Warm weather airgun shooting w/ Mat Manning

Hot, muggy days may not be the best for shooting, but Mat Manning reckons there’s always something to be gained from spending time on your ground.

The summer months can be very challenging as far as pest control is concerned, but that’s no excuse for not getting out there. Even if you aren’t putting quarry in the bag, time in the field can still be put to good use gathering information that should help to make future outings more productive.

There are several factors that make summertime shooting sessions tricky, and the first one is the heat. Just like us, wild birds and mammals don’t tend to like being out and about when the sun is blazing and the temperature is high. This tends to mean that quarry can be hard to come by unless you head out at dawn or dusk – and even that can be a struggle.

Although the longest days are now behind us, sunrise is still extremely early so you have to be an early riser if you want to make the most of the first few hours of daylight. 

Dusk shooting entails similarly unsociable hours during the summer, but I certainly think it’s worth putting in the occasional late stint to enjoy what can be some remarkable sport as sunset approaches – especially if you’re setting your sights on rabbits.

And you have to be super-keen to target quarry after nightfall when the days are at their longest. I put in several sessions using night vision gear to target rats and rabbits back in June when it wasn’t getting dark until around 11pm, and found the following days at work a real struggle after being out well into the small hours of the morning.

If the heat and strange hours aren’t enough to make summer shooting a challenge, the extra foliage can be the
last straw. 

I have lost count of the times that I’ve heard woodpigeons cooing or grey squirrels chattering up in the boughs, but failed to spot them through the leaves – not before they’ve spotted me and cleared off, anyway.

Although summertime shooting can be frustrating, it’s seldom bad enough to convince me to give it a miss. There may be countless factors conspiring to make it a struggle to put pests in the bag, but a blank is an absolute certainty if you stay at home, so you’d just as well be out in the fresh air. 

And even if you don’t actually manage to get any shots, every outing should be able to teach you something that could prove useful to you during a future trip.

With all the above in mind, my expectations weren’t exactly sky-high when my only chance of an outing was a session spanning the middle part of an exceptionally warm and muggy day.

I decided to head for a woodland permission where the trees would offer some shade, and resigned myself to the likelihood of the trip being more about reconnaissance than getting shots. I also had to check and refill my squirrel feeding stations, so the outing wouldn’t be entirely without purpose.

The plan was to cover quite a lot of ground so I wanted to travel light. My gun choice to meet that requirement was my trusty BSA Ultra SE; despite being a compact featherweight, this little PCP is a remarkable performer in the accuracy stakes and has so far given about eight years of excellent service. I don’t get to use it as often as I’d like these days, but it’s always a pleasure when it does get an outing.

Tree-felling as a result of ash dieback has opened up large swathes of what was previously dense woodland and displaced a lot of squirrels

Unavoidable work commitments followed by a couple of heavy thundery downpours meant that it was late morning by the time I made it to the woods, and I was greeted by quite a sight. This particular estate is going through some major forestry works that entail a lot of felling as a result of ash dieback. 

Ash made up a large percentage of the trees in these woods, which means the works are having a serious impact in the short-term. The main track was flanked by huge heaps of felled timber – most of it ash, but some of it softwood trees that had to be removed to open up rides to create access for the heavy machinery.

The woods are looking increasingly sparse as the felling works progress, but I have no doubt that the extra light will soon thicken up the understorey and give a boost to natural regeneration. The owners will soon be bolstering this with an extensive (ash-free) replanting programme and my efforts to drive down numbers of bark-stripping grey squirrels will be more important than ever when the saplings are getting established.

Weaving my way through the woods, and steering well clear of the chainsaw operations, it was apparent that a lot of squirrels would have been displaced from the areas that have been left bare. With vast swathes of woodland now offering little cover, the bushy-tails would have had little choice but to move on into the less affected areas. 

It is these places where the squirrels still have favourable habitat that are likely to give me the best shooting over the coming weeks and months.

Thankfully, the vast majority of the estate’s tall oak trees and bushy hazels are still standing and they already had plenty of forming acorns and nuts hanging from their branches. One stand in particular looked set to deliver a real banquet after a few more weeks of ripening. I failed to spot any squirrels when I stopped for a careful inspection, but I would expect to encounter plenty of them tucking into the nutty feast when autumn rolls around.

I earmarked no fewer than three dreys in close proximity to each other. This patch of the woods didn’t hold a lot of ash trees and, as a consequence, hasn’t suffered much disturbance. Judging by those dreys, the squirrels were having a fine time here.

Just as I was making a mental note to come back to this spot for an evening stakeout, a movement in the treetops caught my eye. A squirrel was clambering around in the uppermost boughs of one of the oaks and, to my surprise, didn’t appear to have noticed me creeping around underneath.

I didn’t have to move very far to nestle myself against a hazel for a leaning shot. In a moment I had the squirrel framed in the crosshairs, although it was reluctant to settle for very long. As the oblivious bushy-tail ventured out onto a more open branch, I clicked my tongue and the startled rodent froze as it tried to locate the source of the sound. 

The squirrel failed to pinpoint where the noise came from before a neatly placed pellet caught it in the skull and sent it crashing down through the branches and onto the deck. At around 25m, it wasn’t a particularly difficult shot and goes to show that easy opportunities can crop up even on days when you’re expecting to struggle.

Mat steadies himself for a shot after spotting a squirrel on the move in the treetops

After bagging up the squirrel, I made my way on through the woods, stopping occasionally to scan for any signs of quarry, until I reached my feeding station. There were no squirrels on the feeders, but the carpet of discarded peanut husks suggested that there had been plenty of diners since my last inspection.

I have actually set up two feeders in this spot to increase the capacity and reduce the number of visits I have to make to keep them from running empty. Checking the levels, it looked as if the bushy-tails (though assisted by plenty of woodland birds, no doubt) had gone through about seven kilos of peanuts since my previous refill about six days prior. 

It starts to get expensive when peanuts are going at that rate so I pledged to return for a stakeout to reduce the numbers of furry peanut thieves very soon.

The rest of my mooch through the woods was comparatively uneventful, although I did manage to identify a couple of other spots that looked perfect for setting up feeding stations when returns from the current location begin to dwindle. I also bumped into the estate owner, which gave us both the opportunity to have a welcome catch-up.

My couple of hours roving amongst the trees may only have produced a single squirrel but that’s better than nothing and I know the reconnaissance will help me to account for plenty more when the leaves begin to fall. In the meantime, hot weather and dense foliage is no excuse to take a summer break from our pest control rounds. 

And anyway, we’ll be complaining about how cold it is soon enough. 

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