Mat Manning heads out for a morning in the freezing woods to target greedy bushy-tails as they home in on the pheasant feeders.
Cold weather and short days can make the prospect of spending a day in winter woodland seem somewhat unappealing. But for those who are prepared to wrap up against the elements and head out with their airgun, this season can bring some excellent sport.
My winter hunting preparations begin long before I leave the house. Being cold and uncomfortable can really spoil a day out with the gun, so it is vitally important to dress for the weather.
For me, that starts with at least one pair of thermal socks and a long-sleeved vest. Layering up is a great way to insulate against cold weather, so over my vest goes a long-sleeved shirt and a lightweight fleece. My hunting jacket goes over that to create a waterproof shell and on really cold days I’ll add another, heavier fleece.
That sounds like a lot of layers, but it’s surprising how chilly a cold breeze can make you feel – especially when you’re not moving – and I can always take off a layer or two and stow them in my backpack if I do manage to work up a bit of heat.
It’s also worth upgrading your usual hunting trousers for something more substantial at this time of year; a pair with additional lining can make all the difference when the mercury plunges below zero and there’s a raw easterly wind cutting through the woods.
Absolute comfort in winter weather hinges on keeping your extremities warm. I do suffer with cold feet, so my usual choice of footwear at this time of year is a pair of wellies with a 5mm neoprene lining.
Not only do they help keep my feet warm, they also keep them dry when I’m hunting over boggy ground, and they are very easy to clean. A hat is a really useful winter accessory for keeping the cold at bay, and I prefer one that I can pull right down over my ears. Nobody wants a cold draught creeping down their neck when they’re on a stakeout, so I wear a fleece snood around my collar on chilly days.
My final essential item of winter attire is a good pair of gloves. It’s important to pick a pair that gives you a secure grip and good trigger feel, and I’ve yet to find a brand that outperforms MacWet on both fronts.
I favour the long-cuff Climatec variant for winter shooting as they are better insulated than the lighter Micromesh version, which is more suited to warmer weather.
Although I really don’t like to be overburdened on my winter forays, I do usually slip a flask into my backpack on cold days. It’s surprising how much of a morale boost you can get from a mug of steaming hot tea or soup when the cold starts to creep in, and it can sometimes make the difference between heading home early or sticking it out until the best part of the day.
And that’s how my latest cold weather foray kicked off; with a quick stint in the kitchen to rustle up a flask of tea. Although it was cold outside, the forecast looked quite encouraging – it was set to be dry, at least – and I just couldn’t resist the urge to get out for a few hours in the countryside.
I was heading out on an early morning session, which can be a very good time for targeting grain-raiding squirrels. Short winter days can feel like a bit of a nuisance, but they create some great opportunities for the hunter.
The brief period of daylight hours and exceptionally long nights mean that diurnal wildlife has very little time to forage food to see them through 15 or so hours of darkness.
This often causes a feeding frenzy just after daybreak when the squirrels are desperate to refuel, and again as darkness approaches because they want to fill up again in readiness for the next long night.
Although I often like to start my winter sessions with a roving approach in order to have a proper look around the woods, this outing would see me adopting a static approach. The woods where I was shooting are managed for timber and as a pheasant shoot.
The foresters despise grey squirrels because of the extensive damage they cause to trees, and the gamekeepers hate them because they prey on the eggs and chicks of gamebirds and also steal a shocking amount of wheat from their pheasant feeders. It was these feeders that I was planning to target during this outing.
You can hardly blame grey squirrels for raiding grain hoppers, as they provide a rich source of food at a time when natural pickings are very thin on the ground.
However, the negative impact of this alien species on the British countryside is a very significant one – not only for the reasons previously mentioned but also because of the threat they pose to our native wildlife, including red squirrels, dormice and songbirds.
Reducing numbers of this boisterous pest is hugely beneficial to more vulnerable species, and the honeypot created by pheasant feeders makes it a whole lot easier to work out where and when you can expect to encounter them in the woods.
Fortunately, it was a bit of a trek to the area I was planning to target, so I did manage to work up some warmth on my way. I chose a spot that enabled me to cover two feeders; both of them about 25m away, so shots would be fairly straightforward in the windless conditions.
Settling in entailed the use of another winter essential: my beanbag seat. This simple cushion is light to carry and makes for a useful seat at any time of year, but it is particularly handy in winter as it creates a very welcome barrier between my backside and the cold, wet ground.
I had only been in position for about 15 minutes when the first squirrel of the session put in an appearance. It actually arrived from behind me. I froze dead still at the sound of its approach along the woodland floor and it must have been less than 10m from me as it scuttled past.
There was no doubt about where the squirrel was heading. It made a beeline straight for the feeder, clambered onto the outlet coil and gave it a shake to release a cascade of wheat. The cheeky little rodent then hopped back down onto the deck and started feeding on the kernels.
I was already watching through my sights and brought the crosshairs to bear on the greedy grey’s head as it settled to feed. The shot hit home with a solid crack, flipping the unsuspecting squirrel over with a clean kill.
I reloaded and settled back down for another wait. Strangely, I never get bored during a stakeout like this as there’s always so much to see. On this occasion I was kept entertained by treecreepers trundling up and down amongst a stand of silver birches, and a constant trickle of small birds flitting back and forth to pick stray grains from beneath the feeder.
Grain hoppers may suffer unwelcome raids by grey squirrels, but it is heartening to see this food source providing valuable sustenance for songbirds.
My mind quickly snapped back to the job in hand when a flash of silvery grey sent the feathered diners fleeing. Another squirrel had arrived, and small birds do not like to hang around when these bullish rodents are nearby.
This squirrel slipped down from the treetops and then followed the same routine as the other, making straight for the coil. A similar sequence of events then unfolded as it dropped down to feed, and my tally was swiftly bumped up to two.
After spending almost two hours hunkered down, I decided it was time to break into the flask. The tea-pouring ritual can usually be relied upon to induce a bite during otherwise uneventful fishing trips, and can often have a similar magical effect when shooting.
To prove the point, a squirrel started chattering before I had even tightened the lid back down. This one had clocked me – either by the noise or movement of pouring the tea – and was rasping loudly in my direction. It was up in a tree about 30m away, and I felled the irritable little critter with a gratifying wallop to the head.
That third squirrel was to be the last one of the session, as I had to head for home before any more bushy-tailed thieves arrived at the grain hoppers. Although relatively short, it had been an enjoyable outing, and I hadn’t even noticed the cold.
As winter tightens its grip, more and more squirrels will no doubt turn to the pheasant feeders, and I will be back out waiting for them.