Autumn’s rich bounty stirs grey squirrels into a buzz of activity as they prepare for harder times. Mat Manning explains how to make the most of this golden opportunity.
Autumn woodland has to be my favourite hunting scenario. The woods are at their most beautiful during this season, and the sudden abundance of nuts and berries can send quarry species – grey squirrels in particular – into a real frenzy of activity.
The season will probably be drifting towards winter by the time you read this, but rest assured that there are still likely to be plenty of windblown acorns and other goodies hidden amongst the leaf litter on the woodland floor, so the tactics I’m using here are still going to be effective.
For this session I am out on a woodland permission that I have not been able to shoot for more than six months because of intensive forestry work. The chainsaws have now stopped running and the machinery has pulled out, so it’s safe for me to head out on my rounds again.
Although I rate peanut-loaded feeding stations as the best way to catch up with grey squirrels, I don’t have any running here at the moment. Therefore, this session is about reacquainting myself with the woods and working out where to set up my feeders over the coming weeks. Of course, I will also be doing my best to bag a few squirrels while I’m at it.
It is a lovely, sunny morning with a slight nip in the air. Just the sort of conditions that draw out squirrels to forage for autumn’s rich bounty. Hopefully, I will catch up with a few of them as I make my way along the rides.
The quarry: grey squirrels
PEST STATUS: This invasive rodent damages trees, contributes to the decline of red squirrels and preys on the eggs and chicks of songbirds.
HABITAT: Squirrels spend much of their time in the trees, although they will also forage on the ground.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Grey squirrel meat is surprisingly good to eat. Fishermen also use their tail fibres to tie fly-hooks.
08:40 – ROVING APPROACH
Because Mat hasn’t visited this estate for a long time and is eager to see whether there have been any significant changes to the landscape and his quarry’s behaviour, he is starting off on the move. This mobile approach will enable him to cover plenty of ground and to make a note of any areas that should receive closer attention during subsequent visits.
Rather than clambering through the main blocks of woodland, Mat is keeping to the wide rides that have been kept open for the foresters’ machinery. These broad thoroughfares tend to make for quieter stalking than the tangled thickets of trees because the ground here isn’t as heavily littered with rustling leaves and brittle twigs that crunch and crack underfoot.
Because they have an open canopy, the rides let in more sunlight, which means the trees along their edges tend to hold a heavier crop of fruit. Greedy grey squirrels quickly home in on these rich pickings. It is easier to spot squirrels scampering about in trees along the rides rather than in the shade of dense woodland, and the sparser cover also means that Mat is more likely to get unobstructed shots.
09:10 – OPENING SHOT
It is important not to be in a hurry when hunting on the move in woodland. Grey squirrels can be difficult to spot, especially as they have a habit of freezing when disturbed, so thorough observation is vital.
As Mat makes his way through the woods, he stops for a careful scan after every 10 or 20 steps. Apart from looking above and ahead, he also looks back along the route he has taken and studies the ground for signs of squirrels foraging amongst the leaf litter. Standing still makes it far easier to carry out these observations and to hear the subtle telltale sounds that can often betray the presence of squirrels.
During one of his reconnaissance stops along the second ride through the woods, Mat spots a squirrel hunched in the fork of a branch. The little rodent is nibbling away at something – probably an acorn – and doesn’t appear to have clocked Mat.
Rested shots are always preferable to freestanding ones, so Mat quietly takes a couple of steps to position himself against a wide tree. Using the trunk for support, Mat shoulders his Daystate Red Wolf and frames the bushy-tailed rodent in his sight picture.
09:15 – ONE DOWN
The crosshairs soon settle on the squirrel’s head and the stability provided by the tree enables Mat to line up with pinpoint precision.
He touches off the trigger and the pellet slams home with a solid clout, catching the rodent squarely in the skull and sending it plummeting to the ground.
Mat keeps all the grey squirrels he shoots for the pot, so this one is quickly retrieved. With the squirrel safely stowed in his bag, Mat continues on his way through the woods.
A short distance from where he dropped the first squirrel, Mat comes across something interesting on the floor.
It’s a pile of discarded sweet chestnut fragments, which appear to have been munched by a bushy-tail. Squirrels are able to eat unripe fruit, nuts and seeds that are too tannin-rich for other animals to stomach. This enables them to monopolise food sources to the detriment of other woodland wildlife, but the scraps they leave behind can lead to their downfall.
