Midwinter squirrel control with Mat Manning

Freezing winter weather doesn’t have to bring pest control to a halt – Mat Manning reckons cold conditions can actually be an advantage as long as you take the right approach

Too many shooters head out with their airguns when the weather is fair and warm, but retreat to the comfort of their armchairs when winter arrives. I think that’s a real shame because they’re missing out on some excellent sport.

It would have been easy to cancel today’s session. A cold snap has kept temperatures below zero for almost a week, and I would be lying if I said the prospect of slouching in front of the fire instead of heading out into the chill wasn’t tempting.

Cold conditions can bring some excellent shooting though, so the weather has to be really bad in order to discourage me from venturing into the woods with my airgun. Natural food is starting to become scarce now, so it can be relatively easy to catch up with the hungry little pests if you can locate the places where they are able to find nourishment.

I am on my grey squirrel control rounds today, busily targeting the invasive rodents in woodland where they have been causing extensive tree damage. 

These woods are managed for conservation, timber and pheasant shooting, and it is the feed that has been put out for the game birds that should help me to catch up with the bushy-tails today.

Apart from feeding pheasants, hoppers of wheat and maize provide sustenance for other woodland wildlife. That wildlife includes unwelcome grey squirrels, and I am expecting to catch a few greedy greys raiding the feeders during the cold snap.

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.

13:55 – Getting set

Having the right kit for the job is always important, but it’s absolutely critical when hunting in very cold weather. The top priority is to keep out the chill, which means wearing clothes that provide plenty of insulation, but having reliable hardware is also a priority.

Mat is using his FAC-rated FX Impact MkII. Although this airgun is capable of extremely high muzzle energy, Mat has his set at 30 ft-lb and uses 16-grain Rangemaster Sovereign pellets rather than heavyweight ammo. 

This setup is quiet and keeps muzzle flip to a minimum while delivering a comparatively flat trajectory and good knockdown power. Mat has chosen it over his usual sub-12 Impact as it’s a breezy day and the high-power option performs better in the wind.

As for clothing, Mat has layered up with a long-sleeved thermal vest, a thick cotton shirt, a cosy fleece and a weatherproof jacket to create a snug outer shell that will keep out the freezing cold wind. 

His trousers are double-layered and he’s wearing thick socks, a hat and gloves to keep his extremities toasty.

That’s a lot of clothing, but Mat won’t be moving much today and the cold can quickly creep in when you’re sat still. And of course he can always remove a layer if he starts to feel too hot.

14:05 – Easy pickings

Apart from feeding pheasants, gamekeepers’ feed hoppers do a great job by providing nourishment for all kinds of woodland wildlife, particularly small songbirds, during this time of year when natural food is perilously scarce. They also attract pests including grey squirrels and rats. While this can be problematic and costly for gamekeepers, it also creates a place where airgun shooters tasked with controlling these pests can expect to encounter their quarry.

Grey squirrels don’t take long to home in on hoppers, and the result is the same as setting up feeding stations – without the expense. The grain-raiding pests are most active during the first and last hours of daylight in winter. They are eager to fill their bellies in readiness for the long, cold nights, and then wake up hungry when the sun rises.

Mat has picked a spot inside a release pen where he can target two feeders from a hiding place at the base of a tree about 25m away. 

Rather than creating additional disturbance by building a hide, Mat has already propped some of the gamekeepers’ unused plastic platforms against the tree to create a backdrop that will conceal his silhouette. 

Any squirrels that venture out are therefore likely to be preoccupied by the urge to fill their bellies – this makes them bolder than usual and less likely to notice a hunter waiting patiently in the shadows.

14:10 – Getting comfortable

Successful ambushing relies on a hunter’s ability to keep still and quiet, and that can be challenging when you’re cold and uncomfortable. 

Setting up properly in the first instance is the key to minimising any factors that can make you fidgety, or in some cases even result in you packing up your kit and heading for home.

Mat’s creature comforts start, quite literally, at ground level, where he has placed his beanbag seat. Apart from serving as a squashy cushion that helps to create a very stable shooting platform, the polystyrene balls inside a beanbag seat are great insulators, which is very handy when you’re sitting on frozen ground.

No matter how many top layers you wear, the cold can soon creep into your feet when you’re not moving around. Mat has overcome this problem by wearing Skee-Tex boots. These chunky boots don’t lend themselves to stealthy stalking, but they’re guaranteed to keep your feet warm in temperatures down to -50C, which makes them a great choice for static hunting.

