Rules of the hunt: air rifle law UK

A man with air rifle with back to the camera

Airgun hunting gives me an immense feeling of freedom - Credit: Archant

Jamie Chandler explains exactly what we can and can’t hunt legally with air rifles in the UK

My life is filled with people asking me questions, and me avoiding those very same types who ask me. In fact, I would bet my wife (she’s an excellent cook) that I get asked more questions by strangers in the average week, than most. The legal and moral dilemmas and restrictions on me wagering another human aside, I’ll explain.
Mainly at supermarkets, petrol stations – and oddly, restaurants – someone will invariably pop on over to ask how I do something. I get it; I have no hands and they’re curious, then they’re blown away by my normally jovial, well-practised, somewhat self-deprecating answer. Having no hands isn’t like working out how to put people on Mars, or unravelling the human genome, but it does seem to come with as many questions from the idly curious. 

WHY DO WE HUNT?
Another question I get asked an awful lot, mainly when lucky enough to be a gun on a driven shoot day, or in fact, by most other field sports enthusiasts, is ‘Why do you like airgun hunting?’ Sometimes, with a hint of snobbery and sometimes with a bluster of frustration.

The answer is simple – freedom. On a driven shoot, you are told which peg you are on, when you are to shoot and how many birds the day will consist of, what to wear, what to say and what time you’ll start and finish; also, when in the year you can hunt from and until. In fact, on any organised shoot you are at the behest of the organiser, basically doing as you are told, albeit whilst having a very nice time. With an airgun, if you have a perm, then it’s normally a quick DM or phone call and off you go; hunting on a day you chose and in a way that you want, dressed however the mood takes you. It’s you, your quarry, the hunt – and that’s it.

That Braveheart moment of crying ‘freedom’ at the top of my lungs aside, there are still quite a few rules that we airgunners have to stick to when hunting, regarding which species we can hunt, and more importantly, why. As we leave the Christmas holidays behind it seems a good idea to revisit some of the rules, to give anyone lucky enough to have received an airgun from the obese, bearded man with a sleigh, or much loved family member, an overview of what we can hunt, where and why.

Squirrel legs on a BBQ

Long gone are the halcyon days of simply bagging something for the pot - Credit: Archant

WHICH SPECIES CAN I HUNT WITH AN AIR RIFLE?
So, what species here in good old Blighty, can we hunt? Actually, there are quite a few, especially when compared to many of our European counterparts. Obviously, and as always on all matters hunting, the US is far more open, but I’m happy with a compromise if it includes me keeping mainly free health care.

The main list of what quarry we can hunt UK-wide includes:

  • rabbits
  • grey squirrels
  • rats
  • stoats
  • mink
  • woodpigeon
  • feral pigeon
  • carrion crows
  • magpies

There are other species you can hunt, but that depends on which part of the UK you live in. For example, as I write this, you can hunt jays in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland.

The list of the species we can hunt, and how, in the UK, is the General Licence. Recently, the General Licence has been changed radically and continues to evolve, so although this is correct as I write, things can change, and it’s always worth checking. Any amendments are published by DEFRA, but also by shooting organisations, such as BASC, the Countryside Alliance or the NGO,  which is why it’s certainly worth being a member of one, along with the free insurance and legal advice.

WHERE CAN I HUNT WITH AN AIR RIFLE?
You can hunt pheasant and partridge with the permission holder’s consent, but honestly, I wouldn’t. The only likely reason you would be given the nod is that your current permission holder doesn’t have a shoot. If you’re looking to expand your permissions into neighbouring farms, where they do, then the last thing you want is to be identified as the guy who shoots the ‘keeper’s birds, albeit on the other side of the fence. It’s a sure-fire way of muddying a relationship before it’s even begun!

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Where can we hunt? With a 12 ft.lbs. airgun, it’s possible to hunt in almost any space, as long as the pellet doesn’t leave the boundary of the property and you have permission. That said, caution and common sense are key if shooting in an overlooked garden. For example, it could be that it is a council or housing association property, or privately rented ,and if so, there may be caveats in the contract that prohibit such activities. A very good example is a lady in my village who kept chickens; rats invaded, and out of concern for her chickens, she asked a neighbour to shoot them rather than lay poison. Word got back to her housing association, an enquiry launched, a visit from the police and a threat of eviction, should she break her tenant agreement again. Personally, I wouldn’t have shot in that case because common sense would tell me not to.

Basically, we can hunt within the boundaries of any area where we have permission from the landowner, or his agent or representative. Common sense also dictates that you don’t shoot around people, livestock or property that might be endangered, and I am making the assumption that as you bought this magazine or are reading it online, it means you have a bit of grey matter about you!

An air rifle leant against a tree with two dead pigeons at the base

Hunting must have a purpose other than simple enjoyment - Credit: Archant

WHY DO WE DO IT?
Finally, why we can hunt, or the justification behind it. Long gone are the halcyon days of bagging a rabbit for the pot, or a pigeon or two for a pie. Ironically, in today’s eco world, you can eat an avocado flown in from Israel then dropped at your supermarket with no impediments, but pop to your local permission to hunt for the main ingredients of a game pie, and you could be in trouble.

You have to justify your hunt; be it for crop protection, that of health and safety, pest control or livestock protection. Sadly, ‘I was peckish’ won’t cut the mustard, for a game pie or not! Be ready and aware of why you are there, in pest-control terms, and in the case of woodpigeons, for example, be prepared to show that you tried other non-lethal means to move them on, before resorting to shooting. Whilst airguns are quiet and hence don’t attract as much attention as shotguns, the reasons behind us being there are the same. At worst, be prepared to prove your non-lethal efforts in court.

LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Those basics all said and done, there is still so much freedom and enjoyment to be had when hunting with an airgun that simply isn’t available to other shooters. We all want vast permissions with varying terrains, but with an airgun we can hunt rabbits in a half-acre horse paddock, if that’s what’s on offer. We can become part of the biodiversity of an area, not just be in it. We can act as predator and conservator, leaving quarry to replenish when numbers are down, and targeting when numbers grow out of control. Whichever way you enjoy our sport, stick within these basic rules and you’ll be helping us all to enjoy it relatively unimpeded, for generations to come.