Hoppers… and the Devil’s scritch

I often extol the virtues of the humble pheasant feeder as an ace quarry attractor; I’ve even been targeting rats around them after dark. But I make no apology for constantly emphasising just how effective it can be for the airgun shooter to base pest control operations around this man-made food source. The simple fact is, if I had to single out the most productive winter quarry attractors on my shooting grounds, the grain hoppers would always be at the top of the list.

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To those of us who share our shooting permissions with pheasant syndicates, the arrangement can sometime feel like a compromise. The paying punters obviously have to come first, and we’re often made to feel like lowly pest controllers who have to work their activities around the more important needs of the esteemed game shooter.

Yes, it can sometimes be a pain when we’re banished from the woods on shoot day, but I know it’s still a privilege to be able to enjoy my sport after the noisy shotgunners have had their fill – because the feed that the gamekeeper dutifully provides for the much-valued pheasants creates hot-spots where I know I’m likely to encounter my quarry.

104_as.hopper.12The expense caused by squirrels and other pests helping themselves to grain that’s intended for pheasants is one of the reasons why landowners and shoot managers permit us to enjoy free shooting on their ground. And that expense tends to increase as winter tightens its grip, forcing hungry critters to intensify their raids on the feed hoppers when natural food sources run precariously low.

Squirrels can become quite cocky when they’re stealing grain. I guess they’re so distracted by the easy source of food at a time of year when they’re usually struggling to scratch sustaining morsels from the woodland floor, they forget that starvation is not the only danger. This pre-occupation causes squirrels to drop their guard, making them noticeably less wary than usual; sometimes downright reckless.

Therefore, my approach when targeting pheasant feeders is rarely anything more technical than a simple ambush. By early winter, I’ll have earmarked the hoppers that are receiving the most attention from pests, and these are the places I will head to first during my pest control rounds. Most of the time, I’ll just settle myself into a position 20-odd metres from a feeder and wait for the squirrels to be drawn out by the lure of the grain.

I don’t tend to use a hide, but I do wear full camouflage and try to make the most of any natural cover. This enables me to set up with minimal disturbance, and to move on quickly and quietly to another promising spot once I think I’ve fully exploited a certain area. My winter camouflage clothing usually includes a warm hat with a peak that helps with concealment by casting shade over my face, a pair of gloves and a fleece neck snood that I draw up over my nose. Apart from keeping me hidden, these additional garments also keep out the cold, enabling me to sit it out as long as it takes without fear of cold weather cutting the session short.

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Another useful extra is a beanbag cushion to sit on. As well as providing a comfortable and easily transportable seat, these cushions are filled with the polystyrene balls that are used to fill cavity walls; thus they provide excellent insulation to prevent you from getting a cold backside while sat, waiting, on frozen ground.

The feeding station inadvertently created by the gamekeeper can attract a variety of visitors, so expect plenty of activity to keep you occupied once calm has returned to the woodland after your arrival. Pheasants are often the first diners to venture back, and they’ll frequently be followed by all kinds of songbirds that quite possiblywouldn’t make it through the ravages of winter without these easy pickings. Of course, the promise of a free meal also attracts less welcome guests – squirrels, rats, magpies, woodpigeons and jays – so there’s a good chance of a mixed bag.

106_as.hopper.14One quarry species that’s particularly abundant on my permissions this year is the jay. Just a few days ago, I startled four from beneath a feed hopper as I crunched through the woods. I can’t recall ever seeing so many jays under a single feeder, and I later managed to bag one – plus a brace of squirrels – by simply staying put around that area and waiting them out. I reckon I could have had more, too… if I hadn’t had to head home early after being completely drenched by a torrential rainstorm that quickly extinguished what looked like being a bumper session.

108_as.hopper.16The abundance of jays is likely to be down to an influx of these colourful corvids from abroad. It appears that a failed acorn crop in Scandinavia caused vast flocks to pour into the UK in search of food. Frankly, I reckon our crop of fruit, nuts and berries was pretty poor this year (no doubt a result of the miserable summer and the cold, wet autumn), so I’m not convinced that these incomers found the natural feast they were hoping for. Presumably, the shortage of acorns, beech mast and the like will force even more of these birds to steal from grain hoppers?

It remains to be seen whether or not all these extra jays will return to their homeland once they’ve had their fill. If they don’t, there will be a heck of a lot of extra pressure on nesting birds when these immigrant corvids add eggs and chicks to their diet in the spring. Jay’s usually arrive on the scene in an unexpected flurry of blue and pink, unless you get an early warning from their primeval shriek.

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It always amazes me that such a secretive bird could have such an indiscreet screech, which, in my West Country locality, has earned it the vernacular name of ‘Devil Scritch’. When you hear that devilish sound, get yourself ready… because opportunities at this fidgety pest species are generally few and far between. If you do manage to bag one or two artful jays this winter, don’t forget to keep their wings. The electric-blue and black barred feathers are prized by fly-fishermen, who use the glistening fibres to tie lures that mimic tiny fish. If you’ve got a mate who ties his own trout flies, he’ll be delighted with your contribution towards his efforts, and will probably be grateful for one or two squirrels’ tails too. On the subject of squirrel tails, I recently shot a tree-rat with an exceptionally short one. The keepers that manage the woods where I shoot often set Fenn traps close their feed hoppers in the hope of nailing one or two tree-rats and my theory is this squirrel lost the end of its tail in a lucky escape from one. Or maybe it slipped from the clutches of a predator? Whatever the cause, though, it must have happened some time ago because it had healed so that the end looked the same at the tail of any other squirrel. The stumpy tail didn’t appear to disadvantage the critter, which was a chunky specimen and in excellent health. Probably because of all the grain it had been scoffing.

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