Over the past two years, the agricultural landscape around me in north Norfolk has changed subtly and I can’t quite decide whether I like it or not. A few farmers are cashing in on the trend towards ‘renewable energy’ and have invested in bio-mass ingesters. These little compost factories take natural green products such as maize and sunflower and break them down to create methane gas. The gas fuels generators linked to the National Grid, pumping electricity back in for public use. Clever stuff.
So why am I unsure? Well, the ingesters need a constant supply of biomass all year around. The bio-mass is harvested, shredded and stored in fermentation ‘bunds’ until it’s sufficiently broken down to feed the generators. Consequently, the demand for this fuel means that hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that used to underpin Norfolks ‘big-sky’ landscape are curtained off behind a seven foot stand of maize between the barley and potato crop cycles. While that’s bad news for the landscape photographer, it’s brought a bonus for the airgun hunter (and the deer stalker). We’re in much demand – the four primary pest species eating their way into the biomass crops are rabbit, grey squirrel, roe and muntjac deer.
Those last two are the most destructive and not within my remit as an air rifle shooter. The rabbits, to be fair, are only really a nuisance when the crop is young and at its most vulnerable. Today, as I set out to patrol the crop margins, it was a bit late for rabbits. It was one of those Sundays when I really just wanted a walkabout with the gun to see what chanced my way. Though I did have a semblance of a game plan – I always do.
I parked the Jeep alongside the drive into the Hall so that I could spend the morning in Oak Grove, a lush mixed covert bordering one of the expanses of maize. As I topped up my air rifle from my three-litre air bottle, it started to lightly rain. No surprise there; it was one of the reasons I’d picked this wood – a woodsman’s umbrella, dotted with high beech trees. In fact, the impending rain was part of my campaign plan. This grove is a satellite covert on the edge of the estate and home to a host of grey squirrel dreys. I hadn’t visited here for a while and figured that the squirrels must be causing havoc to the flora.
The beech trees were heaving with their hard fruit. The sweet chestnuts were cast around the woodland fl oor like little landmines, split asunder, begging plunder. Food aplenty for Sciurus carolinensis. Yet ‘mine host’ has laid on a feast in the neighbouring field that our little tree rat couldn’t possibly resist. Few of Britain’s wild creatures are as well equipped as this non-native forager to tackle the theft of a maize cob.
At the Jeep, I snapped a 10-shot magazine into the rifle and tucked a fully-loaded spare into my pocket. Twenty shots? Optimistic – but fortune favours the best-equipped in this game. The first two shots, before I even entered the wood, were to test zero on a verminous looking knot on a rotting stump about 30 yards from the motor. The assassination of an inanimate object prior to hunting is a luxury afforded to the air rifle hunter only. A rimfire, centre fire or shotgun hunter would have cleared the area of quarry for hours with that brace of sighters.
I set off into the wood, following a well groomed ride. The estate gardener – my friend Ralph – keeps these pathways pristine and it made for silent, stealthy progress. And it’s a few steps at a time when you’re after squirrels. No hurried movement. You need to glide over the surface, watching (at this time of year) for movement at ground level, yet still have an eye on the canopy above. This is ‘caching’ time, when the greys are burying nuts to redeem when winter’s worst closes in.
As I moved along, all my senses were alert. I couldn’t possibly replicate my lurcher’s acute squirrel ‘radar’, but his pathological obsession with squirrels would be disruptive on a day when I intended to ambush them.
Following the path, I stopped regularly under the larger trees to just stand and gather sensory information. The temptation of a woodpigeon flashing onto a perfectly rangeable bough was resisted. ‘Stick to the mission,’ I told myself. Further on, a carrion crow started bragging from on high. A subtle twist around a tree trunk had him in my scope – but it was another shot resisted; too close to the squirrel zone. I moved on and found the path bordering the maize field.
I made slow progress, stopping to examine the wealth of evidence proving (as if I didn’t already know) the capability of a grey squirrel colony to methodically loot a crop. The footpath looked like a Catholic church garden on Palm Sunday. It was littered with maize fronds. Stripped and nibbled cob kernels lay all about, and realising I was in the heart of bandit territory, I drew into cover, ensuring I had a 180-degree view along the path. The rain was increasing its intensity. Good. That ought to drive the squirrels home. The grey squirrel dislikes wet conditions. I mentioned earlier how adept the grey squirrel is at larceny. A creature whose balance allows it to retrieve a pair of joined cob nuts from the outermost sprig of a hazel tree will have no problem scaling a thick maize stalk to gnaw away the base of a sweet corn cob. It’ll recover the fallen cob (almost as big as itself) and carry it from the crop to devour it. Always remember that simple fact – the grey squirrel likes to eat its meal in the open. Egg, nut or kernel, a squirrel will drag it to a regular feeding spot before feasting. Find that spot, at the right time of day, and it’s simply a matter of waiting.
And waiting I was. The first grey surprised me. Without the dog (who points at squirrels), I was relying on poor auditory reception: mine – and too many rock concerts have left their legacy on my ears. I knew there was squirrel incoming, but it by-passed my senses and, having climbed overhead, came down a trunk on the opposite side to the crop with a mouth full of yellow sweetcorn. It was just 10 yards off – far too close.
I raised the rifle slowly – a movement it registered – and it froze against the tree. During those milliseconds, my brain went into overdrive. Ten yards; 11.5 ft/lb of power; .177 calibre; RangeMaster Li pellet… nearly the second marker down on my Hawke’s Map 6a reticle… so I placed the marker between the squirrel’s shoulder blades.
I thought I’d missed as the animal gripped the trunk tightly. The sweetcorn kernel fell. Then the grey followed. I breathed a sigh of relief, not at the removal of a grey squirrel pest, but at the accuracy of the despatch. Because, having bought this new rifle to experiment with .177 calibre literally only weeks ago, I had just laid a ghost. Having already satisfied myself that .177 kills as cleanly as .22, I had just confirmed that a close shot will kill… not pass through without the desired effect.
The next grey squirrel to leave the maize crop did so with a much more accommodating style. True to normal form, it crept under the barbed wire, dragging a golden kernel, and settled in the middle of the path, nibbling and turning its prize. Not for long. Its expiry disturbed a few woodpigeons that I hadn’t even heard come in to roost. Or perhaps they had been there all along? I had been careful in my approach.
The commotion invited the other residents of the maize crop to riot. The crows. They wheeled and circled above, curious yet cautious. One alighted on the highest sprig of a conifer and allowed me to draw a bead. The shot, shamefully, missed by a mile. I had to remind myself once again that this wasn’t the .22 calibre with which I am so familiar. In a curious kind of way, the prospect of exploring elevated shots with a .177 rifle is exciting. Best I do that thoroughly first, though. It would be irresponsible of me to take ‘guessed’ shots at live quarry.
I left the wood soon after. I’m an experienced hunter – but with a new gun, in an alien calibre, I need to practise more and push it to its limits before I’m happy to spend longer in the field. For an old hack like me, that prospect is quite exciting, though. Change is as good as a rest, they say… so watch this space.