In this month’s Countryman, in association with BASC, Mat Manning sets up a feeding station to keep his squirrel control in full swing through the summer months
Today, I’m shooting on an estate that’s managed for pheasant shooting, wildlife conservation, timber production and farming. It’s mixed ground with grassland, a river, and about 40 acres of mostly deciduous woodland.
The woods have been badly hit by grey squirrels, which have impacted on the estate’s business and conservation activities.
The worst financial damage caused by the squirrels here results from their habit of stripping bark from trees. This causes deformed and stunted trees, and can even kill them. One particular area that was planted with mixed hardwood trees about 20 years ago has been almost completely destroyed by squirrels.
Apart from damaging trees, the squirrels here also cause problems by munching through the grain that is put out for pheasants during the autumn and winter months.
If that’s not bad enough, they will also eat the eggs and chicks of gamebirds and songbirds during the spring and summer, and outcompete native mammals such as dormice by monopolising natural food sources.
Most of the shooting I do on this permission revolves around the control of grey squirrels. It’s not unusual for me to account for well over 200 in a year, and although this makes a big difference, it’s an ongoing job, as numbers soon start to rise if you ease up on them.
Shooting squirrels during the summer months is notoriously tricky, as the dense foliage makes it very difficult to spot them hiding up in the treetops. The best solution to this problem is to set up a feeding station to lure the bushy-tails out into the open.
It may sound unsporting, but it’s very effective and very humane, because you’re shooting at a static target over a predetermined distance.
The feeder I’m staking out today has been in position for a couple of weeks. The peanuts have been going down very quickly over the last few days, so it looks like the squirrels are well on to it.
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.
Two weeks before the shoot – a tasty offering
Feeding stations work best in areas where squirrels are most active, so they need to be set up in the right place. Mat has chosen a spot close to a small softwood plantation, where the evergreen cover offers squirrels year-round protection, and the neighbouring block of ash, oak and hazel also provides a ready source of natural food.
All Mat’s squirrel feeders are of a similar design – rather like a bird box, only instead of creating a place to nest, the main box is filled with grain or nuts which spill out into a feed tray at the front.
On this occasion, he’s using a shop-bought feeder, but if you make your own, there are two very important factors to incorporate into its design – it needs to be tough enough to stop squirrels from chewing it to pieces, and the hopper needs to be big enough to hold plenty of feed in order to save you from constantly having to refill it.
Mat attaches the feeder to the trunk of a tree in an open area that will offer unobstructed shots from his hiding place. He positions it about five feet off the ground; high enough to stop marauding badgers from raiding it, but low enough to refill it without too much difficulty.
Once it’s in place, Mat fills the feeder with peanuts. You can also use wheat if you’re on a tight budget, but it only really attracts squirrels during the colder months when there’s not much natural food about. Maize costs a little more, but does tend to have more year-round appeal.
Attracting squirrels through summer and early autumn can be tricky though, because the woods are already full of ripe nuts and berries, but peanuts always seem to work well. They are the most expensive option, but squirrels really can’t resist them.
One week before the first shoot: keeping out of sight
Although squirrels can become very bold when they’re switched on to an easy food source, it still pays to set up a hide for added concealment. Mat leaves the feeder in place for a week before he goes to the trouble of setting one up though.
After this time, he can tell whether there are squirrels visiting by the rate the peanuts are going down. If they’re not showing any interest, then he’ll move the feeder to another spot and start again.
Mat has already had to refill the feeder once, so it’s certainly pulling in the squirrels. His next job is to set up a discreet hiding place from where he can take clear shots over a comfortable distance.
He paces out the range between the feeder and a thick tree trunk that should make a good natural backdrop. At 23 metres, it’s just about right for sniping unsuspecting squirrels when they turn up to feed.
The tree creates a solid backdrop that should keep Mat’s outline hidden, but he is also going to set up a net hide. Purpose-made hide poles create a sturdy prop for the camouflage screen, the bottom of which is pegged to the ground with sticks to keep it tight and prevent it from flapping in the breeze.
Before he leaves, Mat refills the feeder again. He wants to keep the squirrels coming while allowing them to continue to build in confidence. Over the coming days, they will learn to accept the hide as a harmless feature of the woodland environment instead of being suspicious.
Ready made feeder
Although Mat usually makes his own squirrel feeders, he’s trying out one from Squirrel Management UK on this site, and it certainly seems to work.
Made by grey squirrel control experts, these feeders are available in a variety of designs, and prices range from £25 for a sub-12 ft-lb version with a 4.5kg feed capacity to £35 for a super-tough FAC model with a 9kg capacity.
Proceeds from their sales are donated to the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project, which is working towards the reintroduction of this endangered native mammal.
These wooden feeders are reinforced with wire mesh to stop grey squirrels chewing through them, and have a tough metal face plate to safely deflect pellets.
They incorporate a clever lockable lid, and a feed tray and shelf arrangement that helps to present squirrels side-on when feeding. They’re even fitted with a spinning target so you can check that your aim is dead-on after putting them in position.
For more information, visit squirrelmanagementuk.co.uk
08:05: Discreet arrival
Today is Mat’s second session on this feeder. The first shoot four days ago yielded a good bag, but the peanuts are still disappearing fast, which suggests there are still plenty of squirrels in the area.
Mat dropped by to refill the feeder yesterday because he didn’t want to disturb it when he arrived to shoot. There was a squirrel on it when he arrived, so it’s definitely not just birds that are taking the peanuts. Keeping the feeder topped up is very important; if the supply runs out then all the squirrels that have been visiting it could leave and find another food source and not come back.
It’s best to avoid causing undue disturbance close to the feeding station immediately prior to the stakeout, so Mat approaches from behind the hide and settles in as quickly and quietly as he can.
