Hunting: .20 calibre

Returning to his hunting routine after the annual holiday break, a refreshed Ian Barnett enjoys a post-rain foray with a new .20 pellet on the grey stuff…

Sitting in a British wood during rain can be an exhilarating experience – and that’s exactly how I felt as I crouched in cover waiting for the heavy shower to pass. A two-week sabbatical from all things shooting – otherwise known as the family holiday – had seen me intent on getting out with the rifle whatever the weather gods came up with. To be honest, each annual break from shooting refreshes my enthusiasm for hunting…

Stepping into the dark wood under grey cloud cover, I shut my eyes for a couple of seconds then re-opened them. This hastened the adjustment of my pupils to the poor light. As usual, I sought out the nearest thick beech bole, alongside an ancient yew tree, to take cover. The combined, overlapping canopies would give near-total shelter during a deluge that would demand full-speed windscreen wipers if I were driving.

001_RR (11)_web_600wI sat and listened to the latest shower approaching through the trees. It’s an eerie sound; the pattering raindrops clatter like thousands of tiny feet running towards you, then pass overhead and around you!

The old lurcher lay next to me. He watched the treetops in puzzlement, his head tilting left and right before finally laying between his paws. The dog is long enough in the tooth to know that this type of showery rain wouldn’t mean our sport today was over. Indeed, the drumming of the rain was punctuated by the soporific murmur of dozens of sheltering woodpigeons all around us. Trouble was, we couldn’t see a single one!

In the murk, nothing moved while the rain persisted. Yet there was a sense of replenishment and refreshment. I knew, too, that the open rides and paths would be damp and quiet to traverse when the rain stopped.

As soon as the deluge ended and the sun began to peep through breaking cloud, the birdsong got under way. The flood of sunbeams through the canopy lit the forest floor and the pigeons above started to flap and clear the raindrops from their sodden feathers. This behaviour, of course, gives away their positions – so these were my first targets today.

But I’d only be aiming at a couple, mainly to check my judgement on elevations. You see, I’d changed my pellet choice for Katie (my .20 calibre Weihrauch HW100K-T) – and an intimate knowledge of how to ‘read’ your scope’s reticle is essential when shooting elevated quarry.

I have to confess I’ve been struggling with this aspect of my shooting using the .20 calibre. I’ve been hunting with H&N Field Target Trophy for several months now, but have failed to imprint the instant judgement needed to bring down quarry that’s sited up in the canopy with clinical regularity.

 My mind seems to be etched with .22 trajectories and angles – perhaps not surprising after decades of hunting with the larger pellet. Thus, I was ‘experimenting’ today with the heavier (13.58-grain) .20 H&N Baracuda pellet. Its trajectory is similar to the .22 Air Arms Diabolo Field I was used to…

I soon bagged two woodies. Both dropped like stones at the impact of the H&N Baracuda, which pleased me immensely. I collected them and bagged them for the pot. Sometimes, I breast out in the field and leave the carcases to nature; on this occasion I decided I’d undress this brace at home. (I have a friend trying to feed ferrets at the moment, so he’d appreciate the rest of the bird meat and bone.)

The departure of the rain allowed me to divest my windproof smock and concentrate on the next obvious target – squirrels. They’ll leave their dreys once the rain has passed, especially if they’ve been prevented from their early morning browsing by the showers.

Like those woodpigeons, squirrels give away the game amongst wet foliage via all the shaking and showering that lets you follow their progress. My dog, Dylan, is a virtuoso of this tracking game and will lead me to tree-top squirrels 200 yards away on days like this.

The first squirrel to fall to the .20 H&N Baracuda

The first squirrel to fall to the .20 H&N Baracuda

The first grey to fall did so like a stone – a head shot. Even the old lurcher looked impressed! The rodent had been harvesting unripe, green acorns when I drew a bead on it. The grey squirrel’s ability to metabolise these is another reason it gained a foothold over the red squirrel in many areas of Britain because green acorns contain tannins which are toxic to red squirrels (and dogs). Effectively, the greys could harvest, eat and cache acorns weeks in advance of the reds… depriving the latter of a vital food source.

Dylan found me another grey, so busy tugging at the acorns that it didn’t even notice our approach. But I had to wait for my chance of a shot as it bobbed back and forth, high in the oak tree. Eventually, though, I managed to get enough of a view to get the pellet on target.

With such a set of teeth, greys can pose a threat if retrieved before ensuring they are dead

With such a set of teeth, greys can pose a threat if retrieved before ensuring they are dead

The grey tumbled through the branches as I checked the dog with a harsh “Stay!”, having sensed his intent to run in. Only when I was sure the rodent was dead did I allow the retrieve. The lurcher gets cocky at times and thinks it great fun to catch a squirrel before it hits the ground – not a good move if the rodent is still alive, as its teeth are formidable. I bagged the squirrel and we moved on…

We tracked across a meadow and I scanned the treeline for the jays screaming at our approach to the next copse. No luck there, though. We moved out along the maize cover crop beside the wood, where I found much evidence of cob raiding by roe deer, badgers and squirrels.

Moving along the maize cover crop beside the wood, Ian found the tracks of cob raiders in the soft mud

Moving along the maize cover crop beside the wood, Ian found the tracks of cob raiders in the soft mud

There were tracks everywhere in the soft mud. The maize kernels are as ripe as they will get in this wet weather and make for sweet, succulent nutrition for all three mammals. Each species feeds differently on the cobs, but it’s not difficult to learn who ate what.

Maize kernels make for sweet, succulent nutrition for animals

Maize kernels make for sweet, succulent nutrition for animals

Badgers chomp away at the thick stalks, fell the plant and drag it off to dig the cob from its sheath. Deer browse the maize cobs in situ, often leaving the chewed sweetcorn on the plant. Bushy-tails climb the stalk, sever the entire cob and drag it off into cover to strip off the sheath. A squirrel feeding point will be used over and over so you will find several peeled cobs in one place.

008_RR (18)_web_600wBut the horse chestnut kernels I kept seeing today threw me a conundrum. I came across dozens on the rides that had been opened out by an animal which had shredded half the shell and removed the conker from the open fruit. At first, I couldn’t decide whether this was squirrel or badger work.

After examining a few, I concluded these had been eaten by squirrels, purely because the badger‘s powerful jaw would surely have just cracked the kernel, rather than chewed at it… On the other hand, the smaller-jawed squirrel would have had to gradually chomp its way into the fruit.

A magnificent pair of gigantic parasol mushrooms – check their size next to the rifle!

A magnificent pair of gigantic parasol mushrooms – check their size next to the rifle!

Further on, I chanced upon the biggest pair of parasol mushrooms I’ve seen in my life. So big, I took a photo with the rifle next to them to put a perspective on their size! Smaller parasols and fly agarics make excellent natural practice targets as they are about the same size and height from the ground as the head of a a feeding rabbit. (I obviously didn’t shoot at these magnificent specimens though.)

Talking of ‘magnificent specimens’, I was disappointed to find that while I was away in North Wales, about three acres of woodland had been felled on this estate. I had to remind myself that the woods I enjoy are, to landowners, another crop to be managed. The piles of long, straight quality logs were from those healthy trees not afflicted by deer or squirrel bark-stripping.

010_RR (22)_web_600wAs they were mostly coniferous, with just a few hazel and beech boles, I wasn’t too concerned. The open spaces carved in the forest will re-populate with saplings and need protection from squirrels and deer. So my air rifle and the deer stalker’s centrefire will still be welcome tools on this permission – a reassuring thought as I stripped off the squirrel tails once I’d hiked back up the escarpment back to the motor…

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