The ripening of autumn seeds and berries creates a time of plenty for woodland pests and, as Mat Manning shows, an opportunity for hunters to cash in on the feast
Autumn is a wonderful season for the air rifle hunter. Nature’s harvest is at its most bountiful at this time of year, and there are usually good opportunities for making mixed bags as quarry species make the most of the glut in preparation for tougher times ahead.
Another nice thing about the autumn months is the shortening days. Back in the long days of summer, there was the potential for many hours of inactivity between the prime times of dawn and dusk, but now that diurnal wildlife has less daylight by which to forage, you can expect to encounter quarry at more or less any time of day.
And even if you do want to hang on until nightfall, you’ll still be able to get home at a much more civilised time than a few months ago when darkness wasn’t closing in until after 10pm.
Today I am out on one of my woodland shoots. This estate is managed for forestry, conservation and as a pheasant shoot. Grey squirrels cause major problems for all of the aforementioned land uses – by bark-stripping trees, preying on the eggs and chicks of songbirds and pheasants, and by stealing grain and chewing game feeders.
For those reasons this invasive rodent is my main target species today, but there is also a chance of woodpigeon, which have been feeding on autumn seed drillings in an adjacent field and have also started to take an interest in the pheasant feed.
My plan is to travel fairly light so that I can adopt a roving approach and cover plenty of ground. I will be following a route that takes me past plenty of natural feeding opportunities that usually attract lots of pests during the autumn. Conditions are good; it’s a dry day with a very gentle breeze so I’m expecting to get a few shots.
07:40 – Starting with a stroll
Hunting on the move doesn’t mean just stomping through the woods in the hope of crossing paths with your quarry. There are lots of things you can do to improve your chances, and that includes focusing on key areas, moving with stealth and keeping your eyes peeled for signs of activity.
Mat has chosen a route that takes him through stands of oak trees that have a heavy crop of acorns, and there are also a few beech trees that are currently dropping their mast. Both these crops consist of nutritious seeds that offer rich pickings for grey squirrels and woodpigeons that will be building up their reserves ready for when winter tightens its grip.
As he moves slowly and cautiously through the trees, Mat stops frequently to scan for sights and sounds that might lead him to his quarry. During these pauses, he scours the treetops for signs of squirrels. The rodents often freeze when they hear someone approaching, so he may only get a glimpse of a head or tail poking over a branch.
Looking behind is just as important as looking in front and to the side. A squirrel that froze as you walked by may venture out and reveal itself after it thinks the danger has passed.
Expert tip: The case against greys
The grey squirrel is an incredibly destructive invasive species. Most people are aware of the fact that this introduced rodent has contributed to the decline of native red squirrels, but its impact stretches much further than that.
Through predation and the monopolisation of natural food sources, grey squirrels are also a serious threat to other small mammals including rare dormice. They also prey on the eggs and chicks of songbirds and game birds.
Grey squirrels strip the bark from young trees in order to feed on the sap that flows beneath. When squirrels remove a whole ring of bark, nutrients are unable to travel between the roots and leaves, causing the area above the damaged section to die.
Squirrel damage results in dead or stunted and deformed trees, which not only impacts on timber production, but also reduces biodiversity by preventing broadleaved trees from reaching maturity.
08:05 – Foraging squirrel
Apart from looking up into the treetops, it is also very important to keep an eye on the ground because squirrels spend a lot of time foraging among the leaf litter – especially later in the season when most trees will have dropped their autumn crop. Sure enough, Mat clocks a squirrel scrabbling around on the deck after just a few moments in the woods.
As is often the case at this time of year, the squirrel is so obsessed with rummaging for tasty morsels that it fails to notice the lurking danger. Mat still needs to creep in a little closer though as his quarry is just out of range.
Stalking through autumn woodland is never easy, as fallen leaves and dry twigs have a habit of cracking and crunching underfoot. Mat moves very slowly, keeping his footfalls light and testing the ground gently before he transfers his weight from one foot to another. He also does his best to use natural cover as a screen to keep him hidden from the unsuspecting squirrel as he closes in.
Mat eventually makes it to within 25 metres of his quarry and settles himself for a kneeling shot. He watches the squirrel through the scope as it scratches about in the leaves in search of seeds.
The bushy-tail makes the mistake of sitting up to check for danger, but it’s too late. Mat frames the unsuspecting rodent in his crosshairs, touches off the trigger and sends his pellet on its way.