After spotting several other piles of husks and seed cases, Mat feels fairly certain that this place is currently popular with the squirrels. With that in mind, he decides to settle in for a while to see if any will venture back out to feed.
EXPERT TIP: TRAVEL LIGHT
Even if you are planning to stop from time to time, it pays not to be overburdened when hunting on the move. Apart from weighing you down, a backpack that is overloaded with gear is likely to rattle and clunk, which will spook skittish squirrels.
The bulkiest piece of kit that Mat carries on this kind of outing is a beanbag seat to use during his stops. His jacket pockets hold pellets, a knife, a head net and a rangefinder, and his backpack carries shot game and little else.
During longer trips, when food and drink are required, Mat leaves his provisions in the boot and heads back to the car for a break if he isn’t travelling too far away. It’s certainly preferable to having a heavy flask bashing around in your bag.
09:30 – THE PATIENT APPROACH
Although Mat was planning a roving hunt, it is often worth stopping for a while if you encounter an area that appears to have potential.
A hunter who is sitting still is much harder to detect than one who is on the move because an ambush eliminates the noise and movement that serves as an early warning system to wary quarry.
Mat quickly settles at the base of a large oak tree. Apart from being close to the discarded sweet chestnut scraps, this area holds a good crop of acorns, so it should have plenty of appeal for the squirrels.
The tree Mat has chosen to rest against provides comfortable back support, which can help when taking shots, and also creates a backdrop for his camouflage clothing to work against. Mat gives his concealment an added boost by putting on his head net, which he doesn’t like to wear while stalking as it narrows his vision.
The hiding place Mat has chosen enables him to cover four fairly open trees. Rather than leaving it to guesswork, Mat uses his rangefinder to gauge the distance to various prominent branches on each of the trees.
If squirrels creep out on or close to any of these branches, Mat will have a good idea of the range and relevant aim-off to apply to his shots without having to reach for the rangefinder.
10:05 – IRRESISTIBLE APPEAL
Woodland wildlife, including invasive grey squirrels, can sense the changing of the seasons and the approach of harder times towards the turn of the year. While the time of plenty lasts, there is a real urgency to make the most of it, so Mat is confident that the squirrels will soon be back out. It takes a little longer than he had expected but, sure enough, a bushy-tail eventually gives in to the lure of the banquet and clambers out on the boughs of one of the lofty oaks.
Distracted by the urge to fill its belly, the squirrel is oblivious to Mat’s presence and confidently scampers back and forth to pluck acorns from the outermost limbs of the tree. Although this squirrel is bold, it refuses to keep still long enough for Mat to line up a decisive shot.
Mat waits until the squirrel is out in full view, and then makes a loud squeaking sound through pursed lips. There is always a chance that the sudden noise could spook the squirrel, but the ruse has worked this time and the rodent freezes as it tries to locate its source. Presented with a static target, Mat lines up the shot and makes a second addition to the morning’s tally.
10:55 – BAG UP AND ROVE ON
The first shot from Mat’s hiding place at the base of the oak was quickly followed by another, proving his hunch about this rich feeding ground to be right. However, a longer wait then follows and although he feels there is probably more action to be had here, Mat decides to resume his roving tactics and move on.
Before continuing through the woods, Mat retrieves both squirrels. Just like the first one, they are destined for the table and their tails will be gratefully received by friends who use the fibres to tie fly-hooks for trout fishing.
With the squirrels collected, Mat returns to the rides and continues with his start-stop journey as he scours the trees. Outings like this are as much about gleaning information for future visits as adding to the bag on the day.
During his progress, Mat will earmark spots to stake out during future visits and may stop for another ambush before he heads for home. He will note sites where he’d do well to set up feeding stations, which will pull in the squirrels when natural food runs low as winter tightens its grip.
GUN: Daystate Red Wolf (daystate.com)
OPTICS: MTC Mamba Lite (mtcoptics.com)
SCOPE MOUNTS: SportsMatch two-piece (sportsmatch-uk.com)
AMMO: Rangemaster Sovereign (daystate.com)
RANGEFINDER: Hawke Vantage (hawkeoptics.com)
JACKET: Ridgeline Grizzly III (ridgelineclothing.co.uk)
GLOVES: Macwet Micromesh Long Cuff (range-right.co.uk)