Mat Manning sets up for an ambush as falling temperatures and diminishing food supplies force grey squirrels to plunder the pheasant feeders.
I absolutely love being out and about in the woods with an air rifle at this time of year. The gradual thinning of the leaves is starting to make it easier to spot quarry up in the treetops and the significant reduction in daylight hours greatly increases the chances of encountering diurnal species foraging for food.
And, as ever, it’s food that’s creating the real quarry hotspots. We had a very heavy crop of acorns and beech mast this autumn, and that natural larder has kept species such as grey squirrels, woodpigeons and jays very well fed over the last few weeks.
That rich harvest is starting to dwindle now and pests are starting to look elsewhere for sustenance. A few frosts have also piqued the appetite of woodland critters, and now is the time when feeding stations loaded with maize, sunflower hearts or peanuts will really start to attract grey squirrels in big numbers.
Invasive grey squirrels are the main pest species around most of my woodland shoots, and this is the time of year when I usually start to really make a dent in them.
These adaptable rodents are ruinous to broadleaved woodland, killing and deforming trees with bark-stripping. The result has a significant impact on timber production, and is also ruinous to the woodland ecosystem because trees with squirrel damage never reach full maturity, which is when they should have optimum value as wildlife habitat.
I have just returned from another session bringing grey squirrels to book, but I wasn’t using a feeding station this time. The woods where I was shooting are managed for forestry and also as a pheasant shoot, and the feed hoppers that are put out for the gamebirds also attract a lot of bushy-tails too.
Squirrels wreak havoc by feeding on pheasants’ eggs and chicks as well as those of vulnerable songbirds, but their fondness for raiding grain feeders creates yet another headache for the gamekeeper.
Wheat prices are high this year, so the last thing that game shoots need is a plague of greedy squirrels munching through their valuable feed reserves. Combine all that with the costly damage the rodents do by chewing through the feed hoppers and it’s easy to see why gamekeepers won’t tolerate them.
But squirrels’ fondness for game feed can prove to be their downfall. At this time of year, feed hoppers around the shoot act like feeding stations, creating places where we can expect to encounter our quarry.
Gamekeepers are usually reluctant to target these pests with their shotguns at this time of year as the noise is likely to disturb the pheasants and possibly cause them to stray.
A silenced airgun is the perfect tool for the job, enabling us to snuff out greys with barely a sound. If you’re on the lookout for a hunting permission, it could be well worth offering your services to local pheasant shoots.
And so I decided to target the feeders during today’s session after the greys. Conditions were reasonably good; the cloud was starting to lift after a very wet morning and the water droplets were still sparkling on the branches as I made my way through the woods.
Squirrels don’t particularly like venturing out in rainy weather so I was hopeful that they’d be creeping out to feed now that the worst of the downpours had passed.
The area I was planning to target is just inside a large pheasant release pen, where the bushy-tails have homed in on a couple of feed hoppers. A spot at the base of a tree enables me to cover both feeders from less than 30m.
I haven’t built a hide here yet, but I have made a makeshift screen from a couple of old plastic platforms that the gamekeeper uses as stands to stop heavy water tanks from sinking into soft ground. Propped against the tree, they create a reasonable backdrop that helps to hide my outline.
There was no sign of any feeding squirrels when I arrived, but I wasn’t too worried. Although after several years of careful control this area is no longer overrun with bushy-tails, there is still a resident population and I was pretty confident that one or two would soon be visiting the grain hopper.
I put on my head net to conceal my face – it’s surprising how pale skin can stand out when shafts of sunlight are slanting down through the trees – and got ready to wait it out.
It amazes me that any hunter can ever complain of getting bored while waiting for their quarry to arrive. There is so much happening in the woods that my only complaint is that the precious hours whistle past far too quickly.
On this occasion I was entertained by a family of long-tailed tits that came tinkling through the undergrowth and passed within a few feet of my hiding place, as well as a robin that made regular visits to one of the feeders.
Up above the canopy, buzzards and ravens circled high in the sky, and I frequently heard the rasping calls of secretive jays deep in the woods, but never managed to spot them.
I was absorbed in the comings and goings of the feathered woodland residents when a flicker of silvery grey caught my eye and snapped my attention back to the job in hand.
A grey squirrel was slipping cautiously down the trunk of a large oak tree next to one of the feeders, and appeared to be on its way for a wheat feast. I shouldered my gun very slowly, taking aim in the direction of the feeder in anticipation of the squirrel’s arrival.
The incoming bushy-tail was clearly on high-alert, as it frequently froze in order to test the air with its ears and whiskers as it made its way across the woodland floor.
In my experience, it pays not to try to take rushed shots in situations like this, but wait until your mark is settled. Although it was behaving very cautiously, the squirrel didn’t appear to be aware of my presence so I was pretty confident that it would pause to feed.
Sure enough, the squirrel eventually made it to the hopper where it reached up to the coil on the underside of the drum before pulling on the sprung mechanism to release a shower of grain. I watched patiently through the scope, but the squirrel still didn’t offer a clear shot.
A moment later it moved out to rummage among the scattered morsels and then sat up to feed. Presented in this way, the squirrel now offered me a clear view of its motionless head.
The crosshairs quickly found their way to the mark, I touched off the trigger and the pellet slapped home with a ringing ‘crack’, rolling the squirrel over and ending its grain-raiding days.
I reloaded and peace returned to the woods. The robin was soon out scratching at the grain, accompanied by a couple of plump-looking pheasants.
This time the birds had to work around the fallen squirrel – not realising that the scattering of kernels was down to the dead rodent’s work at the feeder’s release coil.
More than two hours and one heavy downpour passed during my release pen vigil and I only managed to account for one more squirrel before drawing the session to a close.
Such a meagre bag is no bad thing as it’s the result of my previous efforts to drive down their numbers – I would have expected at least half a dozen a couple of years ago.
With the squirrel population gradually dwindling, now is the prime time to really clamp down as they can quickly bounce back if you take the pressure off.
Before heading for home, I took a sack of grain from the large metal box where the gamekeeper keeps the feed for this pen. I then topped up both the feeders before leaving the pen, locking the gate behind me and texting the keeper to let him know that I’d refilled the two hoppers after accounting for a pair of bushy-tails.
Being able to hunt around the pheasant release pens is a real privilege, so it’s well worth helping out whenever you can and maintaining close communication with whoever runs the shoot to keep them informed of your comings and goings, and your results.