Grey Squirrel hunt: The Countryman

In this month’s Countryman with Mat Manning, he’s hunting for grey squirrels.

The grey squirrel is a constant problem in British woodland. Ever since its introduction to our shores, this invasive rodent has caused widespread damage to trees and has had a detrimental impact on native wildlife.

It is, however, ridiculous to try to vilify this menace of the woodland – Grey squirrels are, after all, simply being grey squirrels. The blame lies firmly with those who initially released them here and those who continue to tolerate their presence.

The fact remains, though, that in order for wildlife to flourish in our woods, grey squirrels need to be removed – and it just happens that culling with an air rifle is one of the best ways to achieve that.

One of the larger woods where I shoot is absolutely plagued by grey squirrels. Much of it is overgrown with old trees and tangles of ivy, which offer an abundance of places for them to construct their dreys, and the many oak, beech, hazel and sweet chestnut trees provide a rich diet. During the lean months of winter, drums of grain put out for the pheasants ensure that the squirrels never go hungry.

The squirrels cause all sorts of problems here. Firstly, their relentless bark-stripping has killed hundreds of young trees and completely stunted the growth of many, many more.

Apart from being ruinous to the timber value of affected trees, the fact that they don’t grow to maturity results in a lack of suitable habitat for other wildlife. Most people know about squirrels’ habit of eating songbirds’ eggs and chicks during the spring and summer nesting season, but they also impact on other species by monopolising natural food sources.

The grey squirrel’s high tolerance of tannins means they are able to devour crops of hazelnuts and other wild seeds and berries before they are ripe enough for our native species to eat.

In this wood, grey squirrels also wreak havoc by gnawing pheasant feeders and gorging on the expensive grain that is supposed to be nourishing gamebirds. With natural food thin on the ground at this time of year, I am expecting to encounter squirrels stealing from the grain hoppers as I carry out my woodland rounds today.

I am pleased to say that my efforts over recent years have had a noticeable impact on the resident population of grey squirrels. My tally from this estate has gradually fallen from around 250 in my first year to just over 100 last year.

It’s on ongoing battle and numbers can quickly bounce back if you take the pressure off. I’m not expecting a huge bag this morning, but they all count.

THE QUARRY: GREY SQUIRREL

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.

08:05 – A ROVING START

Mat is starting off on the move. A roving approach isn’t usually the best way to target squirrels because they tend to hear you coming and make themselves scarce before you get a chance to shoot them – but it does provide a useful opportunity to have a proper look around the woods. On a cold day like today, kicking off with a bit of a walk round is also a useful way to work up some welcome warmth.

The first stage of the stroll doesn’t produce any squirrel sightings, but there are lots of signs of their presence. Squirrel dreys are conspicuous as tight, round clusters of twigs and leaves; Mat earmarks the location of each of these nests and resolves to return with his son, their drey poles and a shotgun in the next week or so. George will use the poles to poke out the dreys and Mat will use the 12-bore to bring down the bushy-tails as they flee from the disturbance.

It’s not just the dreys that provide evidence of squirrely activity. Plantations of younger trees bear the scars of relentless bark-stripping which has killed almost half the trees in a block that was planted before Mat took on this permission.

08:40 – PREPPING FOR THE BIG HIT

Although this morning’s visit to the woods should produce one or two squirrels and serve as useful reconnaissance, Mat is not expecting to make a huge bag.

The pheasant feeders provide a dependable food source where he can usually expect to encounter his quarry, but because the gamekeeper has put out so many hoppers the bushy-tails are still quite widely dispersed. Now that the pheasant season has finished the keeper will gradually reduce the number of feeders, and that should enable Mat to really cash in.

As the pheasant feed diminishes, grey squirrels will have to look elsewhere for sustenance and his feeding stations will be waiting for them. Loaded with nutritious peanuts, they should attract plenty of hungry bushy-tails, and he’s taking advantage of today’s visit to check a feeder he put up a few days ago.

The signs are good for this feeding station as there was a squirrel on the hopper as Mat approached. He was tempted to have a shot, but decided to leave it.

He will no doubt have a much better opportunity to bring it to book when he’s shooting with the support of sticks and from the cover of a hide in a week or so. In the meantime, that greedy squirrel’s frequent visits to the feeder will attract the attention of its mates and encourage them to join the feast.

After opening the lid of the feeder Mat sees that quite a lot of peanuts have already gone. Many will probably have been taken by wild birds, but there is no doubt that the squirrels will have had their share. Mat refills the feeder and continues on his way – he expects to make a big bag of squirrels from here when he returns for a proper stakeout.

09:10 – ONE FROM UNDER A HOPPER

Mat continues on his way, doing his best to proceed through the woods with minimal disturbance while looking for signs of squirrels as he goes. As he weaves through the woods he sees many more squirrel-damaged trees and is also treated to a very close encounter with a family of roe deer.

