Squirrel hunting: The Countryman

Take the pressure off grey squirrels and these destructive rodents will bounce back in no time – Mat Manning ramps up his squirrel hunting before the lockdown.

Mat Manning shares his latest round of squirrel hunting

Anyone tasked with the control of grey squirrels will know that it’s a year-round job – take the pressure of these invasive rodents for just a few weeks and their numbers will soon bounce back.

I have shot quite literally hundreds of squirrels since the autumn winds stripped the trees bare of their foliage. With the canopy open, it was easy to spot greys trying to hide up in the treetops, and the lean months of winter made them eager to visit feeding stations loaded with an enticing meal.

Now that the trees are starting to leaf up again, it is easier for squirrels to go unnoticed. Fewer sightings can give the false impression that all the squirrels have gone, but that is unlikely to be the case.

The quarry – grey squirrel

Grey Squirrels damage trees prey on eggs and chicks of songbirds

PEST STATUS: This invasive rodent damages trees, contributes to the decline of red squirrels, and preys on the eggs and chicks of songbirds.

HABITAT: Squirrels spend much of their time in the trees, although they will also forage on the ground.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Grey squirrel meat is surprisingly good to eat. Fishermen also use their tail fibres to tie fly-hooks.

It is almost impossible to completely eradicate this highly adaptable rodent from even the smallest areas of woodland, and even if you did, others would soon creep back in from surrounding woods, gardens and hedgerows.

Squirrels have already given birth to their spring litter, and it is not unusual for a second litter to follow towards the end of the summer. This ability to breed rapidly means that numbers can quickly bounce back, undoing all your good work as a swelling population of greys wreaks havoc by stripping trees of their bark, feeding on the eggs and chicks of songbirds, and gorging on the natural food sources that vulnerable native species depend on.

Controlling grey squirrels through the spring and summer months can be challenging, as the increasing foliage can make them very difficult to spot. The best way to keep on top of them is to lure them out into the open using the same feeding station tactics as you employed through the winter – though you may have to use a more appealing bait now that natural food is more abundant.

I am still accounting for a lot of squirrels around my feeding stations, and that’s what I’m doing today. The plan is to target a pair of feeders that have been in position for several weeks.

The setup has already yielded dozens of squirrels, but the feed is still going down quickly so I’m expecting to encounter a few bushy-tailed diners.

Five weeks ago – Setting up shop

First step is setting up a feeder

The feeding station has already been in place for a week and its contents are starting to go down quite rapidly. This confirms that the squirrels are well on to the feed – the first stage of the plan is working, so it’s time to build a hide.

There is no need to build a particularly elaborate hide when shooting squirrels from feeders as they are usually too distracted by the free meal to notice a camouflage net or a hunter hidden behind it.

Movement is the thing that’s most likely to attract their attention so Mat sites his hide in front of a thick tree trunk which will act as a backdrop and prevent him from being silhouetted.

It is important to have a clear view of the feeding station – and clear shots at any squirrels that drop in. Mat is constructing his hide just under 25m from the feeder. This is far enough not to cause undue concern to squirrels, yet close enough to offer straightforward shots.

Mat doesn’t use any vegetation to dress the hide. That means it is a bit conspicuous, but it will be left in position for at least another week before he starts shooting, and the squirrels will learn to accept it as a harmless feature of the landscape by then.

One week ago – The best bait

There are a lot of squirrels in this area, and Mat has been taking advantage of the opportunity to pit different baits against each other. To carry out this unscientific experiment, he fastened two feeders next to each other on the same tree and loaded each one with different offerings.

Mat has tried plain wheat, aniseed-flavoured wheat, peanuts and sunflower hearts. In every case, peanuts have won hands down – each peanut kernel provides a big, tasty hit of nutrition that the bushy-tails just can’t resist.

It’s not quite that simple, though, as peanuts cost quite a lot more than the other baits, which will still attract plenty of squirrels if there is no other food around.

In these woods, Mat’s feeders have to compete with the many feed hoppers that are loaded with grain for the gamebirds. With that in mind, and the fact that natural food is becoming more and more abundant as the weather warms up, Mat will soon stop his experimentation and just use peanuts in order to ensure maximum returns for his time in the hide.

He will still leave both feeders in place as the extra capacity means he won’t have to visit too frequently to ensure that the peanuts don’t run out.

Squirrel hunting tips – wildlife watching

Spending time in a hide offers a great opportunity to observe wildlife on the land where you shoot. If you’re interested in photography, take your camera along as you are likely to have some very interesting photo opportunities from time to time.

Over the years, Mat has witnessed all kinds of natural wonders from the concealment of his hide. These include close encounters with wild boar, foxes and badgers, and getting to see hunting sparrowhawks pluck birds out of the sky.

