Thursday, 22 April 2010

Rabbits

I've been out deer stalking four nights in the last two weeks, and I've seen nothing. Well, nothing in season or nothing that I could get a safe shot at. There's some space in freezer again, so I took the soft option last night: a bit of bunny hunting.

Rabbits are not a taxing prey, as the fields are carpeted with rabbits of all ages and sizes at the moment. You could kick a stone and hit one. And it doesn't require any real fieldcraft - just warm clothes, a shotgun and good sea legs for standing in the back of a moving truck. A sense of humor helps too.

My dear old Dad gave me a new 12 bore semi-auto shotgun as a wedding present (Mike's tried not to read anything into this, though he's been on his best behavior since it arrived). It's my first semi-auto and it's taken some getting used to. It came with an extended mag so I can cram in 10 cartridges at a time.

This is the perfect back-of-the-truck rabbiting gun, when aiming becomes more of an aspiration than a likelihood. It's dark, the truck is bumping around in all directions. You see a bunny in the light and you try to follow it with the gun while trying to stay standing, and the spare tire keeps slamming into your ankles, your hip bones are banging into the metal bar that you're trying to lean against for support, and all the spilled wheat you're stood on makes it all a bit slippery underfoot. Hence, the sense of humor.

Pete the underkeeper and I did the shooting, while Mike drove and shone the light out on the fields looking for rabbits and foxes. Mike has a system for alerting us to rabbits he thinks we haven't seen: waving the light wildly and beeping the horn (what did I tell you about no fieldcraft needed?) Pete brought a rifle in case of a chance at a long-range fox, and I brought the semi-auto for bunny harvesting. As there we're no foxes and lots of bunnies, Pete and I took turns with the semi-auto. We managed 13 bunnies between us before we ran out of ammunition, about one rabbit per 3.5 shots. I don't think that's bad going when you take into account all the factors.

Pete and Mike gave me a refresher lesson in gutting rabbits. I am officially rubbish at it. By the time I'd opened one rabbit, Pete had opened the other twelve.

There is a simple technique for cleaning them, which is 'The Flick': grab the head and the back feet and flick the body away from you, like you were snapping a towel. Eveything but the liver / kidneys comes out in one clean package. Neat huh? It takes a bit of practice to master.


My first flick was more of a 'flump' - everything came out but plopped on my feet. I put some oomph into the next one, but swung instead of flicked, and covered Mike all up his left side in unmentionables. Seems I'm better at the butchering than the field dressing. Thankfully, I excel at getting blood stains out of Mike's shirts.

I took off all the prime, unshot rabbit loins and thigh meat this morning while I was waiting for Nigel the hedgelayer to meet me. He's going to clear the weeds and lay what's left of the thorn hedges on the road boundary of Milkweed farm. We checked all through the overgrown hedge to make sure there were no nesting birds, as it's getting late in the season. All clear, so we'll get on with that next week. Ted the woodsman cleared the willows out of the dew pond which gives us access to extract water for the livestock.

The cleared pond

While we were looking for nests, Nigel and I got to talking chickens, as usual. Nigel told me that he dowses all his hatching eggs to find out which are the hens and which are the cocks. He kindly showed me how it's done:

- Thread a needle on a piece of cotton (thread) and tie the ends so you've got a needle hanging on the end of a 7"ish loop.
- Lay your egg on its side and touch the egg with the point of your needle. Lift the needle so it hangs just above the egg a 1/2" or so
- Be patient. Soon the needle will start to move above the egg. If it moves back and forth in a straight line, it's a cock. If it does little circles either direction, it's a hen. If it doesn't do anything then it's infertile.


I had a half dozen bantam eggs in the pantry and under Nigel's guidance I dowsed the eggs. The needle tells me I have 3 hens, 2 cocks, and 1 infertile. I set some Silkie eggs in the incubator this morning and there was a little room left, so I put the 3 potential hen eggs in. In a few months, I will see if I have 'the touch', or if my dowsing skills are on par with my rabbit gutting skills.

Nigel took on the remains of my butchered rabbits to bait his fox traps and feed the magpies in his catchers. Have I not mentioned that it's crow and magpie trapping time? How we use a 'Judas' bird and a spring loaded trap door to catch maurading corvids? Stay tuned for the next post...

15 comments:

Kate said...

Your life is starting to look/sound like the River Cottage series. Pretty awesome and jealous making!

Did Nigel say what his accuracy rate is? I'd be curious to hear if it's better than random chance.

Jennifer Montero said...

Kate - Funnily enough, the original River Cottage house is in the next village. The owner is Mike's old boss and he offered the cottage to Mike pre-the TV series. But we're happy here.

Nigel reckons that he gets around 90% success! I know good water dowsers are scarily accurate, so maybe Nigel is too. Who knows what's in these old ways?

I forgot to say that he suggests you take your watch off when you dowse or it can interfere with the readings.

