Autumn Harvest

JDJ Braithwaite heads into the woodlands of the Lake District to soak up the autumn sunshine – and sort out a few grey squirrels

The fells, hills and ancient woodlands of the Lake District have long been the source of romantic literature and poetry, and are still host to many a mythical and ghostly tale.

In the autumn, the crisp sunshine reveals a riot of colour to stimulate the senses and feed the soul of the countryman in all of us. If you could put it in a bottle and sell it, you’d be a wealthy man. 

However, the woodlands of this glorious region hide an ongoing struggle and represent something of a battleground for an unwelcome invasion. The non-native grey squirrel arrived in Lakeland around the early 1990s, and now has a stronghold throughout the region.

This is particularly worrying, as in addition to the known problems grey squirrels cause to our woodlands, the Lake District is home to our native and endangered red squirrel.

A large part of modern red squirrel conservation involves the humane removal of the grey squirrel from our woodlands, and volunteer airgunners make a significant and welcome contribution in this regard.

Conservation work brings additional responsibilities, and the need to optimise our methods becomes even more pressing. It’s time to go up a gear.

By far the most effective squirrel-culling method for the airgun shooter is to use a feeder-based approach, and there are a host of ways in which this method can be optimised to give the best results.

Feeding the feeder

If possible, shooting grey squirrels begins with locating the local dreys and observing the well-used ‘highways’ that they use to go from the dreys to their foraging and feeding locations and back again.

It is worth the effort to do this, as it helps to inform on the likely best locations to place the feeder. In terms of feed, I use a mix of items for smell, instant food, and in the autumn period, caching.

When setting up a flip-top feeder, use a scent attractant so the grey squirrels can locate and learn how to get access to the nutty goodies inside

A basic mix might contain peanuts, sunflower hearts, black sunflower hearts, pine nuts and chopped wheat/maize with walnut kernels and dried fruit to compete with the feast on offer in woodlands that are masting.

Importantly, when it comes to the feed mix, its purpose is not just to attract the squirrels, but also to keep them still while nibbling, thus providing you with an unhurried shot.

Peanuts can take a few seconds for the squirrels to nibble on and are great for this. However, shelled nuts can make them sit still for longer as they take the time to nibble through the outer shell. Try adding these to the feeder during sessions when you are in the woods shooting.

A fallen tree plays host to the feeder – this tree is on a grey squirrel ‘highway’ but is close enough to the hide to allow the author some accurate shooting

Because they are expensive, remove shelled nuts from the feeder at the end of the session and reuse them next time. Peanuts are fine, but give this a try if you find the squirrels are a bit jittery on the feeder and are not settling.

At this time of the year the grey squirrel will be actively caching for the hard winter – but they only cache food sources that will not perish and can survive being buried. Putting shelled nuts in your feeder in the autumn gives the squirrel more than one reason to visit it – and gives you more opportunities to shoot it.

Go nuts

To help establish a new feeder, add a couple of small drops of aniseed oil to the feed and on the platform of the feeder to act as a scent attractant. It just needs a couple of drops, as it’s potent stuff! For additional scent, I also smear Nutella on the inside of the feeder lid and the tree bark next to the feeder.

Autumn brings glorious colours to the woodland – and the chance to cull some troublesome grey squirrels over the feeder

In fact, by the careful use of a nut spread on the tree bark with some nutty goodies impregnated into it, the squirrels will come to it and remain still for many seconds, while providing you with the perfect headshot.

In my opinion, a shot through the top of the skull drops them extremely soundly, and if placed correctly, the pellet can travel down the brain stem, taking out all the vitals instantaneously. So optimising a feeder-based approach doesn’t just mean trying to get squirrels to come to your feeder, but also adopting a certain position on or around it.

On the right trail

To assist you further, you can position a passive infra-red (PIR) trail camera towards the feeder to capture all visits to it and also to reveal what the preferred feeding times are at this location. Whatever settings I use, I keep the settings constant so that I get a feel for whether activity is increasing or decreasing over time.

When foraging, grey squirrels display what is known as diurnal behaviour – meaning that they are typically more active in the morning and late afternoon/early evening.

A passive infra-red trail camera will capture the squirrels’ visits to the feeder, along with important information regarding activity levels and feeding times

Your trail camera will tell you times of interest for your particular woodland. Rather than take the individual times literally, organise the pictures into time bins such as 07:00 to 09:00, 09:00 to 11:00 etc.

Another top tip is to not ambush the feeder until around eight to 10 days have passed. Ideally, you want the good news to spread through the woodlands that a free banquet is on offer and all are welcome! Build it, and let them come. Trust me, the shooting will be better if you are patient.

Time to hide

When it comes to the hide, set it up around 25 yards away from the feeder. A pop-up hide or one constructed from camo-leaf netting pitched around a broad hardwood tree to act as a backdrop is good.

Once in place, it’s time for the obligatory test to ensure the airgun is zeroed. On most of my squirrel shooting, I’ll have a target of some sort positioned on or near the tree or feeder, such as a metal spinner or twig-mounted card. You will just need to fire a couple of shots to confirm that your airgun is zeroed, and then you’re good to go.

When it all comes together in the field it can positively rain grey squirrels – optimising your approach makes each session as fruitful as it can be

In terms of shooting technique, try to resist ‘trigger fever’. Let the squirrel come to the feeder and settle on it. Wait a while. Do not rush the shot. I like to let the squirrel eat its first couple of nuts. This serves two important functions.

First, it will help the squirrel to settle and relax. Second, it will allow you to predict its rhythm in movement. When it repeats its actions and takes another nut, you’ll now know the position it will rest in to have a nibble – and also roughly how long you have to squeeze off an unhurried and well-considered shot. Obviously it is not an ‘exact’ science, but it works well most of the time.

Time for thermals

To optimise my time in the woods even further, I have added a Pulsar Helion XP38 thermal imager to my hunting kit. Although at its best in the summer months when the foliage is dense, imagers can be used all year round.

Having used the Pulsar for a while now I would recommend using it on a lower magnification setting. This gives a wider field of view when scanning the treetops. Using it this way means just a couple of head movements are all that’s needed from you to scan large sections of woodland.

My own tests have shown that, when used in this way, I can easily spot grey squirrels over 60 yards away. Once you’ve located a grey, just swap out the spotter for the air rifle and follow the squirrel coming in to your feeder down the scope. It’s a very effective method.

One final tip is not to shoot the same feeder too frequently. If you do this too often, the squirrels will soon adapt to what’s happening and adopt avoidance behaviour, resulting in you seeing and shooting fewer on your forays. So keep it mixed and keep them guessing!

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