Hunting with a springer – going back to basics

Mat Manning swaps his hi-tech hunting kit for a no-frills springer as he gears up for a wander in the woods.

Scaling down his kit and travelling light enabled Mat to move unburdened through the trees

Modern technology can make a huge difference to your airgun shooting, but it can also be a hindrance. I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve had a hunting session ruined by over-sophisticated equipment which has either failed or proven too complicated to be enjoyable to use.

Of course, there is no denying that hi-tech gear can and often does improve our success rate in the field, and I count electronic airguns, laser rangefinders and infrared night vision optics among the cutting-edge kit in my regular line-up.

The important thing to remember, though, is that clever gadgets will never make up for gaps in your basic hunting skills. They can help to boost your strike rate, but only when combined with good fieldcraft and an understanding of the habits and behaviour of your quarry – something that can take years to acquire.

The simple fact is that you can’t just buy your way out of a problem when it comes to airgun hunting. Knowledge and experience are the key to filling your game bag, and are infinitely more valuable than any piece of sophisticated electronic gear.

Feeling that my shooting had been getting a bit too bogged down with technology over the past few months, I decided to strip things right down to basics.

Rather than a bulky PCP, I plucked my Weihrauch HW95K break-barrel springer from the cabinet. I also decided not to take any decoys or hide-building kit with me.

Mat lines up for his first shot after spotting a squirrel that was foraging on the ground

Using an artificial flock to coax wily birds within range or setting up a feeding station to lure secretive squirrels down from the treetops is all well and good, and both methods can be unbeatable when it comes to keeping pests in check, but sometimes it’s nice to just head out for a wander rather than sticking rigidly to a carefully conceived plan.

With nothing more to organise than zipping my gun into a slip and grabbing a jacket and a few pellets, I was shocked at how quickly I managed to get out of the door.

Without the usual rigmarole of lugging bulky gear out to the car, I was away in just a couple of minutes and winding my way through the lanes towards one of my favourite woodland shoots. A short while later, I was bumping along the estate track before pulling up on a layby next to the gamekeeper’s truck.

The opportunity to catch up with the keeper is always a pleasure and usually yields some useful information about what’s going on around the shoot.

His regular presence on the ground means he has a very close handle on happenings in the woods, and he usually manages to point me towards one or two productive spots that I might otherwise have overlooked.

After accounting for his first squirrel, Mat quickly reloads the HW95 by breaking the barrel and popping a pellet into the breech

On this occasion he had some bad news to deliver, and that was that the shoot won’t be putting down any pheasants this year. Like many estates, they have decided to cancel this season because of the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus outbreak. It’s a real blow, not only to the shooters and the estate, but also to the wider team and the local area.

The keeper is only part-time and has other sources of income, but beaters, pickers-up, hotels and pubs will also miss out in the absence of shoot days. Countless game shoots up and down the country have been forced to make the same decision, and the impact on rural communities is bound to be considerable.

There is one tiny consolation to the cancellation of the estate’s pheasant shoot this season, and that is that it should enable me to really crack down on pest control in order to give next year’s birds the best possible chance to thrive.

With no feed hoppers set up in the woods through the autumn and winter, my feeding stations should have even more appeal than usual. Hammering down the grey squirrels won’t just help the pheasants, but will also benefit songbirds and the woodland environment as a whole, because the trees here suffer terribly through squirrel damage.

Mat took full advantage of natural cover as he crept amongst the trees

After chatting for longer than planned, I wished the keeper well and continued with the job in hand. I unzipped the HW95, tipped a few pellets into my pocket and then broke the Weihrauch’s barrel to cock and load it.

Squirrels can crop up just about anywhere on this shoot, so I always make sure the gun is at the ready as the skittish rodents don’t hang around for long – the safety catch is, of course, always engaged until my quarry is in my sights.

Although I wasn’t going to be restricted to a fixed hide and feeding station today, I am always on the lookout for productive places to site these attractors. As I made my way through the woods, I scanned for clues such as dreys, thick ivy and damage to trees as well as keeping my eyes peeled for bushy-tails.

There were countless signs of their presence and it was only about 10 minutes until I spotted one of the culprits. This squirrel wasn’t up in the trees, though, but was foraging on the ground.

Squirrels can be very hard to stalk when they’re on the deck as they have a habit of bolting rather than freezing as they often do in the canopy. Fortunately, this one was only about 30 metres away and there were a couple of trees between us that I could use as cover as I closed in by a few more yards.

By moving very carefully and avoiding putting my feet down on any brittle dry twigs or leaves, I managed to creep comfortably within range of the squirrel which was still oblivious to my presence.

Mat sets himself up for his second shot while he waits for a fidgety squirrel to present a clear target

I’m not as accurate with a springer as I am my usual PCPs, but I knew from my garden practice sessions that, at under 25 metres, the shot should be a fairly straightforward one from a kneeling position, so I settled myself down and leaned my body into the trunk of an ash tree for added stability.

Peering through the little 2-7x Hawke Airmax scope that sits atop my HW95, I initially struggled to get a bead on the squirrel, which refused to keep still as it scrabbled about in the leaf litter.

I pushed off the safety catch and clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth. As intended, the noise made the squirrel sit up straight, presenting me with a clear view of its now static head.

I steadied the crosshairs and touched off the trigger to roll over the tree-rat with a solid smack to the skull. Pleased to be off the mark, I retrieved the shot squirrel and made my way deeper into the woods.

It’s surprising how slow progress can be when you’re trying to drift stealthily through the trees, and I hadn’t gone very far when I clocked another squirrel about 30 minutes later.

I didn’t actually see the squirrel at first, but in the windless conditions my eye was drawn to a bouncing branch that had been sprung into motion by the clambering bushy-tail.

The squirrel was slipping in and out of sight as it made its way back and forth along the branch. It was also blissfully unaware of the lurking danger as I slipped through the undergrowth and into a spot that put me within striking distance.

Mat’s walk around the woods uncovered lots of clues of the presence of squirrels, including the drey in the fork of this tree

Using the trunk of a fallen tree for support while cradling the HW95’s forend very lightly to enable it to recoil naturally, I scoured through the scope until I picked out the squirrel amongst the leaves. Again it was a fidgety one, and it took another click of my tongue to make it freeze.

Framing the bushy-tail in the sight picture, I squeezed through the trigger to release a shot that found its mark and send the squirrel tumbling through the branches and onto the ground with a thud.

That second squirrel was to be my last of the morning. I did spot a couple of others as I made my way around the woods, but I spooked both of them before I could sneak within range.

Although a brace of squirrels really isn’t a bumper bag, I had enjoyed myself trekking through the trees with nothing more than a spring gun and a pocketful of pellets to weigh me down.

I saw lots of places that would make great sites for feeding stations while I was at it, so I’ll be back to my old ways and heading back burdened with my hide-building gear, a feeder and a sack of peanuts very soon. 

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