Harvest Kitchen Sisters said...

Holy rabbits batman! They look huge, you have some mad skills in the hunting department. What are you gonna do with all that meat?

Poppy Cottage said...

Yep. Makes Poppy Cottage life seem so boring!!

So I'm off to Wales to http://www.smallholdinglife.co.uk/ and a bit of this http://www.wonderwoolwales.co.uk/

With 16 year old PMT queen at home, debating is I ever need to come home!! After all I'll have the Lily fluff with me............

Paula said...

Fascinating stuff.

Why trap magpies and crows?

Jennifer Montero said...

HKS - I don't know about hunting skills, there's just so many rabbits at the moment it's hard not to hit them.

There's a terrible rabbit disease here called myxomatosis which hits heavily populated areas when weather conditions are right. We're thinning them out now to harvest the meat and aid the overall population.

I dice the meat into chunks and freeze it, and use it like chicken. It's delicious and very low fat.

Jennifer Montero said...

Colette - Enjoy your trip to Wales with Lily. I hope you come back, but I understand if you need to wait til your daughter reaches her 30s! I'll forward your post ;-)

Paula - The corvid family (crows and magpies mainly) preys heavily on wild bird nests and chicks. We try and keep a check on the corvid population by trapping them for a couple of months in the spring. This gives the overall bird population a chance to raise a brood or two with more success.

Once we start seeing fledgings getting on, we stop trapping and leave the corvids to raise their own broods.

There is a pair of crows working our garden right now. They go into the chicken houses and steal the eggs as soon as they're laid. I lose nearly a dozen a week to them.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Damn, Jen! Wish I'd been there! I've been given to understand that my husband's Remington 1100 .410 is a great rabbit gun, and I'd love to give it a whirl. Reading the post, though, I was there with you -- rolling around on the wheat, trying to keep my balance.
When we do try rabbit hunting, I'm going to try the flick (although I'll look for some seriously detailed instructions), but it seems to me that innards all over is the inevitable result of the first few attempts.

As for the corvids, I find myself feeling a sense of solidarity with them. They're so smart, and they do such interesting stuff, that I'd have a hard time killing them. Besides, ours chase away the hawks that threaten the chickens. But I understand the necessity.

I just can't wait to see what you kill next.

Paula said...

Good to know! I have crows that hit the yard regularly- I've seen the large white grubs they pull out, so I've let them alone. I'll probably bag all my corn to keep them off that, but I didn't know about them going after eggs. I want to have hens eventually, so I'm glad I asked!
Thanks!

Jennifer Montero said...

Tamar - Again, if you're ever this way, we'll take you rabbit shooting. I've got a .410 you can borrow to hone your skills for when you're home with your own gun. I expect you already have good sea legs from all your fishing and shellfishing work.

Paula - You may not have the same problems with the crows as you've got bigger birds of prey there to discourage or even prey on them.

Nothing here keeps their numbers in check. Our only hawk-like bird gets mobbed by crows and driven off. But if you start finding half eggshells in the garden, it could be crows.

Good luck with the hen project - I definitely recommend it!

Maria said...

Great post, and an amazing abundance of rabbit! I agree it is very tasty meat. And now a question to show my lack of knowledge.... what are the advantages/ reasons for gutting & cleaning in the field rather than at home? (where you would have access to, I'm guessing, a flat clean surface, and better light?).

Jennifer Montero said...

Maria - It's just personal preference. A lot of gutting is done in the field if you intend to eat the animal. Grass in the stomachs of animals like deer or rabbits begins to ferment and build up gases, and can 'blow' in the carcase contaminating the meat with stomach contents.

The guts can be emptied out discreetly someplace, and scavenging animals will happily feast on them, so everybody gets a free meal.

And, rabbit guts are unbelievably stinky. I wear gloves when I clean them as the smell stays on your skin for days. In the house it would be unbearable.

Once the guts are out, the meat is fine. Then, as you rightly said, it is a benefit to have a clean surface and light to cut up the carcase for your freezer.

Maria said...

Thank you for the explanation Jen :o) I hadn't thought of the potential for exploding gases (!!). I like the logical ('recycling?') appeal of leaving the guts out for scavengers to benefit from.

Paula said...

Rabbit guts stinky!? this is also good to know, because I'm figuring on keeping rabbits some day if I can bring myself to off a chicken.

I'm kind of with Tamar, in that I'm interested to know what you will kill next (and what other interesting things there are to know about it, like stinky guts).

Jennifer Montero said...

Paula - I'm not sure if home bred rabbits are more or less stinky than wild ones, you will have to let me know.

I'm glad no one seems put off by the animal harvesting in this blog. So far today I've only trapped and killed a mouse that was eating my seeds in the greenhouse. But I fed the mouse to the crow in our larson trap. He ate it all but the tail, which he pulled off. That was something I didn't know about crow eating habits.