He’s brought along a beanbag seat to keep him comfortable while he’s waiting, and his final preparations include putting on a headnet for added concealment, positioning his shooting sticks and loading up ready for action.
The added support provided by the sticks will help to ensure very precise shooting, and because Mat knows exactly where the squirrels should be presenting themselves when they venture out, he will hardly have to move when the time comes to take a shot.
All the hard work has been done in the lead-up to the shoot by setting up the feeding station, keeping it filled to pull in the squirrels and building the hide to keep himself out of sight. Now it’s time to wait patiently and hope that the lure of the peanuts soon draws the squirrels back to the feeder.
08:25 – First arrivals
Apart from luring in grey squirrels, feeding stations also attract songbirds. The little feathered visitors will no doubt take quite a few peanuts, but Mat is happy for them to dine on his offerings, and enjoys watching them while he’s waiting around for his real quarry to put in an appearance.
The presence of songbirds is actually a very good sign, and suggests that grey squirrel numbers in these woods are significantly lower than they were a few years ago.
When Mat first started shooting here, songbirds were less abundant, and those that did try to dine at the feeder were promptly bullied away by boisterous squirrels.
In just a few minutes, Mat counts more than a dozen birds flitting in for the peanuts. He spots chaffinches, blue tits and nuthatches – it’s a lovely sight.
A commotion up in the tree sends the songbirds fluttering away. The cause of their alarm soon becomes apparent when a squirrel slinks down the trunk and clambers onto the feeder. The hungry rodent picks up a peanut from the feed tray and nibbles away at it.
Distracted by the tasty morsel, the squirrel fails to notice the danger lurking behind the hide net. Mat frames the rodent in his sight picture, settles the crosshairs on its skull and touches off the trigger. The shot hits home and the squirrel drops, barely twitching – the cull is underway.
Hit cleanly between the eye and ear, the squirrel is stone dead, so there’s no need for Mat to cause any additional disturbance by breaking cover. He reloads and sits tight, ready for the next greedy bushy-tail to show up at the feeder.
09:35: Feeding frenzy
The rate that the peanuts have been disappearing from Mat’s feeding station implies that it has been visited by more than a single squirrel and the resident songbirds.
When one squirrel starts making regular visits to a feeder, others will inevitably follow, and Mat has had bags of more than a dozen in just a couple of hours from a setup like this.
Sure enough, another squirrel soon puts in an appearance. This one really is on a mission; it scrambles through the treetops on a beeline to the tree where Mat’s feeder is fastened, then scurries down the trunk, grabs a peanut and settles down for a munch. As with the first one, this squirrel’s fondness for peanuts proves to be its downfall, and it’s promptly added to the morning’s tally.
A longer wait follows, but the songbirds soon start to flight back. Once again, Mat watches their comings and goings until they’re spooked by something and flutter off into the undergrowth.
It’s another squirrel, but this one has approached from the ground and seems to be alarmed by the two dead ones it passed at the base of the tree. The promise of a peanut breakfast keeps it coming though, and it cautiously clambers up the trunk.
Rather than heading straight for the feed tray, the agitated squirrel is reluctant to settle, and climbs on and off the top of the hopper a couple times.
Mat follows it through the scope until it lingers on the lid long enough to offer a still target. The pellet finds its mark, and squirrel number three is in the bag.
Don’t start too soon
It takes time for a feeding station to reach its full potential in terms of pest attraction, so don’t be tempted to start shooting it too quickly.
Mat usually refills his hoppers three or four days after setting them up. He then returns for another refill a few days later. If squirrels have been readily taking the peanuts, he’ll build a hide. If they haven’t, the feeder is probably in the wrong place and needs to be moved.
Songbirds are usually the first diners to arrive at a feeding station, and will soon attract the attention of squirrels. Once squirrels start visiting the feeder, their mates will quickly cotton on to the easy food source and follow them, and numbers can tend to build rapidly over the second week.
Never let your feeding station run empty. Squirrels must expect to find an easy meal there every time they visit – if they don’t, then they could move on to another food source.
10:15: Clear up and refill
Two more squirrels are shot from the feeder before the activity drops off and Mat decides to draw the session to a close. A bag of five is quite small by typical feeding station standards, but it’s a good sign as it confirms that grey squirrel numbers in these woods are significantly lower than they once were.
Squirrel meat is very good to eat, so Mat will be taking today’s bag home for the pot. The white meat is similar to chicken, but can be quite tough, so it’s usually best to cook it slowly on a low heat, which makes it very tender.
Another option is to cut the meat into small cubes, roll them in flour, dip them in egg and then roll them in breadcrumbs. Fry the coated chunks for a few minutes until they turn golden brown, and you’ve got yourself crispy squirrel nuggets that are delicious when they’re dipped in mayonnaise.
Mat’s work at this feeding station is not finished yet. He may have accounted for five squirrels this morning, but there are almost certainly more to be had from here. Before he leaves, he refills the feeder with peanuts to ensure that there’s bait to keep any remaining squirrels coming.
Mat will leave the feeder for a few days before he comes back to shoot again, and then repeat the process until the bushy-tailed diners stop showing up. When this feeding station stops luring in the greys, he will move it to another area and start the process over again.
GUN: Zbroia Hortitsia www.pellpax.co.uk
SCOPE: AirForceOne Emerald Compact www.shootingparty.uk
MOUNTS: Sportsmatch two-piece www.sportsmatch-uk.com
AMMO: Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign www.daystate.com
STICKS: Primos Trigger Stick www.bisley-uk.com
JACKET: Ridgeline Pro Hunt www.ridgelineclothing.co.uk
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