Setting up a feeding station is by far the most effective way to make a serious dent in numbers of destructive grey squirrels – Mat Manning explains how he does it.
The woods where I am shooting today are managed for wildlife conservation, so grey squirrels really aren’t welcome. I tend to hit this particular permission very hard twice a year, once at the beginning of the winter and once again in early spring. By having two concentrated campaigns, each running for a month or two, I am able to really drive down the numbers rather than just chipping away at them. The owner and his son are both keen shooters, and they do their best to keep the pressure on when I’m not around.
My efforts are concentrated around the hungry period when natural food is thin on the ground. I hold back on my first push until after the autumn harvest of nuts and seeds has been mopped up, and then return for another stint just before the spring growth really gets established. This timing means that I can count on squirrels taking a great deal of interest in my feeders.
Feeding stations are without a doubt by far the best way to make a meaningful impression on squirrel numbers. By offering them an easy food source when their natural menu is at its leanest, a feeder will concentrate squirrels in a place where you can expect to encounter them. As a result, you will be able to account for far more and in less time than by simply wandering the woods in the hope of getting a shot or two. Critics may say this approach is unsporting, but grey squirrels are shot for pest control, not sport, and I would point out to them that this is the best and most humane means to that end.
It’s a cool, dry day so conditions for today’s shoot look very good. I have several feeding stations running on the estate, but this is my first session on this particular one so I’m expecting a lot of activity
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.
Two weeks before shoot: setting the trap
The first step to success with a feeding station is setting up in the right place. It goes without saying that it needs to be in an area where squirrels are known to be active, and this can be confirmed by the presence of their dreys if you don’t actually spot them. They prefer sheltered areas of woodland over exposed places and they’re certainly fond of mature trees that are draped with dense patches of ivy.
Mat has chosen to site his feeder on a prominent softwood tree that has lots of branches that interconnect with other trees. These create useful access routes that squirrels will be able to use to reach the feeder without having to travel across the ground.
When it comes to height, Mat tries to position his feeder high enough to be out of the way of deer, but low enough to fill without too much of a stretch.
Whether you use nails or rope to attach your feeder to the tree is for you to decide with the landowner. Nails provide a very secure attachment that’s difficult for passers-by to tamper with, but some landowners will want you to use rope to avoid damaging valuable trees.
If you do use nails, make sure you remove them when you take your feeder down – the last thing you want to do is leave them for someone to hit with a chainsaw, which is damaging to the machine and also potentially very dangerous.
Two weeks before the shoot: the best bait
If you want to really attract squirrels to your feeding station you have to offer them what they want. Cost is an important consideration and it’s often a matter of balancing budget with performance.
Mat has experimented with all sorts of offerings in his feeding stations over the years. In very cold weather, when squirrels are really hungry and there isn’t much to tempt them away, wheat is an effective offering that doesn’t cost too much. If there is other food around, maybe in the shape of game feed or acorns and beech mast, then maize and sunflower seeds will usually pull in a few squirrels without breaking the bank.
For this assignment Mat is using peanuts – his absolute favourite bait for attracting grey squirrels. Peanuts aren’t cheap, but they can usually be relied upon to draw in bushy-tails at any time of year, regardless of what other food is about.
Mat reckons that their pulling power can attract squirrels from neighbouring ground. This makes for even more effective pest control as you are mopping up squirrels from the outlying area rather than leaving them to repopulate the vacuum you have created.
One week before shoot: creating concealment
After setting up and loading a feeder with bait, you will need to give it time to work before planning an ambush. If it appears to be receiving regular visits from squirrels, the next job is to construct a hide. If your feeder doesn’t appear to be attracting any squirrels after a week or so, you probably need to move it somewhere else.
Mat leaves his feeder for four days before checking up on it and topping it up. After a week, the feed is beginning to go down quite quickly – a sure sign that the squirrels have homed in and Mat’s cue to go ahead and build a hide.
