Kev Hawker treats himself to a leisurely morning in the woods, and brings a few invasive grey squirrels to book while he’s at it.
If you asked me to name the most destructive pest in the British countryside, I would have no hesitation in saying the grey squirrel.
They may look cute and fluffy to some people, but looks can, and often do, deceive – this invasive rodent has had a hugely negative impact on our native wildlife.
Grey squirrels have contributed to the decline of our indigenous red squirrel through the spread of squirrel pox, and by outcompeting them for food and habitat, but the damage they cause extends far beyond that.
They prey on the eggs and chicks of songbirds, and also dominate food sources, including acorns, beech mast and hazelnuts, which should be supporting more vulnerable species such as dormice.
Foresters hate grey squirrels because of the costly damage they cause to trees by stripping back their bark. This causes trees to become stunted and bushy, rather than forming a straight, thick trunk, and the result is a significant reduction in a plantation’s timber value.
But the damage squirrels cause to trees extends beyond monetary loss, and actually impacts once again on native wildlife. Healthy woodland creates a haven for birds, mammals and insects, but dead and dying trees that have been stripped of their bark cannot offer the same diversity of food and habitat.
The squirrel damage on one of my woodland permissions was clear to see during my latest outing. One plantation in particular was decimated by squirrels when the trees were young saplings.
More than 20 years after this three-acre plot was planted, instead of a thriving block of woodland, there is a struggling copse of stunted and deformed trees. Most of these trees have been utterly wrecked by squirrels, and many were completely killed.
That damage was done some time ago, and I am pleased to say that more recent plantings have been more successful, as a result of efforts to drive down the number of grey squirrels over recent years. It is a constant battle for myself and the gamekeeper, but it’s great to see the positive results.
On this occasion, I was out on a roving session. It was a lovely early summer morning, and I felt like stretching my legs while having a bit of a recce around the shoot.
There’s no denying that the best way to make a serious dent in squirrel numbers is to set up feeding stations and snipe them from a hide, but I didn’t feel like spending such a glorious morning stuck behind a blind.
I still took my airgun with me though; I knew I was likely to see one or two squirrels during my rounds, and I never like to miss the opportunity to bring a few of them to book.
Trying to hunt squirrels when the trees are in full leaf is never easy – the simple fact is that they have a far greater chance of clocking you and clearing off than you do of spotting them and getting a shot. That’s the way it usually goes, but a stroke of good fortune set me up with an early opportunity – though it was more by luck than judgement.
As I rounded a corner on the woodland ride I was trekking along, I noticed a young squirrel foraging on the ground about 25 metres ahead. True to form, it also noticed me and scrambled up the trunk of the first tree it could reach.
Rather than disappearing into the treetops, though, the naïve youngster decided to stop when it reached a bough about 20 feet off the ground. The squirrel’s position presented me with an unobstructed shot, which wasn’t a difficult one for my trusty old Air Arms S410. The pellet caught the errant bushy-tail solidly in the head, dropping it cleanly and getting my morning’s tally rolling.
That first kill was made in an area of the estate that I didn’t have time to shoot very hard last winter. As I picked up the squirrel, I wondered to myself whether the bark-stripping pests might have managed to get a hold during my absence, and decided to spend some more time exploring this woodland block.
My hunch seemed to be right when I saw a second squirrel about 20 minutes later. This one was more savvy, and although I managed to get it in my sight picture, it refused to linger, and soon vanished into the foliage.
I had a chance to redeem myself a little while later when I happened across yet another squirrel. Just like the first, this one made the mistake of freezing dead still, and was duly added to the bag.
Although I had originally planned to stay mobile, the apparent abundance of squirrels in this locality soon persuaded me that it might be worth waiting in ambush for a while.
A static hunter causes far less disturbance than one on the move, and it’s surprising how soon squirrels will venture out after you’ve settled in. I soon convinced myself that the stealthy and patient approach was the way to go, and I also fancied just sitting down and soaking up the peaceful woodland atmosphere for a while.
I found a spot where the woods opened up to offer me a relatively wide arc of fire into a stand of tall trees, and then sat myself down against the trunk of a large oak.
Building a hide usually causes too much disturbance for a short session, so I prefer to make the most of camouflage clothing and natural cover. I also think that simply keeping still is usually one of the best ways to go undetected.
It turned out to be quite a long wait. I didn’t mind, though, as I really enjoy watching and listening to the woodland birds. This morning’s stars were the chiffchaffs, which were in fine voice. All too soon more than an hour had slipped past, and I was thinking about making a move.
Most shooters will be familiar with the ‘just a few more minutes’ conundrum, and the decision to linger for longer than I had planned proved to be worthwhile when a movement in the treetops caught my eye.
It was only a slight tremble of a branch, but on such a still morning it was very apparent. I scanned the spot carefully and soon saw that the movement had been caused by a squirrel clambering out onto a particularly springy limb.
With the gun in my shoulder, I picked up the squirrel in the scope. It was clearly unaware of my presence, and eventually moved back, offering me a static target. Once again, the crosshairs came to rest on the squirrel’s head, and I tripped the trigger, which boosted the session’s bag to three.
Much is said and written about choosing the best ammunition and calibre for achieving clean kills on grey squirrels. I have been shooting these resilient rodents for about 40 years, and my top priority is to ensure that the pellet lands in exactly the right place – that’s usually between the eye and ear if a squirrel is presented side-on, or right between the eyes if it’s looking at you.
My advice is to forget about fancy pellet designs and claims about amazing properties of penetration or expansion, and focus on precision. The best way to achieve optimum accuracy is with a decent domed pellet, and my preference is usually for Air Arms Diabolo Field or Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign – two very similar pellets with a reputation for precise performance.
Calibre selection really is a matter of personal choice, but I have been using .177 for a very long time, and personally am more than happy with my results.
Back to the hunt, and things went very quiet after I bagged that squirrel from my ambush point. To be honest, I could have happily sat there for another hour, but real world responsibilities won out, and I eventually decided to call a close to the successful session.
I concluded the outing by cutting off the tails of the shot squirrels – the stump of a recently-felled ash serving as a handy chopping block. Squirrel meat is great to eat, but their tails are also valued by trout fishermen, who use the fibres to tie fly hooks.
It just so happens that a lovely little trout stream runs through this woodland permission, and the owner, who likes to wet a line, is always grateful for a few tails.
Dropping them off at his house also gave me an opportunity to tell him that I would be setting up a feeding station in the block of woodland where I had seen just a few too many squirrels during my morning rounds.
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