Sometimes a Sunday mooch with the lurcher and the rifle is all I can milk out of a busy week. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the challenge of striking a balance between work and play. Airgun hunting is my play. Today’s afternoon patrol around one of my larger permissions was more enjoyable for the fact that it would be the only few hours of hunting sandwiched between two hectic weeks of work – and I was determined to make the most of it.
Loading a magazine with .177 H&N Baracuda Hunter Extremes at the tailgate of the X-Trail, even the biting westerly wind couldn’t chill my enthusiasm – nor the lurcher’s. Dylan stood scenting the wind and looked at me with utter impatience: “C’mon master. Let’s get going.”
I snapped on the safety catch of the Ultra – my little micro-rifle – and slung it over my shoulder. “Get on, then,” I teased the dog, as if to ask what he was waiting for.
Out on the field’s edge, my eyes cast around for opportunity. I stopped and tore a handful of grass, casting it to the wind. Quite a blow, so I decided to head for the huge escarpment on the eastern side of the estate.
A familiar cackling made me stop to scan the treeline. Dylan drew up to heel, his nine years of hunting with me telling him the ‘enemy’ was close. Four magpies danced in the bare canopy of a birch tree, out of range for my sub-12ft/lb Beeza.
The big winter flocks had broken up now and even this small group would split as the leaves start to bud. They’ll pair up and pick a territory to build a nest. The behaviour of these four, chasing around the tree and ignoring me, told me that the mating game had already begun. I hoped they’d stick around here to nest– or at least attempt to. I have a little bag of tricks designed to test their success…
The jerk of the lurcher’s head to look at something in the wood coincided with a glimpse of grey bottle brush tail in the corner of my eye. The ugly scream of a jay confirmed the squirrel’s path across the treetops and, at the dog’s insistence, we set off in pursuit. To be honest, I knew it was a fruitless chase in this breeze, and with this gun. The one thing I have already proved to myself in my .177 hunting ‘experiment’, is that the smaller pellet is far less forgiving of a stiff breeze than the .22 pellet at legal limit. The grey squirrel outpaced us and I was happy to leave it for another day.
We broke out at the top of the escarpment and I delighted in the view. From here I could look across at least three of my shooting permissions. Out to the north I could see woodpigeon, ferals and rooks feasting on the pea drillings. To the south, a trio of roe deer passed across the winter barley.
The dog and I took a path down the slope, out of the wind, and headed to a corner below the escarpment where I knew a combination of evergreen cover and shelter would give me some sport. The creatures of wood and field, like us, are usually sensible enough to gravitate towards warmth and shelter when the wild wind blows.
Down in the lee of the slope, I first took some time to check my rifle’s zero, which proved true. I’m still experimenting with .177 pellets and the Baracudas have been performing well, even in a breeze – probably due to their heavy (9.26-grain) weight. I’m still not confident enough to push the distance as far as I would have with .22 pellets though.
Until the leaf canopy returns, taking Dylan on these walkabouts is a double-edged sword. If squirrel hunting is the game, he’s an absolute bonus, scenting or hearing their approach far in advance of my own inferior senses. However, if I want to bag a few woodpigeons, it’s a different matter; any airgunner considering using a dog needs to give some thought to this.
In summer, a dog is often content to lie in the shade while you ambush incoming woodies. In the stark, leafless and frozen winter copse, a dog is often highly visible to incoming birds. It’s also unfair to expect a hound to lie shivering while you enjoy your day.
Thus, with a view to bagging a bird or two to round off my Sunday, I had a careful eye on the dog’s wellbeing. Thankfully, Dylan’s long in the tooth and understands the game, so he drew up close to a beech bole, out of the breeze, and stood scanning the treetops with me. It wasn’t too long before we saw a few pigeon scouts drop into the branches from the ice-blue sky.
Being so light, the little BSA Ultra holds upright easily, so all I had to do was level the scope and its illuminated red reticle at a plump breast… and release the shot. The target pigeon tumbled as the others clattered away.
The bird hit the ground and Dylan trotted out, gave it a sniff, turned it over and trotted back to his beech bole. “Yep. Dead, boss.” When it comes to feather, I gave up telling Dylan to fetch some six years ago. Had that been a squirrel or rabbit, though, he’d have sprinted out, nosed it over, snapped it up and brought it back to my feet.
Ten minutes later, we repeated the exercise when another small squadron dropped in to seek some respite from the wind, which was now gathering force. Too much force for a .177 ‘novice’ so, settling for the two birds, I struggled back up the escarpment where I clocked a bank of leaden cirrus clouds approaching.
In the river valley, the rooks were beating a retreat, leap-frogging in platoons across the alder carrs – resting, flying, resting, flying. Their raucous shouts appeared to be scolding the chasing weather front – and by the time I was halfway home, the hail was drumming off the motor’s bonnet.