Setting up a feeding station is by far the most effective way to make a serious dent in the numbers of destructive grey squirrels – Mat Manning explains how he does it.
Feeding stations are without a doubt the most effective way to achieve meaningful tallies when using an airgun to control grey squirrels.
Although wandering the woods on the off-chance of bagging a bushy-tail or two is both enjoyable and beneficial, most landowners want to see proper results when they entrust someone with the control of this invasive rodent on their ground.
By creating an area of attraction, usually by offering peanuts, maize or sunflower seeds, you are greatly increasing the likelihood of encountering and killing grey squirrels during your time in the woods.
Fewer grey squirrels equals less tree damage, less predation on songbirds, less impact on our native red squirrel and, significantly, less chance of a dissatisfied landowner withdrawing your permission and getting someone else in because you aren’t delivering.
I also believe the use of feeding stations reduces the risk of wounding. This is because they enable shots to be taken from a comfortable position, over a known distance and at a static target. Some shooters suggest that there is a risk of feeding stations attracting grey squirrels from outlying areas – surely that can only be a good thing because it will enable you to do an even more effective job of reducing numbers of this pest and keeping them down.
The woods where I am shooting today have suffered a tragic loss of habitat as a result of ash dieback. Hundreds of trees have been felled as a result of the disease and the owners are eager to restore the habitat by replanting. This makes squirrel control more important than ever because the last thing anyone wants is the bark-stripping rodents killing or deforming newly planted saplings.
Despite the felling works, there are still quite a few mature trees standing, including oak, hazel and softwoods. The dense summer foliage can make it very difficult to spot squirrels up in the treetops, which is another advantage of using feeding stations to lure them out into the open.
The quarry: grey squirrel
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.
One week before shoot – drastic change
These woods are undergoing a drastic change in the aftermath of ash dieback. The owners have been forced to fell all the ash trees on the estate (which made up a large percentage of the woods) and replant with other species. Forestry works have now been going on for several months and have resulted in the loss of hundreds, possibly thousands, of large trees.
The extensive tree-felling works have resulted in the loss of a lot of woodland habitat, and some areas are now virtually devoid of grey squirrels. The pests haven’t gone, just moved into parts of the woods that offer good cover. This displacement of squirrels should assist Mat with their control because he can target areas where they are present in higher concentrations.
Although the works look like a scene of destruction, they will bring benefits in the long term. The owners will soon replant with species that should survive and thrive for many generations and the increased light coming in through the open canopy will soon bring a flush of new growth and increase biodiversity.
The new saplings will be extremely vulnerable to squirrels’ bark-stripping habits so the success of the replanting hinges on driving down the numbers of these destructive rodents.
One week before shoot – drawing them in
Even after the tree-felling works, there is still a lot of foliage left to keep squirrels hidden. Using a feeding station is a great solution to this problem as it lures squirrels out into the open where they offer clear and reliable shots.
This is a feeding site that Mat uses frequently, targeting it for four or five weeks at a time before the returns drop, signalling that it’s time to move on to another spot. Fortunately, this area hasn’t been hit very hard by the forestry works because most of the trees here are oak, hazel and pine. Consequently, this block of woodland is now serving as a sanctuary for squirrels that have been forced away from their usual territories, so Mat expects there to be plenty around.
The key to success with feeding stations is to keep them filled and allow the squirrels to grow confident around them by holding off from shooting for the first couple of weeks. These woods are a distance from Mat’s home, so he has set up two feeders in the same spot to increase capacity and reduce the visits he has to make to prevent them from running empty.
Mat uses various baits in his feeding stations but he rates peanuts as the best. They cost more than some of the alternatives but their level of attraction is unrivalled and they will draw in greedy squirrels even during late summer and autumn when natural food is most abundant.
One week before shoot – increasing cover
Squirrels can be quite bold when they’re distracted by an easy meal, but Mat still likes to set up a hide when targeting his feeding stations. His usual choice is a simple camouflage net propped up with a couple of poles to create a screen.
This particular hide has been in position for a long time so the squirrels had become accustomed to it. It was tucked into the edge of a softwood plantation but the forestry workers have had to cut back a lot of pine trees to open up the rides for their vehicles and the works have left Mat’s hide looking pretty exposed.
