Shawn Minchin’s squirrel control efforts get off to a slow start until he adopts some different tactics and decides to bring in some helpful items of kit
It’s funny how your mind can play tricks on you when you’re waiting in a hide. There you are, straining your hearing and testing your eyesight to the maximum for any sign of a squirrel. Sometimes hours can pass with not even the faintest hint of any quarry. Other times they pile in like buses, oblivious to the fate that awaits them.
On this occasion, I had only been in the hide for 20 minutes when one turned up. I had convinced myself that a grey conifer branch drooping down was in fact a squidger making his way down the trunk of a beautiful tree which is supporting my feeder.
You may recall from my last piece that a fair amount of work had taken place to find the right spot and set up a good position. Now that hard work was bearing fruit.
I quickly realised the branch was nothing more than that, so settled back into position with my HW97 KT, which has been tuned by Paul Short, resting on my legs. The cocking lever was in the unlocked position, with a .22 Air Arms Field already chambered before the rifle would be cocked.
That would happen once a squirrel had been sighted. Cocking the springer in a hide is a tricky process, requiring manoeuvring to pull the lever back without hitting the sides of the hide, this unnatural movement being a dead giveaway to any suspicious rodent.
Then out of nowhere one appeared, the unmistakable grey fur creeping its way down to reach the feeder just a foot or two off the ground. I cocked the 97 as quietly as I could, gently pressing the lever back into position.
With the safety catch on, I raised the rifle and settled it onto my Primos sticks. As Mat Manning always makes clear, patience is the key. Allow the squirrel to relax, take a nut, and rest on the feeder. It wasn’t long before the Hawke was sighted bang on the side of its head. I gently squeezed the trigger and a jolt from the rifle signalled the diabolo was heading to its target some 18 yards away.
The animal dropped straight to the floor. One down. Two more followed in the next hour, each slightly more nervous and hesitant than the last. Then three more. I cannot express how relieved I was at this tally. That’s because several weeks had gone by without even a sausage falling prey to the rifle.
Time was starting to press on and not getting off the zero mark was hardly going to impress the landowner. What had I done wrong? I had regularly topped up the feeders with peanuts – and they are not cheap! I visited at different times of the day, hoping to catch one or two unawares.
I had the netting and the poles to conceal my position. I had invested bags of time, topped off with oodles of patience, to try to secure the first kill. But nothing.
Maybe it was the rich abundance of natural food on this forest floor that ensured that the squirrels had no need to revert to an “unnatural” feeder. Maybe my netting wasn’t doing enough to conceal my presence. Admittedly the squirrels would have had no problem seeing me from a tree. Those hunting trips were proving pointless, it seemed.
But they brought unforeseen surprises. This estate is frequented by both dog walkers and sometimes people out walking on their own, such is the beauty of these thousands of acres.
I have to admit some trepidation about encountering people on the way while carrying out important conservation duties.
How would they feel about my presence? I would hardly want them to be put off visiting because of someone with a rifle carrying out legitimate and necessary work.
In part, my preparations beforehand with the forester meant signs were erected making clear to avoid certain areas of the estate. And I always make sure I tell the local police force of my presence just in case any anxious walkers become fearful and spark a call to Force Control.
I needn’t have worried. The first family – mum, dad, dog and young son – walked within 60 yards and in my direction.
I emerged from the netting and said “hello” with my rifle under my arm. They smiled and we had a conversation about the need to control squirrels and what I did, what the rifle was and how I got into doing it.
The son was full of questions and I could barely reply before another was fired. When I explained about the hide they asked: “Where is it?” “Fifteen yards behind me,” came my reply, delighted with the effectiveness of the netting, at ground level at least.
We parted with smiles and good wishes. And thankfully, that pretty much has been the story for many of those members of the public I have encountered.
Once, on the way back from a successful session where I bagged six, a lady asked what I had been doing. When I explained again about squirrel control she asked if they were in the M&S carrier bag to which my reply was “yes”.
I added that squirrel meat was delicious to which she replied: “I’m vegetarian.” I smiled and apologised – and her smile back conveyed that all was well.
So what led to bags of zero to bags of six? A change in my approach and the changing seasons. Firstly, I wanted to more accurately pinpoint the squirrels’ feeding times so I invested in some trailcams. I bought two, pretty cheaply, off the internet.
I think they came to less than £100 for the pair. After faffing around with inputting the time and date in a text file and ensuring they worked, they were installed near the feeders. And they came up trumps. Timestamped pictures and videos showed the squirrels were most active at the feeders around lunchtime – how appropriate.
I also switched to a portable pop-up hide. For less than £70 off Amazon, one arrived and off I went. It’s a collapsing chair with a hide frame you pull over. Perfect.
Thank god though my first attempt at using it was during a very quiet day for estate visitors. Erecting the hide was easy, putting it back down far less so. I struggled and wrestled with this wretched canvas creature for something like 10 minutes before it was defeated using a strategically placed knee and an unusually mobile arm. Now it’s childsplay to get it in and out of the bag.
The final breakthrough – and the most important – was the full onset of winter. The ground at this time is bare of suitable food so the only stuff easily available comes courtesy of Shawn’s Diner. At the height of the plundering, the feeder was being drained of peanuts at a rate of six kilos every few days. Cameras caught about four greys around the area at any one time – it was quite a gluttonous free-for-all.
So what have I learned so far from my experience on this shoot? Well, preparation is important, as I described in my previous article. Time too is another important commodity. Plus plenty of peanuts and patience in equal measure – and an open mind to think about my approach in different ways.
I have also learned that while I absolutely love my spring HW97 KT, pest control like this is so much easier with the pre-charged Weiharuch HW100 KT.
It’s shorter than the springer so fits in my rather cramped hide perfectly.
It is also much easier to cock in a confined space than the 97 and the resettable safety catch is vital when the bag starts to fill. On the day of the Bag of Six, the greater the number of kills, the more wary the subsequent squirrels became. By the time of the sixth, it was a cat-and-mouse game waiting for it to settle on the feeder for a safe shot.
It wanted those peanuts badly, but seemed to understand that danger was nearby and darted around the tree for several minutes. I think the HW100’s safety was set, then unset, something like six or seven times before the shot was on and that particular squirrel could be taken.
It’s pleasing to know that my efforts are already working and the estate is particularly happy with my work. The rate of depletion of the feeder is slowing right down. While a whole feeder was being depleted before, now it remains three-quarters full.
Clearly squirrels in this particular wood have been significantly hit, but it won’t be long before more return and so it will be a constant effort to keep down their numbers. As I write this we are in the depths of winter and it’s mating season: every female taken means up to eight fewer the following year. I’ll keep this wood under a close eye, but will also set up one of the other feeders nearby.
Spring isn’t that far behind, and the vulnerable saplings need all the protection they can get. A puff of air, a few grains of lead and a keen mindset is all we need to mitigate the menace that these squirrels can have on our wonderful woodland.