One of the most effective times for controlling woodland pests is the last hour or two before nightfall. The fading light often prompts a frenzy of activity among the diurnal wildlife. Some creatures will be frantically foraging for food in a last attempt to scratch a meal before nightfall, while others will be winging back to their woodland roosts after spending the day at distant feeding grounds.
Apart from being productive, dusk is also a very pleasant time to be in the woods. The wind usually tends to drop as the sun sinks, and aside of that making it easier to shoot straight, the softening breeze allows the rich, earthy smell of decaying leaves to hang in the air, filling your nostrils with nature’s delicious pot-pourri. The bonus is that such aromas also help mask your human odour.
The stillness also makes it easier to hear your quarry and other wildlife – while that time on the clock face also brings a significant reduction in human disturbance. Most foresters, dog-walkers and ramblers will be tucked up at home when darkness starts to fall – wild creatures become accustomed to this routine and usually venture out with more confidence when they don’t expect people to be out and about. Apart from catching up with quarry species out on their evening rounds, you can also expect close encounters with deer, badgers and foxes at twilight.
As enjoyable as it is to spend the tail-end of the day in the woods, there’s a job to be done – and the airgun shooter’s main reason for being there is pest control. That was certainly the case for me during this particular dusk outing. The venue was a large estate where the woods are managed for timber and pheasant shooting – two activities that attract grey squirrels as unwanted guests. This fluffy little rodent has a taste for the eggs and young game birds, and is also notorious for deforming young trees by gnawing their shoots and bark. Grey squirrels are among the species that tend to get particularly active towards the end of the day, so I hoped one or two would feature in the bag.
Corvids are equally unpopular on this ground. They share the grey squirrel’s fondness for eggs and chicks, and also prey upon weak young lambs on the grassland that flanks the woods. Now, crows, magpies and other members of the corvid clan are exceptionally wary, and I go to all sorts of lengths to reduce their numbers on this patch throughout the year. My crow control methods his S410, which was swiftly followed by the crunch of a dead crow smashing into the carpet of leaves. Kev turned around and gave me the thumbs-up – he clearly hadn’t lost it.
It looked like my turn was going to come when a squirrel scrabbled through a tangle of branches close to me. I followed the bushy-tail through my scope, but it refused to stop and I eventually lowered the muzzle of my MK4 as it clambered on towards Kev. The squirrel didn’t appear to be spooked, but continued steadily on its course until it made the fatal mistake of pausing on an open branch in Kev’s zone, about 25 metres from his aiming point. I had a grandstand view as the oblivious squirrel was smacked from its perch milliseconds after stopping.
My chance did eventually follow – a while later when a noisy jay alighted in a field maple close to where the squirrel had first appeared. This is another corvid with a reputation for raiding nests, so I wasted no time in quickly getting a bead on the notoriously fidgety bird. It toppled into a thick patch of wild privet with a direct hit to the chest.
Another opportunity soon came when a squirrel tried to descend a tree trunk some 30 metres from me. I touched off the trigger but the pellet missed its mark after striking a fine twig that I’d failed to spot through the scope. The startled tree-rat scrambled back up the tree until it reached an apparent sanctuary, where a thick branch forked out from the trunk. However, impatience got the better of the little critter and I felled it with a head shot when it peeped over the top to see if the coast was clear.
A quiet spell followed, until the still of the night was broken by the chuckle of approaching magpies. Groups of these boisterous birds come leap-frogging through the woods as they make their way to roost in some thick tangle of cover, and their chattering usually gives them away. This was my cue to get ready; opportunities have to be snatched as the black and white bandits bumble past. One of the talkative little corvids lingered within range and I added it to what was becoming quite a respectable mixed bag.
That magpie heralded the end of the action for me, and the anticipated arrival of the crows failed to live up to expectations as the bulk of the flock filtered in well out of range. They offered Kev a couple of chances though, and although he missed a long-range shot, he managed to add another head to the tally just before the darkness brought our session to a close. We needed a torch-lit rummage through the undergrowth to retrieve the fallen crow – which topped off quite an impressive bag for a short evening session.