Sometimes the rabbit, when he is just out, stops a second or two before running off. If the gunner is within ten yards or so of the hole, he will be glad to give the rabbit a few more yards' grace, for, though we want to shoot our rabbits dead, we do not want to spoil them for the table. There was a favourite story told of an old duffer with the gun —though in other ways a good fellow—in our district, that he would now and then get a rabbit as it squatted in its form, crying out loudly after this deed, for the benefit of his neighbours, " Eighty yards ! eighty yards ! Going like a bullet, and I cut 'un over pretty." His rabbits were extremely limp as a rule, and no wonder, considering the short range at which he fired down on them.
1 The gunner had much better not put his gun at full-cock until this has been done; and in going from burrow to burrow he should put his gun at the half-cock or " safety," or, still better, take the cartridges out.
So we must not take the rabbit too soon in ferreting in the covert; but we must not wait too long, otherwise the stems of underwood and the undergrowth will shelter him effectually.
Both gunners and ferreters must keep back from the mouths of the holes, lest the rabbit, catching sight of them, return precipitately, and be killed by the ferret underground.
The best days for covert ferreting, in my opinion, are fine and still, or fairly still. On a wet day there may be more rabbits lying underground, but it is not so pleasant waiting for them in the dripping woods ; on a roaring day one cannot hear the rabbits, and it is more difficult to dig down upon them in case the ferret kills them in the burrow.
Rules to bear in mind in ferreting in covert are :—Do not have your gun to your shoulder and pointed towards the hole out of which you expect the rabbit to come ; take care that your companion is close behind or crouching close at your side ; keep perfect silence ; do not put your gun at full-cock till the ferret is in, and your companion has crept up behind or beside you ; do not take a snapshot at the rabbit directly he appears outside the hole ; after shooting, or shooting at, one rabbit that has bolted, keep quiet and wait till you are sure there are not others below being hunted by the ferret; when it becomes clear that the ferret has lain up with a rabbit and must be dug out, put your gun at the half-cock forthwith, or, better, take the cartridges out.
But the kind of rabbiting which you enjoy perhaps most of all when you are in form, and perhaps least of all when you are "clean off," is shooting the small isolated patches and single bushes of furze on commons and wild places. We are still dealing, remember, with the method of shooting rabbits that are for the most part put up and hustled about by dogs, rather than beaters, though a beater or two will always help to keep the sport lively by encouraging the dogs and aiding them in very thick spots. Rabbits very often travel quickly in the open, quicker than a hare when first roused; as we have seen, too, they can run hard enough to please most gunners even in thick covert, when a yelping pack of terriers and spaniels are in hot pursuit, chasing them by sight. But it is my notion that the quickest rabbits of all are those dislodged by half-frantic dogs and beaters (who thoroughly enter into the spirit of the thing) from these small " bunches," as the country folk often call the isolated bushes of furze, etc.
Dogs, even in the early part of the day, whilst still fresh and keen as mustard on rabbit after rabbit, do not like the prickles of the furze, which are scarcely less formidable than the quills of the hedgehog. So they commonly make much to-do before actually getting into one of these bushes. They make a point of not going in at all before they have satisfied themselves that a rabbit is there. A trustworthy terrier or spaniel will, with rare exceptions, be able to tell you without going in whether a rabbit is lying in one of these bushes. It will run round and sniff, now on the ground, now in the air. If a rabbit is in the bush, the dog gives tongue, unless it is one of the absolutely silent hunting order, and even then its behaviour will usually give you a pretty good notion of whether you are to have a shot or not. Dogs, well or moderately well trained, are very partial to this branch of rabbiting. After a little practice they seem quite to know what is expected from them when the shooter turns towards these bushes. Running forward, they work round bush after bush till one is reached that clearly holds a rabbit. Rabbits have a way of lying very close indeed in these bushes. I have noticed that rabbits in the larger but thinner coverts, after they have been repeatedly hustled about, two or three times in the same week, in the same places, often start up from their forms well in front of the dogs which are giving tongue, and steal right away. But, in the places where I have shot, the rabbit which is lying in the isolated furze-bush is far less inclined to stir when he hears dogs, beaters, and guns who are a little distance away. He sticks to his fortress. So it happens that the shooter has time to take his stand deliberately before the rabbit bolts out.
If there are two guns shooting these bushes— more than two is not in my view at all desirable— they should take up their positions, of course, on different sides. If you are by yourself you will be able to cover a great deal of ground, and will have a chance of getting a fair shot at whatever spot the rabbit comes out. If the gamekeeper is with you, he beats the bush and cheers on the dogs, as a rule, from the opposite side to yours, hoping to make the rabbit bolt towards the gun.