08:15 – Pick up and move on
The shot finds its mark, connecting with the squirrel’s skull and rolling it over with barely a twitch. Rather than rushing in to make the retrieve, Mat keeps still and looks and listens for signs of any other squirrels, because a place where you see one feeding bushy-tail is likely to hold others. After a few minutes without any apparent activity, Mat decides to pick up.
It is a healthy squirrel in excellent condition, so this one will be coming home for the pot. Squirrel meat is lean, white and very tasty – similar to chicken – so Mat likes to make full use of it. The tails don’t go to waste either as Mat passes them on to friends who use the fibres to tie fly hooks for trout fishing.
Grey squirrels have a very nasty bite, so always ensure that they are dead before picking them up. Touch their eye with a stick if you are unsure – if there is no blink reflex the squirrel is dead.
After bagging up the squirrel Mat makes his way on through the woods. He adopts the usual strategy of moving slowly and stopping frequently until he reaches a spot where the oaks are heavy with acorns.
This bountiful area of woodland seems to be awash with grey squirrels and Mat manages to add another two to the tally in quick succession.
08:50 – Unplanned ambush
Closer inspection of the spot where Mat shot the last two squirrels reveals that the ground is absolutely littered with acorns. With so much food in one place this area is almost certain to hold more bushy-tails. There are also a couple of pheasant feeders in close proximity, and these are likely to attract grain-raiding squirrels and possibly woodpigeons.
After finding such an area of attraction, Mat feels it would be foolish to move on and decides to set up a stakeout instead. The resident pests have probably been spooked by the last two shots, but it is very likely that they will return to feed when the disturbance has passed.
There is no point in building a hide for this sort of impromptu ambush as the additional noise is likely to really put your quarry on edge. Instead, Mat finds a place that gives him a good view of a couple of likely looking trees and one of the pheasant feeders. He then sits down with his back against the trunk of a tree.
The wide tree trunk provides some welcome cover by helping to conceal Mat’s outline, but he also decides to put on a camouflage head net. Your face can really stand out in the gloom of shady woodland, so keeping it covered is a great way to avoid detection.
09:20 – Back in action
For some time there is no sign of activity around Mat’s ambush zone. Then just as he starts to think about reverting to a roving approach a flutter of wings catches his attention. A woodpigeon has perched in the boughs above one of the pheasant feeders and it’s just within striking distance.
The bird is clearly presented, but it is on the outer limits of Mat’s comfortable range. Thankfully, shooting from a sitting position like this is great for stability and the tree trunk also provides a useful support.
The pigeon has its back to Mat, but a strike between the shoulders should ensure that the pellet has a clear route to the heart and lung area. Mat gives the shot some holdover to compensate for the fall of the pellet.
Settling the crosshairs just on top of the skull, he knows that a miscalculated shot will result in a smack to the head or a clean miss, which is always preferable to wounding.
When the shot looks right, Mat squeezes through the trigger. The pap from the airgun’s muzzle is followed by a wallop as the pellet hits home. There’s a puff of feathers and the pigeon falls to the ground with a thud. It was a tricky shot, but Mat’s long hours of practice on the range have paid off and now he has a pigeon in the bag.
09:55 – Fur and feather
Shortly after Mat bagged his pigeon, another squirrel shows up. It’s another long shot and, as with the woodie, it needs some holdover to counter the effect of gravity on the pellet’s flightpath.
Mat makes a slight overestimation this time and the shot whistles harmlessly over the top of the squirrel’s head. The disturbance is enough to startle the wary rodent, which darts away and disappears into the undergrowth. It is frustrating to miss an opportunity like this, but you have to take the rough with the smooth.
It isn’t long before Mat has a chance to redeem himself. It’s not a squirrel this time, but another woodpigeon and it’s a much closer shot. Having a pigeon in close proximity creates problems of its own, as the chances of being spotted or heard are far greater.
Mat inches the gun very slowly up into his shoulder. He manages to line up for the shot without alerting his quarry and makes no mistakes with his aim this time. The shot is a good one and another pigeon is added to the steadily growing tally.
The morning wears on and it’s soon time for Mat to head for home. During a fairly short session he has managed to account for three squirrels and two woodpigeons, and without the hassle of setting up a feeding station, building a hide or using decoys. Best of all, he’s going home with some delicious free-range meat that’s going to end up in a game pie.
FX Impact MkII (sub-12 ft-lb)
MTC Mamba Lite
Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign
Ridgeline Grizzly III