Squirrel control on a new permission

Shawn Minchin strikes gold and lands a massive permission to cull some grey squirrels – now he has to put in some groundwork to draw them in

I’d like to start this piece with some extraordinary figures. A recent report for the Royal Forestry Society detailed the cost of grey squirrel damage per year to woodlands – broadleaf and conifers – in England and Wales. A low-damage scenario put the total cost at £2m per year, a medium- damage scenario at £22.8m and a high- level scenario of damage – defined as 25% or more of broadleaf trees for example – at £37m.

The total estimated area to have been affected by grey squirrels in England and Wales is close to 23,000 hectares – nearly 57,000 acres! And that damage, we all know, is caused by the stripping away of protective bark around the trees.

The first squirrels were introduced to the UK from America by a Cheshire banker in 1876, apparently as a novelty. Sciurus carolinensis continued to be brought over in separate introductions by various other people up until 1930, when their negative impact on trees became apparent. 

Later of course the greys’ effect on the native red squirrel population was evident. The grey spread rapidly from the south east of England in the 1940s, pushing the reds farther and farther north. Right now they dominate much of the UK, and estimates put the number of greys at 2.7 million.

But grey squirrels are extraordinary creatures. Inquisitive and playful amongst their own, who can blame the wider public for not wanting to see them dance around their garden or scuttle in the undergrowth? I’ve watched many a grey grab food and find a place to store it. 

Shawn grabbed some feeders from Squirrel Management UK which are purpose-built for use by airgun hunters
No tree is immune to the greys’ sharp teeth, as the damage to this particular one clearly shows

I’ve even laughed at them when they tried to find where they had buried it, but had seemingly forgotten! 

But we live in extraordinary times. In the last 20 years there has been a huge shift towards forestry in the UK, with climate change and sustainability being the driver. 

The Government has committed to planting 74,000 acres of new woodland by 2025, even more by 2050. The threat to woodlands cannot be underestimated, and so preservation is key.

It is worth detailing this compelling argument for squirrel control because of the vital role the airgun hunter can play. 

Let’s consider the alternatives now and in the past. Traps have to be visited frequently, and that requires time, effort and cost. Traps also catch things other than grey squirrels. 

Warfarin as a poison has been used, but frankly it feels cruel. Oral contraceptives in bait are being developed, but they are likely to be several years away and how effective will they really be?

That leaves us. Individuals who are prepared largely to control squirrels for free for the sport, using compressed air systems and small pellets that have minimal impact on the environment. Our methods are discreet, quiet and humane.

In the past I’ve written about controlling squirrels for a local homeowner who found them causing problems in the loft. That confined my shooting to a few square yards. 

My brand new permission confines me to an area of more than 1,000 acres of woodland. I happened upon this oasis after dozens of letters and emails – all to no avail. 

Then I emailed a woodland organisation and received a lovely reply back, saying they didn’t have anything but would forward my email to someone who might need my services. I struck gold – and this permission is priceless.

My first meeting was with the estate manager and forestry team, setting out my plan of action and how I can be of use. Their woodland is heavily affected by squirrels and so anything to mitigate their damage is gratefully received. A tour revealed extensive bark-stripping on broadleaf trees in the 10- to 20-year age range. 

No squirrel will be able to lift the lids to pilfer the contents, they’ll have to grab the peanuts from the feed tray, presenting the chance of a shot

Here the trees are too tall to protect with plastic tubing, but the bark is thin enough to allow the teeth of the squirrels to be kept in check. I was struck by the amount of damage that can be done, and immediately started thinking up a plan of attack.

I decided that setting up squirrel feeders would deliver the most benefit. Placed against a tree at 20-25 yards, I would “snipe” them from a fixed position in a hide. They’d need time to grow used to the feeders, but the back end of summer into early autumn was a good time to try.

So it wasn’t long before I was back in the woods setting up two excellent squirrel feeders from Squirrel Management UK, which are specially designed for this task. 

Each can hold 6.5kg of feed (I use peanuts) and have a metal backplate to prevent damage from pellets. More importantly, they are fully protected by wire mesh to stop any gnawing into the woodwork.

Placement is key, so I opted for the edge of woodland. Squirrels have an excellent sense of smell, so to lure them in even more I also smeared peanut butter liberally around the trunks of the two feeder trees. With the waft of peanut butter permeating the woodland, even I felt like dipping in!

My equipment is probably a little bit over the top for what I’m doing. I’m going to be using my .177 HW100 KT, fully tuned by HW100 Tuning with a 250-bar titanium cylinder. It’s running at 11.5 ft-lb on its ideal diet of JSB Heavies at 10.34 grains. 

The scope is a Hawke Sidewinder 4-16 x 50. I’m using Primos sticks, and netting and poles bought from one of the online field sports suppliers.

Here’s a piece of advice to save hassle when shooting, particularly if the area is accessed by the public. I always give my local police force a call via 101 to let them know when I’ll be shooting, where I’ll be shooting, where my vehicle will be parked and the likely length of time I’ll be there. 

My local force is always grateful for this as it helps prevent any unfortunate call-outs! For each call I get a police reference number which can be quoted if there are any nervous members of the public who might phone in.

Another great tip is to obtain a detailed map of your shoot from Ordnance Survey. You can specify what area you want online, and for a small fee you get a very good map indeed printed off, giving a lot more detail than something on Google. 

All the rides, for example, are marked and it just feels as if a lot more effort has gone into surveying the area.

So the bait traps were attached to the trees, pretty much along the route where the greys are known to traverse and amongst the trees which had suffered the most damage. I filled them with the nuts you can buy in 25kg bags from country and equestrian stores – and they’re not that cheap anymore!

On my next return I checked on the bait stations. The first station I examined, strangely, was still full! 

This was late September when the forests were becoming full of the fruits of autumn, such as sweet chestnuts, but I was still rather disheartened and I questioned whether my siting of the feeders could have been better. 

Onto the second one, just a few yards away, and this was much more encouraging. In just a week the number of peanuts had fallen by half. That’s 3kg gobbled down by the greys! I wondered where they were stashing them. It was the proof I needed that the feeders were working after all.

So that’s the preparation done for this particular shoot, which I hope will deliver many years of successful shooting and allow me to do my small bit for conservation too. Next time I’ll be reporting on my success or otherwise with the HW100 KT. I have a feeling it’s going to be a fruitful season.

With his prep work done and the squirrels now coming to the feeders to dine on a regular basis, Shawn’s expecting to get some big bags

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