By Graham Downing
Thursday, 25 August 2011
It’s harvest time, and on Graham Downing’s farm that means only one thing for family and friends — a chance to pick off rabbits fleeing the combines
Harvest is one of the pivotal moments in the country calendar. The culmination of an entire year’s work on the arable farm, it is the cusp between summer and autumn. One day the countryside shimmers under a rich, deep cloak of golden corn, pigeon call lazily from the hedgerow oaks and the hen partridge and her young brood skulk about the weedy headlands. By the following evening, the fields are laid bare, another crop is gathered in and dazed-looking pheasants wander across a changed land. Within a few days the dark soil will be opened up once more by the cultivator and, all of a sudden, the year has turned.
But harvest time itself has always been an important sporting occasion too, for as the combine gobbles up the standing corn, hares, foxes and especially rabbits have to bolt across the widening stubbles in a bid to reach the safety of the hedgerow. In the old days when rabbit numbers were even greater than they are today, the keeper would station boys in the corners of the field to keep the rabbits in if they tried to break before the binder reached the final block of corn. Then, with all the rabbits bottled up in the centre of the field, he would place two or three Guns at one end of the corn while the boys and farm workers walked the strip of corn through.
Dozens of rabbits could be shot in this way, and the spoils were distributed among all concerned. It was a proud moment when the lads headed home on their bikes with a pair of rabbits hanging from the handlebars.
The speed of today’s machinery has made that picture a thing of the past, but on our small farm we still have a lot of fun hunting harvest rabbits with guns and terriers. The arrival of the contractor’s combine, tractor and trailer is a signal to grab the guns and bring the dogs up into the fields to await the moment those bunnies start to bolt.
Positioning is everything. Rabbits have their favourite runs, usually into places where there is dense bramble along the hedgerow, and the crucial thing is to anticipate where they will break and try to cut them off. Often they will be lying out in the fields in places where there is fresh green weed growth around the bottom of the corn stems, and again, these places need to be spotted then staked out before the combine has reached them. Naturally, standing Guns must have a safe field of fire and know where everybody else is in all the dust and the din.
My wife Ronnie and I, plus any friends or family members who are there to share the fun, prepare ourselves as the combine enters the field, for rabbits will be on the move from the moment the driver makes his first pass down the headland, especially if it is alongside one of those favoured bramble banks. These early rabbits are the most diffi cult to bag. Usually the oldest and the most canny, they will dash across the narrow first strip of stubble left by the combine just seconds after it has passed. Amidst the cloud of dust and chaff, and with the roar of the machine just yards away, you have to be really quick to pick up a bolting rabbit with a shotgun and kill it before it reaches the safety of the hedge. Terriers don’t stand a chance.
As the combine progresses and the distance from the standing corn to the headland increases, the tables are turned and the odds start to shorten in favour of the Gun and dog. Sometimes, when the combine has passed, you can spot a rabbit hesitating amongst the corn stalks as it weighs up whether or not to make its bid for safety. This is the moment which Pickle, my wife’s Jack Russell, loves the most.
Jack Russells have a terrific turn of speed, but their short legs present them with a disadvantage on uneven ground, when they have to pick up the bobbing white scut of a running rabbit through a screen of uneven stubble. To give Pickle a better chance, we lift her into the air, carrying her or sitting her on our shoulders as the combine works around the field. From her elevated position she has a better chance of spotting a rabbit the moment it runs and then coursing it across the field and hopefully catching it before it reaches the edge. Lurchers would no doubt make a much better job of it. Terriers do their best, but the odds are usually still in favour of the rabbit.
It is not just rabbits that bolt before the combine. This is also a perfect opportunity to pick up a fox, and there is usually at least one that runs out of our wheat. I welcome the hunt across the farm and I would certainly not wish to kill the last fox, but at this time of year they can do with a good thinning out and any which runs across the stubble is fair game. Last year we even had one that left its break rather too late. It must have been snoozing in the corn, for as the combine passed to my left I saw it thrown up into the air as the machine struck it. The resulting injury slowed it down, giving Pickle the chance to run it down and go in for the kill. A shared victory between the combine and the terrier, but it was a dead fox nonetheless.
I have always been rather more cautious about hares. At one time there were relatively few about, but our hares have now bounced back in a big way. They cause significant damage early in the year when the corn is establishing, and they will really massacre the spring drilled wild bird seed cover. If I get a chance, then I will shoot a hare. It is best not to slip the terrier at one, though. Unless it makes a stupid mistake, a hare is more than a match for a terrier across a stubble field. Of course, the terrier doesn’t know that and will be off in full cry, following the hare through the hedge and out the other side, chasing it around the farm and then, when it has lost its quarry, hunting whatever else it can find, gamebirds included. Half an hour later, when the terrier has recovered, the best opportunities for rabbits will inevitably have been missed. No terrier can be blamed for going off hunting when it is given the opportunity, so the moral is to look out for the hares early and, if you see one, hang on to the terrier. Provided the hare is well within range, the gun is a far more certain bet.
With favourable weather, our wheat will be cut in a single day, though we will be out in the fi elds until dusk, and if rain is expected and there is straw to be baled, then we’ll be working well into the night. But when the combine has departed, the corn has been taken off to the grain store and the straw bales carted away, there is something uniquely relaxing about walking the dogs across the quiet stubble, knowing that another harvest is behind us. At last the game and wildlife is visible once more, and we can get some idea of how the wild pheasant broods have fared. Now I can again watch muntjac and, if I am lucky, roe creeping around the edges of the fields. And when it is dark, I can drive the Land Rover around the fields with the .17HMR and shoot rabbits in the headlights.
Then, as the nights lengthen and the dark foliage of late summer becomes brown and tattered at the edges, the plough will come to turn the land and the whole cycle can begin once more.
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