During this trip, Mat spotted two roe deer lurking in the undergrowth close to his hide. They clocked him as he poked his camera around the side of his net screen, but he managed to capture this snap before they bolted.

07:10 – Digging in and covering up

Mat headed straight for the hide where he will settle in as quietly as possible.

Mat is out on an early foray in the hope of catching squirrels as they turn up for their first feed of the day. He visited yesterday to top up the feeders, which means he doesn’t need to disturb them this morning. Instead, he has headed straight for the hide where he will settle in as quietly as possible.

Preparations include setting up the shooting sticks and loading the high-capacity magazine of the FX Impact MkII – not that Mat is expecting to get a lot of shots today. Comfort is essential when you’re staking out a feeder, so Mat has brought along his beanbag cushion to use as a seat which will hopefully keep the pins and needles at bay.

Although he is shooting from a hide, Mat still likes to keep patches of pale skin hidden from sight. Apart from keeping him concealed from the squirrels, this extra degree of camouflage could also come in handy if a sharp-eyed magpie decides to drop in at the feeder.

Mat will put on a headnet to cover his face and also wears gloves to hide his hands. His favourite brand is MacWet, which makes a wide range of sizes to ensure a perfect fit.

Apart from being very comfortable, these gloves are also extremely grippy, even when wet, and provide an exceptional degree of feel, which is vital for precise trigger control.

07:35 – On the munch

Before long, squirrels begin to make their way to the feeder

As is very often the case, the first visitors to the feeding station are songbirds. Treecreepers, woodpeckers, blue tits and great tits are enjoying the free meal, and watching their comings and goings is an enjoyable way to pass the time.

Before long though, the birds flutter away and the air is filled with their alarm calls. A squirrel is sidling down the tree and  making its way to the feeder.

The greedy grey buries its nose straight into the feed tray, giving Mat a great opportunity to shoulder his gun while the squirrel is distracted. Being such a compact bullpup, the FX Impact MkII is very well suited to hide shooting, and it takes minimal movement for Mat to pick up the target in his sights.

After scoffing a few kernels, the squirrel takes one more and settles on top of the feeder to nibble away at it. This is usually the best time to take the shot, but Mat has an obstacle to contend with. Recent strong winds have pushed over a hawthorn sapling and some of its fine twigs are in the way.

By waiting patiently, Mat eventually gets a clear view of the squirrel’s head and the shot is on. He touches off the trigger and the pellet finds its mark, flipping squirrel number one off the feeder and onto the deck.

08:40 – Skittish squirrels

Squirrels have begin wary of the feeder due to the heavy shooting pressure

It doesn’t take long for the birds to return to the feeder after the first squirrel’s demise, and Mat also has another wildlife encounter in the shape of two roe deer. The bushy-tails also show up again, although they are starting to get skittish.

Rather than feeding boldly like the first one, the next two squirrels scuttle onto the feeder, grab a single kernel at a time and then dart back up into the branches or down to the undergrowth to devour them before clambering back for more.

The squirrels’ skittish behaviour is no doubt down to the fact that they have witnessed heavy shooting pressure around this feeder over the past few weeks and have learnt to treat it with caution. It makes for a frustrating few minutes for Mat, but he knows that the best approach is to be calm and resist taking hurried shots.

Instead of rushing to get a shot as the bushy-tails come and go, Mat waits with his crosshairs trained on the feed tray of the hopper each one is visiting – having the support of shooting sticks makes the task a lot less strenuous.

When the squirrels eventually make the mistake of lingering for a while longer than usual, Mat is already more or less on aim, and only has to make small and swift adjustments to get the head shots he wants. The ruse works and the tally creeps up to three.

10:05 – Heading home

After a quiet hour with nothing else showing up at the feeders apart from some birds, Mat decides that it’s time to draw the session to a close and head home for breakfast. The final bag of three is only a small one, but it is a good sign as it suggests that the squirrel population in this part of the woods is at a low level.

This feeding station has been in place for several weeks, during which it has accounted for more than 30 squirrels. That should result in a huge reduction in the damage these invasive rodents cause to the woodland ecosystem and the wildlife that lives within it.

With numbers dwindling here, Mat will probably shoot this feeding station two or three more times before moving it to another spot. The process will then start over again, with the feeders left in place for a couple of weeks in order for the squirrels to become confident before shooting gets underway in that area.

Mat’s gear for squirrel hunting

GUN: FX Impact MkII (.177, sub-12) www.fxairguns.com
OPTICS: MTC Mamba Lite, www.mtcoptics.com
SCOPE MOUNTS: Sportsmatch two-piece, www.sportsmatch-uk.com
AMMO: Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign, www.daystate.com
STICKS: Primos Trigger Stick Tripod, www.bisley-uk.com
JACKET: Ridgeline Monsoon Classic Jacket, www.ridgelineclothing.co.uk

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