Rather than moving his hide to a completely different position, Mat has decided to leave it where it is and dress it with more vegetation to make it less conspicuous. Thankfully, the foresters have left behind a lot of branches from the pine trees they felled, and these are the perfect material for Mat to use to boost his hide.
Four or five branches are all it takes to blend the screen into the stand of trees behind it. Content that the hide will now provide sufficient concealment to keep him hidden from any squirrels that turn up to feed, Mat leaves the area and heads for home.
Don’t be in too much of a hurry to start shooting as soon as you see signs of grey squirrels visiting your feeding station. Mat’s usual approach is to gauge the response after a feeder’s first week in situ before deciding on his next move.
If the feeder has received no attention at all after one week, it could be that the squirrels haven’t found it and it needs to be moved somewhere else. If diminishing peanut levels suggest that squirrels are tucking in, Mat always keeps the feeder topped up for a second week before he starts shooting.
Week two is usually when the activity really builds up. The commotion of squirrels travelling back and forth to help themselves to peanuts is likely to attract more and more bushy-tails to the feeder. Another advantage of the second week is that it gives squirrels time to grow in confidence and regard the feeding station and surrounding area as a safe place, which means they will be less suspicious when you are sat waiting for them.
17:50 – in for the ambush
With all the preparations made, and with peanut levels going down very quickly, it is apparent that plenty of squirrels are visiting the feeder. Now is the time for Mat’s first stakeout.
Squirrels usually feed hardest just after daybreak and during the last couple of hours before nightfall, so Mat has arrived during the early part of the evening in the hope of catching up with his quarry during their second binge of the day. He doesn’t want to disturb the feeder immediately before his shooting session, so he heads straight for the hide.
Comfort is very important when you could be waiting for a long time, so Mat has brought along his beanbag seat. Apart from serving as a cushion, it also makes for a very stable platform to shoot from.
Sticking with the theme of stability, Mat is setting up with his Primos Trigger Stick Tripod. This height-adjustable shooting rest can be used from a variety of stances and provides excellent support for sitting shots.
Mat’s final preparation is to put on his headnet. Although the hide is in good shape and the squirrels should be distracted by the peanuts, he doesn’t want to take any chances. Having a net over his face and head also means Mat shouldn’t be pestered by the midges that can sometimes swarm around the woods as dusk approaches.
18:15 – action stations
The squirrels clearly have a taste for the peanuts, and it isn’t long before the first diner puts in an appearance. This squirrel knows exactly what it wants, and wastes no time as it scrambles down the trunk of the tree and onto the feeder before grabbing a peanut.
Mat is now watching through his scope, although the shot isn’t on immediately as the squirrel initially has its head hidden as it rummages through the feed tray. Very soon, the bushy-tail sits up and then clambers to the top of the feeder where it begins nibbling at the peanut to remove its dry, flaky husk.
Mat knows this is the time when grey squirrels are least likely to make any sudden moves. Using the tripod to keep his aim dead steady, Mat settles the crosshairs on the oblivious rodent’s skull and touches off the trigger of his FX Impact MkII to deliver a pin-point smack that sends the greedy squirrel tumbling to the ground.
It’s a clean kill, so Mat is able to remain concealed within his hide, and it’s just as well because another squirrel quickly follows the first. The process is practically identical as the bushy-tail slinks down the tree, takes a peanut and then settles on top of the feeder to tuck in. The conclusion is also the same, and the result is two dead squirrels beneath the feeder.
20:30 – tails you win
The squirrels keep on coming until darkness really starts to set in. Mat has had a productive session and has managed to account for five squirrels. That’s significantly less than on previous visits to this feeder, which is a good sign, but it is still an important contribution to the estate’s habitat management plan.
The next job is to retrieve the shot squirrels, and they will not be wasted. Apart from being free-range and very healthy, squirrel meat is also delicious – very similar to chicken – so this evening’s quarry is destined for the pot.
Meat isn’t the only useful by-product from a session culling grey squirrels, as their tails are also worth keeping. People who tie their own fly-hooks for trout and salmon fishing are usually grateful for squirrel tails as the silvery-grey fibres feature alongside feathers and tinsel in the construction of several imitation insects. For this reason, Mat always cuts the tails off his shot squirrels and passes them on to fly-fishing friends.
FX Impact MkII
Primos Trigger Stick
Macwet Micromesh long cuff