Stealth goes up another gear as Mat makes his way along the edge of a pheasant release pen. He knows there are several pheasant feeders positioned along the boundary of the pen and there’s a good chance of catching a grain-gobbling squirrel in the act.

Sure enough, as Mat rounds the fence line he spots a squirrel beneath a feeder about 50m ahead. It’s too far away to consider taking the shot, but the squirrel is completely oblivious to Mat’s presence so he decides to creep in closer.

After five minutes of cautious stop-start stalking, Mat is just 25m
from the squirrel, which is still helping itself to grain from the feeder. Comfortably within range, Mat settles down into a kneeling position and leans into the trunk of a tree for added stability.

The crosshairs soon come to rest on the squirrel’s head and Mat touches off the trigger to unleash a shot that connects solidly with its mark. The pellet catches the squirrel cleanly between its eye and ear, flipping it over and ending its grain-raiding days.

As Mat walks in to retrieve the shot squirrel, he spooks another bushy-tail from beneath a feeder about 20m further along the release pen. The sighting is enough to convince Mat that this area is worth staking out for an hour, so he looks for a spot to set up an ambush.

09:20 – QUICK CONCEALMENT

After spending a couple of minutes scouring the woods along the edge of the pen, Mat finds a spot from where he can cover two feeders; one at about 20m and one at 25m. The only problem is that there isn’t a lot of cover around the place where he needs to sit if he wants to be able to see both hoppers.

These squirrels probably won’t be particularly wary as they’ll be distracted by the abundance of wheat around the feeders. Nonetheless, Mat decides to prop a few branches against the trunk of a small tree in order to create more of a screen. He doesn’t spend too long on this task as he wants to keep any disturbance to a minimum and he just needs a bit more cover to break up his outline.

Because he’s travelling light, Mat doesn’t have his usual beanbag seat with him, but he does have the game bag he was using to carry the peanuts to his feeding station. Mat opens up the lid of the bag to increase its area and then uses it as a waterproof seat.

After settling into position, Mat pulls his camouflage fleece neck snood up over his nose, partly to hide his pale skin and partly to help him keep warm. The preparations have been made, it’s just a matter of being patient now.

09:45 – FATAL ATTRACTION

Grain feeders are a huge attraction to wildlife when natural food is scarce. The easy source of nutrition provides a huge boost for songbirds and no doubt helps many of them to survive the ravages of winter. Grey squirrels are less welcome, and the appeal of an easy meal often proves to be their downfall.

Mat is watching a pair of chaffinches scratching around beneath the closest feeder when a squirrel comes bundling in, sending the startled songbirds fluttering away. The greedy rodent is very confident and obviously knows what it’s doing. It makes straight for the coil at the bottom of the hopper and gives it a bash to release a shower of wheat.

The squirrel drops down to feed on the scattering of grain, but Mat struggles to get a bead on it as it forages for kernels. Peering through his scope, he can see the squirrel’s tail flicking, but there’s no kill zone on offer.

There is a simple ruse which often works in this frustrating situation; Mat makes a squeaking sound through pursed lips and the startled squirrel sits bolt upright as it tries to locate the source of the sound.

In this position the spooked rodent presents a clear shot to its head. Mat steadies his aim and at just 20m the relatively straightforward shot results in a second squirrel in the bag.

10:35 – FINAL FLOURISH

Mat was initially concerned that the disturbance caused by moving branches around to enhance the natural cover might have spooked the squirrels, but he needn’t have worried.

The first bushy-tailed diner arrived less than half an hour after he settled in and it isn’t long before another one turns up – the lure of the feeders is just too great for them to resist.

The second squirrel approaches along the ground, following the edge of the release pen fence until it reaches the hopper. Once it’s onto the grain, this bushy-tail presents the same problem as the first one, keeping its head too low for Mat to line up a shot.

The squeaking trick works once again, persuading the squirrel to sit straight up with its head held high. Mat capitalises on the opportunity and brings another grey to book.

This was only supposed to be a short session, as Mat has a lot of work to crack on with, and a long quiet spell after his second squirrel from the feeders convinces him that it’s time to head for home.

The three squirrels Mat has managed to account for will make a small contribution to ongoing efforts to drive down the destructive grey menace in these woods, but the big push will come when he focuses his efforts on the peanut feeders over the next few weeks.

None of the squirrels Mat shoots are wasted. Their delicious and healthy free-range meat is destined for the table and their tails will be passed on to fly-fishing friends who use the silvery fibres to tie imitation flies for trout fishing.

Mat’s Gear

GUN: Weihrauch HW100K (www.hullcartridge.co.uk)
SCOPE: Hawke Sidewinder FFP 4-16×50 (www.hawkeoptics.com)
AMMO: Air Arms Diabolo Field (www.air-arms.co.uk)
SCOPE MOUNTS: Sportsmatch two-piece (www.sportsmatch-uk.com)
JACKET: Ridgeline Monsoon Classic Jacket (www.ridgelineclothing.co.uk)
BAG: Jack Pyke Duotex Game Bag (www.jackpyke.co.uk)

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