire with the strain of keeping the switch down.

All hunting lamps should be used sparingly. Just a quick flash round with the beam to pick out the targets, close the range down with a silent approach, pinpoint the rabbit in the light and take the shot. This method will save your battery, increase the time you can be out, and help to gain a bigger bag by not disturbing other potential targets.

Any risk, no matter how slight, involved in your intended shot must mean giving up the stalk and simply trying somewhere else on the shoot. You must also be aware that it is illegal to shoot within 15 metres of the centre of any road, track, path or right of way.

The Country Code, mostly unwritten and defined over many centuries, has fundamentally changed recently, due to the ‘Right to Roam’. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW) allows the general public access to far larger areas of the countryside than ever before – but not unlimited access.

Large expanses of moorland, heathland, downland and mountain areas are now ‘open’ but the act does not allow unlimited public access on private land, except via the many footpaths and bridleways that already exist. Ordnance Survey maps of the British Isles include a key which defines the difference between county and parish boundaries, bridleways, tracks and paths with public footpaths and rights of way represented by red dotted lines and the word PATH or FP. Road access points are indicated by signposts and the latest legislation has brought in another sign which indicates access to suitably designated areas. Footpaths are also a standard width, 3 feet, which is wide enough for two people to pass without bumping into one another. But whatever the status of a path that crosses your shoot, the best advice is to avoid them whenever you can, and certainly when you are aware that there’s anyone using them. As an air rifle hunter, respect for the countryside includes having the same sort of respect for yourself, and your sport