When choosing a location for the feeder, Mat made sure it was positioned in clear view of a potential hide site under 25m away. Confident that squirrels have a taste for the peanuts, Mat has constructed a blind by draping a camouflage net from a set of hide poles. The hide is beneath a large yew tree, and Mat has used pieces of a fallen branch to dress the netting and help it blend in.
With his hide in position, Mat refills the feeder before heading for home. It is vital that a feeding station is never allowed to run empty because you don’t want squirrels to lose interest and find another food source.
Expert tip: make your own feeder
Although you can buy yourself some excellent squirrel feeders online, it is easy to construct your own and the job makes for an interesting weekend project.
The basic design is similar to a bird box, but you need to construct a shallow tray in front of the outlet hole to hold the bait as it spills out. Other important features to incorporate are a hinged lid that fastens shut, a means of attachment to a tree and sufficient feed capacity to save you from having to make too many visits to keep it topped up.
Squirrels have a habit of gnawing through feed hoppers, so you will need to reinforce vulnerable areas if you choose to build yours from wood. Wire mesh works well, but sheet metal is even better. The key place to protect is the area around the outlet hole, which squirrels have a habit of chewing – especially if the feeder is allowed to run empty.
15:40: the big day
The squirrels have now had plenty of time to home in on the feeder and to learn to treat it as a safe place to dine. Their comings and goings, combined with the activity of songbirds, have attracted more and more squirrels and the feed is now going down extremely quickly.
Grey squirrels tend to feed hard during the last few hours of daylight, so Mat is settling in for a long afternoon and evening session. He checked and topped up the feeder yesterday, which means that he was able to head directly to his hide and settle in without causing any disturbance around the feeding station.
Mat’s final preparations include positioning his shooting sticks ready to take aim at the feeding station. It means he will be treated to the luxury of rested shots and will hardly have to move when the squirrels turn up.
The groundwork appears to have paid off as a squirrel clambers down the tree and settles on the feeder less than 10 minutes after Mat’s arrival. The shot couldn’t be easier: the squirrel is sat nibbling on a nut, Mat knows the range to his target and the gun is supported. A crack echoes through the woods as the pellet finds its mark and the first bushy-tail of the session flops onto the deck with barely a twitch.
16:45: feeding frenzy
That first squirrel is soon followed by another and it isn’t long before a third bushy-tail shows up. This one is more cautious, though, and appears to be alarmed by the sight of its dead mates. Instead of clambering straight down to the feeder, the agitated squirrel scrambles up and down the tree trunk, chattering and flicking its tail.
Rather than taking a risky shot at a squirrel that refuses to keep still, Mat waits patiently, watching the bushy-tail through his scope. By tracking the fidgety squirrel in this way, Mat will be able to quickly line up a shot if it pauses.
The squirrel gradually grows more confident and eventually hops on to the feeder, grabs a peanut and starts tucking in. Mat’s patience is rewarded with another straightforward shot and he promptly makes a third addition to the growing tally.
After a busy first hour, the action shows no sign of slowing down. The squirrel activity is so hectic that there’s hardly a chance for birds to visit the feeder. True to form, a nuthatch eventually drops in for a peanut, but quickly disappears in a flutter of wings as yet another squirrel bundles in.
18:20: retrieve, refill and retreat
As the evening wears on, the action gradually begins to slow down, which is hardly surprising after such a busy couple of hours. As the time between squirrel visits stretches out, more and more songbirds are able to visit the feeder without being bullied off by the boisterous rodents.
With the tally at seven Mat decides to call it a day. The first session on a feeding station is usually the most productive and Mat is not surprised to have amassed such a substantial bag, which will make an important contribution to this spring’s cull.
After leaving the hide, Mat gathers up the shot squirrels and puts them in his bag. Squirrel meat makes for very good eating – more like chicken than rabbit – so none of it will be going to waste.
Before he heads for his car, Mat refills the feeder with another sack of peanuts. Although today’s shoot has gone well, it is almost certain that there are more squirrels to be had here. By keeping the feeder topped up, Mat hopes to be able to draw them in. He will keep on shooting once or twice a week until the squirrel activity dries up, signalling that it’s time to move the feeding station to another area.
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