It always surprises me how many airgunners let their shooting tail off during the winter months; I reckon they’re missing a trick.
It’s actually far easier to locate most airgun quarry species when the weather is cold – and, as long as you take a few simple precautions to protect yourself from the elements, there’s no reason why hunting in freezing conditions shouldn’t be safe and comfortable, as well as very productive.
Nonetheless, heading out into below zero temperatures is not something to be taken lightly. I fell victim to hypothermia many years ago, and although I can laugh about it now, it was pretty frightening at the time. Within seconds of realising something was wrong, I was struggling to walk and could barely see. Fortunately, I had somebody with me so the situation didn’t turn into an emergency – but the episode certainly taught me the importance of being equipped accordingly.
What to wear
Dressing correctly is vital to safe and successful winter shooting. It’s hard to shoot accurately when you’re shivering, so warm, appropriate clothing will let you function to your optimum. It’ll reduce chances of heading home early and missing the best of the sport, too.
As I alluded to earlier, cold weather can be dangerous if you’re not properly dressed, so it’s essential to wear the right clobber. With the array of hi-tech clothing now available to us, there really is no excuse for not getting it right – and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
The secret to keeping out the cold doesn’t hinge on one super-effective, super-expensive garment; it actually depends on lots of small factors that combine to give you a major advantage in terms of heat efficiency. Basically, you need to ‘layer up’. Wearing plenty of covers is a fantastic way to trap the heat generated by your body, and keep the cold sealed outside.
I always start with a long-sleeved bamboo-fibre vest, which is way toastier than a tee-shirt. Over that go a long-sleeved shirt and lightweight fleece, before my usual hunting jacket, which creates a weather-tight ‘shell’. And, if there’s an arctic wind blowing, I’ll add at least one more fleece – you can always take off one of those mid-layers and put them in your kitbag if you work up a sweat.
I like a jacket with a high collar and sufficiently long sleeves to keep out any draughts, and I’ll opt for quilted trousers rather than my usual lightweight cotton pair when it’s very cold – the added degree of insulation is great for keeping out the chill when there’s an icy blast coming in from the east.
Modern neoprene-lined rubber boots are my first choice of footwear because they keep out the wet and cold. I make sure I buy them slightly on the large side so there’s room for two pairs of socks. Roomy boots also assist with circulation, allowing warm blood to travel unrestricted to the tips of your toes.
A baseball cap doesn’t provide enough insulation for hunting in extreme weather, so I prefer a stretchy fleece hat or a trapper hat – both of which can be pulled down to cover my ears. A neck snood is a great way to ensure that any gaps around your collar are properly lagged, plus you can pull it up over your nose, either to keep your face hidden from your quarry, or for extra protection from the elements.
There’s nothing worse than not being able to feel what you’re doing because you’ve let the cold get to your hands. Neoprene gloves or a thick pair of woollen mittens are my usual choice, depending on just how cold it is. I prefer the ones with fold-back fingers, though – they improve trigger feel and make fiddly jobs like reloading a whole lot easier.
A mate of mine once went so far as to buy a camo suit with a specialist black and white snow pattern – but when the snow fall came, the accoutrement turned out to be a dead loss when it came to concealment: the least conspicuous out of the two of us was me, in my usual tree-print jacket and trousers!
The fact is, unless you’re heading up into the mountains, there’s still a lot of brown and green in the English countryside after all but the heaviest of snowfalls – especially if you’re shooting in woodland or on ground that’s broken by hedgerows, shrubs and fences. For this reason, there’s usually more than enough ‘colour’ in the landscape for conventional camouflage patterns to work perfectly well.
A beanbag seat is among my top items of kit for static hunting whatever the weather, but it’s essential in the cold. These lightweight cushions are filled with the same polystyrene balls used to fill cavity walls for building insulation – so, apart from providing a comfortable base, they also keep the chill away from your backside when you’re sitting on frozen ground.
Slurping a hot drink is also a great way to warm up and restore your morale when hunting in the winter. I often slip a flask of tea into my kitbag when heading out on cold weather forays, and will even take soup if I think I’m going to need something more substantial.
Squirrel and woodpigeon shooting can be particularly advantageous during chilly periods, and woodland hunting could deliver extremely productive results. Woodies tend to gather in large flocks when winter really tightens its grip, and you‘ll probably encounter squirrels in good numbers if you target their food sources. Whichever you decide to set your sights on, they’ll be a lot easier to spot and get clear shots at than a few months ago, now that the trees are bare.
If you’re targeting woodpigeons, find the sheltered areas of the woods where they like to roost – usually apparent by the splattering of white droppings on the ground – and get into position an hour or so before sunset so you can pick them off as they swoop in for the night.
Ivy berries are a vital food source for woodpigeons when the ground is frozen solid or covered with snow. You can have good sport right through the day by targeting a patch of the waxy black berries where the woodies are feeding.
I seldom bother to build a hide for this sort of shooting as I like to stay mobile, and moving from one spot to another is an obvious way to warm up when you feel the cold starting to creep in.
Pay no attention to the myth that grey squirrels hibernate during the winter! Perhaps they don’t like venturing out in wet weather, but I’ve shot plenty on bitterly cold days. The trick is to find where they’re feeding and then set up an ambush.
Grey squirrels’ natural food starts to run low around the turn of the year, and pheasant feeders provide a very popular alternative on ground where grain is put out to hold the birds. Set yourself up within range of a feeder towards the end of the day, when squirrels will be intent on feeding up in readiness for the long night ahead, and you should be able to catch the thieves in the act.
If there are no pheasant feeders in the woods where you shoot, you can always recreate the effect by building a wooden hopper of your own and filling it with peanuts or corn to lure in the resident bushy-tails.