With two of my shooting permissions cursed by the return of myxomatosis, I was pleased to be offered the shooting rights on a large public park, where a growing population of rabbits, were beginning dig up the carefully manicured cricket pitches. Due to public access, the permission was granted between the ours of dusk and dawn, with the stipulation that air rifles only were to be used.
Already fitted with a push button torch that can throw a tight beam a hundred yards, I took my two shot, Webley Viper Venom PCP .22 along for the first walk round, arriving well after sunset to find that the park was popular with evening dog walkers. Keeping the rifle in it’s slip, I toured the likely looking holding areas, which included a wooded railway embankment and a stand of horse chestnut trees, where one of the wooden cricket pavillions was situated. In the gloom beneath the trees a few rabbits were chasing about, but were gone under the pavillion, before I could unzip the Webley. There was a strong odour of rabbit from the building, which was mounted off the ground on slabs, where several rabbit runs were visible.
I decided to stake this area out, sitting on a fallen tree in cover, with a view of the back of the pavillion, any rabbits emerging from the runs would give good warning, due to the dry leaf litter. After 10 minutes, the faltering rustle of leaves warned of an approach behind me. I spun round to face the the animal, which stopped in it’s tracks. Straining my eyes and ears, I made out a lighter shape moving slowly left to right about twenty five yards away in the direction of the pitch. Once on the pitch it would be an easier target, but plumbed for “a bird in the hand is worth two in a bush” theory and flicked on the lamp to reveal the trotting rabbit. A stationary shot would have been aimed at the head, but now I fired at the chest. It jumped and turned back to the wood, stopping near a tree. With one shot left, the crosshairs settled just behind it’s eye. Phut! It toppled over. With the extra silencer attached to the shrouded barrel, the report from the rifle sounds weak, but at 30 yards the .22 pellet has all the hitting power to stop the largest of rabbits.
Although in apparent perfect condition, the white area around it’s closed up eyes were early signs of myxomatosis. I put on my rubber gloves, before picking it up by the hind legs and throwing it deep into a bush, where it would be out of reach of nosy dogs. Some people say that rabbits in this condition are safe to eat, but I prefer not to tempt fate. I went back to the stake out and waited for the tell tale rustle. This time it came from the pavillion and I flicked on the light to see the white tail and heels of a rabbit, bobbing round to the front of the building. Nipping round from my end, the rabbit was sitting bolt upright in the glare, I raised the rifle and fired. In that instant it was gone. Had I hit it, or missed? I swept the area with the beam and walked around the building. Nothing. I’d now made too much disturbance and headed down to walk the embankment.
Rabbits could be heard in the deep undergrowth, but I needed one to come out of cover, shining the torch among the nettles, seeing only the ghostly movements of unhittable targets as they made for safety. Along the path, a shape appeared, a rabbit with it’s back to me, taking my time to aim into the neck between it’s ears. The thwack from the hit drowned out the rifle, the rabbit falling forward without a twitch. Going over to the kill, my elation fell away with the sad sight of a rabbit in the final stages of myxomatosis. This had been a mercy killing. The disease is caused by infected fleas, which create sores, that the rabbit will scratch until it draws blood, while the eyes swell up oozing puss.
Myxomatosis was invented by man and introduced into Australia, where it devastated the rabbit population, it’s intended aim. After World War II, commercial warrens were no longer viable in England, as cheap meat from the Commonwealth became available and this painful disease was introduced here with similar effects. Today such a method would be banned, but strains of the disease continue to flourish in the wild rabbit population. Some are immune, others recover, but it is something once seen, never forgotten.