Pest control is a war of attrition, and victories won through a sustained approach are just as valuable as occasional ‘big hits’. Aided by his hunting buddy and a handy piece of kit, Mat Manning proves the importance of keeping the pressure on…
Additional Photos: Kev Hawker
We all enjoy and remember those red letter days when we go home with gamebags bulging, but effective pest control usually hinges on regular visits that don’t always result in bumper bags. Even modest tallies help to make a difference and it’s surprising how the numbers mount up over the year. That’s why it’s vital to get out there.
It’s easy to let things slip, especially when the weather is grim. Freezing temperatures, wind, rain and even snow are likely to impinge on our hunting forays at this time of year. Yet it’s important not to let them dull your enthusiasm. Most of us are granted shooting permission on the understanding that we’ll make a useful contribution to the landowner’s pest control efforts – and failure to deliver could well result in them deciding to offer someone else the privilege.
I recently found myself faced with the prospect of hunting in weather conditions that were far from perfect; a cold wind was blowing in from the north-west and was bringing squally showers with it. While I really don’t mind hunting in the cold, I’m not so eager to get a soaking. Furthermore, the main quarry on this permission is grey squirrels, and they are notoriously reluctant to venture out in wet weather.
Regardless of the weather, I hadn’t been out on this particular patch for a couple of weeks and felt obliged to put in an appearance now that I had a chance – though I was a little concerned that it would be a no-show from the squirrels. On the plus side, my mate Kev Hawker would be joining me for the evening, so at least I was going to have some company.
This wood contains several stands of mature oak trees, and the squirrels had spent most of the autumn gorging on acorns. Although winter storms had now stripped the branches bare, I felt confident that the bushy-tails would still be in the vicinity, gleaning the last of the windfalls from amongst the leaf litter. So we decided to head straight for the oaks.
Kev settled in a spot from where he could cover several towering trees and a large area of woodland floor beneath them. I set up on the bank of the small river that runs through the woods, though it was looking bigger and far more turbulent than usual after two days of heavy rainfall.
My chosen spot didn’t offer a lot of concealment, but I wasn’t too concerned as I was wearing full camouflage and intended to snipe my quarry at range. Although relatively exposed, my vantage point enabled me to cover an area of interlocking branches the squirrels use to cross the river. The treetop route connects a dense patch of hazel and blackthorn on the opposite bank, which contains several squirrel dreys, with a stand of oaks on my side, where I expected hungry bushy-tails to come foraging. This ambush point usually produces a squirrel or two, so I was feeling quite optimistic – especially as the predicted rain was holding off.
I was also feeling confident as I had my Primos Trigger Stick Tripod with me. Although shooting sticks are usually regarded as being the preserve of deerstalkers, I’ve found them a very handy addition to my hunting gear over the last few months. They extend quickly and quietly to provide support for standing, kneeling or sitting shots – and the improved stability really does help to extract optimum accuracy from PCPs.
Kev had given me some ‘stick’ (pardon the pun) about needing to shoot from a rest, but I’ve seen him using bipods often enough to take it with a pinch of salt. At any rate, I’m not too proud to take advantage of any added support if it helps me to bag long-range quarry on difficult days.
Kev and I usually adopt one of two approaches to ensure our safety when we’re shooting together. We either choose areas a long way apart so there’s no chance of our shots posing a hazard, or we set up close enough to clearly see each other and make sure that guns are always pointing in a safe direction.
On this occasion, we’d opted for a slightly different approach, and although we were fairly close together, we couldn’t see each other as there was a steep bank between us. The bank alone was insurance enough, but we were also mindful not to take shots in the direction of each other. We were near enough to converse (well, shout!), and agreed that neither of us would move from his position without first notifying the other and getting confirmation that the message was received.
Ironically, my ability to hear Kev was soon confirmed by the sound of a ‘pap’ from his Air Arms S410, followed by a crunch in the leaf litter and the shout “jay!” This woodland is managed for wildlife and, as jays share squirrels’ fondness for songbirds’ eggs and chicks, they’re also high on the quarry list. It sounded like my mate had just accounted for one of the colourful corvids, and I imagined he was going to be telling me that he hadn’t needed a gun rest to shoot it. (I’ll wager a bet that he was leaning against a tree when he took the shot!)
My first opportunity came about 20 minutes after peace had returned to the woods. I was scanning the treetops when a movement caught my eye as a squirrel slipped out onto a high branch. On my side of the river, and not making for the crossing as expected, the squirrel still offered a clear shot and, at about 35 metres, I was well pleased to have the Trigger Sticks with me.
With the S510 Ultimate Sporter solidly cradled, all I had to contend with was the slight to and fro movement caused by the wind rocking the tree as I lined up on the squirrel’s head. The breeze abated for a moment, offering me a brief opportunity at a static target. I touched off the trigger, flipping the bushy-tail from its lofty perch with a clout to the head. Although hollering isn’t conducive to stealthy shooting, I felt obliged to call “squirrel!” just to make sure my hunting buddy knew that I’d levelled the score.
Annoyingly, the predicted rain soon closed in, though it wasn’t heavy enough to discourage another squirrel from venturing out. This one did as expected, clambering across the entwined branches to traverse the river.
The tangled twigs made it impossible to get a clear shot as it scrabbled through the haze, but I managed to stop it with a squeak when it emerged on an open branch on my bank. I was already following it through the scope, with the gun held unwavering on the sticks, and slipped off the shot almost as soon as the startled squirrel froze. This shot was further than the first one, but it wasn’t hindered by the wind and thanks to my rock-steady rest, resulted in another addition to the evening’s bag.
Kev soon equalised, adding one more squirrel just before the session drew to a close. Our combined tally of three tree-rats and one jay wasn’t a bumper bag by any stretch, but it definitely justified making the effort on a day when conditions seemed to be against us. It produced another contribution to the ongoing cull, too.
Incidentally, the owner uses traps as well to control squirrels on this patch but, to date, we’ve accounted for more with our air rifles. To me, that further proves the importance of getting out whenever you can – every session, however small, really does count…