Hopper Stoppers: shooting the Easter bunny

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Rabbits are in New Zealand a huge problem for farmers, and every Easter, Lions Club in Alexandra on the south island runs a 24-hour shooting competition. Thomas Nissen joins in…

Andrew stops the battered-beyond-recognition 4WD Mitsubishi Wan at the edge of a small valley in the rolling foothills. On the opposite side, rabbits run to the right, to the left, up and down. Many of them seek cover behind rocks, under bushes or in one of the numerous rabbit holes. Andrew sees a rabbit stop about 50 metres away. The gray-brown color slides wonderfully into the terrain’s dry, yellowish hills, but on this hill there is not much grass, and the rabbit is clearly visible through telescopic sight on the small, silenced .17 HMR rifle, located on the dedicated rest next to the car’s steering wheel. A small popping sound indicates that the small 17-grain bullet has reached its intended target. The rabbit rolls towards the bottom of the valley, dead. It’s just one of thousands expected to be shot on this hunt.

A few are less than a metre from the vehicle before they realise what’s going on

It is Good Friday afternoon and I am following one of the 36 competing teams in the Alexandra Lions Great Easter Bunny Hunt. The hunting competition is an annual recurring Easter event in Alexandra, a cosy little town on New Zealand’s south island.

Pest control: A concerted effort to reduce an introduced problem

Pest control: A concerted effort to reduce an introduced problem

The rules of the competition are simple. Each team of 12 shooters may use as many cars, motorcycles and other vehicles as they want. Even helicopters are legal to use (which readers with knowledge of New Zealand will not find anything odd about). Participants may also make use of helpers and dogs to drive and retrieve. These helpers are allowed to use spotlights at night and to do catering, counting and transport of abandoned rabbits. The only thing restricted to the 12 shooters is actually shooting the rabbits – for 24 hours straight.

A draw decides which team will hunt on which farm that local farmers provide. We’re on the Queensberry farm not farm from Cromwell. Regardless where each team ends up, the stakes are the same: whoever shoots the most rabbits between noon on Good Friday and noon on Easter Saturday wins.

Tim in ‘sniper position’ with the .17 HMR

Tim in ‘sniper position’ with the .17 HMR

With team names like Anti-Pesti and War on Rabbits, there’s no doubt about the competitors’ ethos. However, not all team names are quite so irreverent. The team that I have been allowed to follow has a more easy-going approach, although the purpose is the same. Southern Hopper Stoppers, they call themselves – but despite the relatively soft name, the team has a professional approach to the control of rabbits. The team divides into three groups, each with a vehicle, to give them the best chance of getting over the 1,000 mark.

Murray, who sits beside Andrew, rises out of the car and moves down through the valley to retrieve the rabbit. The sight of the gray-bearded New Zealander causes a few rabbits to scuttle out from their hide behind a rock. James, who sits next to Tim in his ‘shoot sofa’, on top of the car slightly above and behind Andrew and Murray, shoulders his semi-automatic and, with Murray still a long way away, takes five quick shots after the rabbits. But the shots leave only five yellow dust clouds – the rabbits evaded him, heading up when he shot down, left when he shot right. Tim, a former soldier and immigrant from England, has better luck on a rabbit to the left of the car. The small animal is floored in a dramatic roll-crash.

Murray returns with two rabbits, and the team drives right on through the dry landscape. The afternoon tactic is predominantly to ‘run the rabbits up’ by car – often they jump in front of or beside the vehicle. It goes really well for Andrew, who does not shoot as often, as he’s driving, but when he shoots, it almost always results in one more rabbit in the bag. Tim also has a fine success rate, while James is still experiencing mixed results in the afternoon heat.

More than 10,000 rabbits in Pioneer Park – have you ever seen a bag like it?

As the sun rose, the hunters returned to HQ

It soon gets dark, and the tactics have changed slightly. Andrew has mounted strong bulbs in the spotlights and headlights. “It’s perfect long-range white light, and we’ll find it easy to see the rabbits now,” Tim says, looking at me with conviction in his eyes.

“We bring the sun with us,” James continues to me. “The sun without heat.”

Tim and James alternate shooting and lamping, while Murray mostly picks up rabbits. Andrew is still driver, but still gets the chance to dismantle sedentary rabbits with his .17 HMR. There are many rabbits in the terrain, and the white light tends to stop the small high-speed runners in their tracks. Some rabbits still try to flee, but James has finally shot himself warm. He starts to pick them off with startling regularity, and when he has delivered 10 in a row, I stop counting.

More than 10,000 rabbits in Pioneer Park – have you ever seen a bag like it?

More than 10,000 rabbits in Pioneer Park – have you ever seen a bag like it?

After midnight, Tim shoots the only black rabbit of the day. That one isn’t confused by the white light, and flees head over heels. But this colour-variant is soon dropped nevertheless. Other rabbits are totally blinded by the light and jumps directly toward the car. A few are less than a metre from the vehicle before they realise what’s going on.

At five o’clock we have sausages for breakfast and a brief rest – and then we continue. The rabbits are stressed after hours of chasing, and the ones that ventured out of the holes are pressing hard on the grass. The search using the vehicle is cancelled, and the morning’s last 40 rabbits are taken on foot with the aid of Andrew’s dog Bella.

The four hunters in the group claimed about 240 rabbits in 24 hours’ almost continuous rabbit hunting. Tim shows me three semi-auto rounds in his hands. “These are the last three rounds of the 275 I brought with me,” he says with a weary smile.

Winning score: 12 shooters, 24 hours, 1,035 rabbits

Winning score: 12 shooters, 24 hours, 1,035 rabbits

The results

“They get warmer and warmer,” Ray says cheerfully, motioning towards the immense pile of already stinking rabbits loaded up on the trailer. Now the rabbits are transported to Pioneer Park in Alexandra, where they are counted and laid down for show.

The 36 teams put the rabbits up in long rows next to a small sign with their team names. Southern Hopper Stoppers ends with 1,035 rabbits from the 12 hunters, giving them first place – a deserved result after the team came either second or third for every one of the seven previous years.

On the windward side of Pioneer Park, there is no doubt that, the more than 10,000 shot rabbits are not suitable for human consumption. After the parade, small trucks run onto the grass, and a great bunch of local children and young people start throwing the thousands of pests up on the platforms then they are taken away and composted.

Sorry – if you’re not a Kiwi, you can’t participate in this hunt. Nevertheless, if you visit New Zealand at Easter, it is highly recommended that you poke your nose past Pioneer Park in Alexandra. The relaxed atmosphere, the huge game parade, and the sight of so many rabbits being shot all make for a great experience.

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