Another handy piece of kit in Mat’s arsenal today is his shooting sticks. The model he has chosen for this session is an extendable tripod that provides solid support for sitting shots. He may not get many chances, but being able to hold a rock-steady aim will enable him to make the absolute most of them.

Expert tip – Don’t push your luck

Cold conditions can bring some excellent airgun shooting but it can also pose a very real danger, so never take unnecessary risks when venturing out in wintry weather. 

There will be times when conditions are so extreme or the roads so perilous with ice and snow that the only sensible option is to postpone the foray for another day.

When you do head out in cold weather, make sure you are properly dressed for the conditions and have a mobile phone with you so you can call for assistance if you need it. 

And remember, it’s a good idea to let someone at home know where you are going and when you plan to be back – it could make all the difference if you get into difficulties. 

14:45 – Greedy pushy-tail

It is not at all unusual for the disturbance caused by a hunter’s arrival to put woodland wildlife on edge. Wild creatures survive by fleeing when they hear crunching leaves and cracking twigs, and it’s almost impossible not to make those noises when moving through woodland on a cold, dry day. Be patient and they will venture back out.

A long wait follows after Mat settles in, but he is confident that the squirrels will want to come out for another binge on the grain as evening closes in and the temperature begins to plummet. It is just a matter of sitting tight and allowing peace to return to the woods.

Eventually, a flicker of movement in the undergrowth catches Mat’s eye. It looks as if his patience has been rewarded as a squirrel is making its way along the ground towards one of the feeders.

Because of his careful preparation, Mat hardly has to move to get on aim and he has his Impact MkII trained on the base of the hopper before the squirrel even gets there. Watching through the scope, he soon sees the bushy-tail arrive and begin to gorge on the tasty grain.

Rather than rushing the shot, Mat watches the squirrel until it takes a larger morsel and sits up to nibble at it. The rodent pauses as it tackles the large kernel, offering Mat a stationary target. He settles the crosshairs, applying a little holdunder, and pushes through the trigger to release a shot that rolls the squirrel over with a loud clout to the head.

14:50 – Hot refreshments

The head-shot squirrel quickly expires beneath the feeder. Others are unlikely to be too concerned by it when they turn up to dine, so Mat decides to leave it where it is rather than causing more disturbance by retrieving it.

Although he is sitting tight, Mat’s concealment has probably been compromised by the shot – not so much by the FX’s quiet muzzle report as the loud crack of the impacting pellet. Knowing that the noise will have put other squirrels on edge for a while, Mat decides to take his flask from his backpack and treat himself to a steaming hot cup of tea.

Mat doesn’t usually like to be overburdened, but he still likes to pack a flask on really cold days. It is surprising how a hot drink can warm you up, and it certainly brings a boost to morale. Mat has had lots of days when the comfort of a hot drink has enabled him to stay on for the final hour (which can often be the best) rather than heading home early because the cold has got to him.

A second cup is poured and savoured before the flask is quickly slipped back into the backpack. Refreshed and restored, Mat is now ready to wait it out for more action.

15:30 – Feeding frenzy

Dusk can be the best time for targeting woodland pests, and by taking measures to keep the cold at bay, Mat is warm and comfortable rather than cold and shivering as the magic hour unfolds.

Shortly after the tea break, another squirrel revealed its presence by chattering in the treetops. Mat managed to spot the vocal rodent huddled on a branch about 35m away from his hiding place and added it to the tally.

That second squirrel heralded the start of a period of frenzied activity. The bushy-tails are clearly eager to fill up before they tuck themselves away in their dreys, and Mat glances several on the move in the treetops. These squirrels are too fidgety to offer a decisive shot, but it isn’t long before one is drawn in by the lure of the grain.

This squirrel is targeting another feeder but it is still within comfortable striking distance of Mat’s spot. Once again, Mat deploys his shooting sticks to compose a super-steady shot and soon adds another grey to the haul.

The tally now stands at three grey squirrels but Mat reckons there is still time to add more. He won’t be going anywhere until the light has gone and squirrelly activity has come to a standstill, by which time he should have amassed a bag that more than justifies a few hours out in the cold. 

Mat’s gear

FX Impact MkII

Hawke Sidewinder

Sportsmatch two-piece

Rangemaster Sovereign

Ridgeline Grizzly III Jacket

Skee-Tex Boots

Primos Trigger Stick

Stanley Classic Vacuum Bottle

Macwet Long Cuff

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