Richard Saunders burns the candle at both ends as he heads out hunting before sunrise – and keeps on shooting into the night!
Everyone loves the sales, don’t they? Don’t get me wrong – I hate shopping unless it’s for air rifles or fishing tackle. But my wife, now she loves it, so when she announced she was off to town with her friends for a bit of retail therapy followed by dinner, I had only one thought on my mind.
A phone call to my shooting buddies Kev and Neil revealed similar scenarios so, like excited schoolboys, we planned a shooting trip.
We’d recently gained a fantastic new permission: a 25-hectare wood that provides valuable habitat to a wide range of woodland animals including – unfortunately for the owner – grey squirrels. By stripping bark, these pests have a catastrophic impact on lumber values, deforming limbs and even killing trees.
As a result, the owner – a company that not only harvests the wood but conducts forestry management research and training – sought creative pest control methods that wouldn’t cost the earth.
Commercial pest control was ruled out as being too expensive, and the use of traps was dismissed because, by law, they’d need to be checked every 24 hours. Eventually, a small team of airgun rangers was recruited to control the squirrels.
To gain the permission we had to achieve BASC’s Safe Shot certification, complete a risk assessment, prove we were insured and pass an interview. Although we’d spent many hours in the woods putting up and filling peanut feeders
as well as setting up trail cameras, this would be the first trip with rifles.
The plan was to hunt squirrels in the morning, retire to a nearby café that wouldn’t be too horrified at the sight of three Rambo wannabes demanding food, and then return to some fields adjacent to the woods in the evening to shoot rabbits with night-vision gear.
Phase one: in pursuit of squirrels
Arriving just before sunrise, we unloaded the cars. Each of us carried a pop-up hide, a camping chair, Primos Trigger Sticks and a small rucksack in addition to our rifles: a BSA R-10 for me, a BSA Ultra for Kevin and a Brocock Compatto for Neil, all three in .22 calibre.
In the grey hush of the early morning, we made our way down the track to one of several padlocked entrances to the woods. Ten minutes later we arrived at the first of our two feeders, which Kevin and Neil had planned to stake out.
With whispered “Good lucks”, I carried on to the second feeder. As I stepped off the track and into the woods, the greyness of the morning turned a shade darker as the trees blotted out what little light was available. It didn’t matter, though, as I could just make out the peanut feeder and set up my hide exactly 20m from it – the distance at which the R-10 is zeroed.
A few minutes later I was sitting in my camping chair behind the trigger sticks with a cup of tea steaming away beside me. Gradually the light improved and then, all of a sudden, I could see the feeder and the surrounding woods clearly.
Not long after, the dawn chorus started, slowly at first and then the full orchestra of bird song. A blue tit flitted down to the feeder for a peanut, while a muntjac deer walked across my view from the hide no more than 40m away.
Before long a procession of small birds, as well as the occasional woodpecker were helping themselves to the free buffet. Entertaining as the aerial display was, an hour later I wondered where the squirrels were and began to think I’d picked the wrong feeder, especially as Kevin and Neil had texted me to say they had bagged a squirrel.
Just then I heard an explosion of chattering. Through the window of my hide, I could see a pair of squirrels high up in a silver birch to my right. One of them was clearly intent on helping himself to a few peanuts, while his more cautious friend hung back and told his mate he thought it was probably a bad idea.
The first squirrel made its way down the tree trunk and across the floor to the feeder tree. Instead of climbing up to the feeder, it started picking up nuts that had dropped to the floor. It didn’t matter, though, as the 16 grain AA Diabolo Field pellet bowled him over.
The second squirrel froze in the silver birch and I swung the R-10 towards it, hoping to claim a brace of the pests. It wasn’t to be; the squirrel headed towards me then disappeared overhead.
Over the next hour, I claimed a couple more squirrels before the woods went quiet and I felt my sport was done for the day. An hour later my phone buzzed with a message from Kevin suggesting an early lunch. Oh, go on then…
Phase two: creatures of the night
Reinvigorated by burgers, a shepherd’s pie and plenty of coffee, we returned for our late afternoon and evening session. The woods are bordered by open fields, and plenty of scrapes and droppings hinted at a healthy rabbit population.
Back at the truck, we took the guns we’d be using with night-vision gear out of the lockable gun box. Kevin had forgotten to bring his 30ft-lb FAC-rated BSA R-10 so had to carry on with his Ultra. Neil swapped over to his legal limit Kral NP-02, and both were fitted with NiteSite Viper RTek infrared systems.
My choice was a .22 calibre FAC-rated Wolverine R fitted with a Pulsar Trail LRF XQ38 thermal scope, which was on loan from night-vision specialists Thomas Jacks Ltd.
We’d been blessed with a nice dark night. There was little in the way of light pollution to spoil things, and any moon and starlight was hidden by thick cloud. A slight breeze had emerged to cover any sounds we made as we crept about.
We scanned the fields to see if the rabbits were delivering on their side of the bargain. Sure enough, through the grey monochrome of the Pulsar, I could see their brilliant white shapes feeding and hopping about. The integrated laser rangefinder showed them to be between 100 and 180 metres away.
We’d already agreed on who was going where and set off to our appointed zones. Mine was a field bordered by farm buildings on one side and a high, bramble-covered earth bank on another.
I entered the field silently through an open gate and started stalking along the fence, stopping every 20 or so metres to check that the rabbits were still there. Through the Pulsar I could see eight of them between 50 and 72 metres away.
The rifle is zeroed for 30m and needs a mildot of holdover at 40m. I made a mental note of the direction in which to head for the closest rabbit and started counting off 20m in my head. I don’t know about you, but I find walking slowly and quietly in the dark over uneven ground while carrying a rifle and shooting sticks a little tricky.
To get around the problem, I’ve developed a stalking technique of which I am rather proud. It involves taking half-steps, bringing one foot to the other, with my legs wide apart – as if I’m riding an invisible horse – to stop my trousers rustling.
I know it’s hardly up there with the invention of the internet, but it works for me and I generally reckon on two of
these shuffling steps accounting for a metre.
Twenty or so half-steps in, I looked through the Pulsar again to check the rabbits hadn’t cleared off. Only three of them were left, including – fortunately for me – the two closest, although they had moved a little nearer to the earth bank.
I resumed my John Wayne-like shuffling before risking another distance check. The rabbits had disappeared from the field, but I could see flashes of white among the brambles on the bank as the Pulsar picked up their body heat. I spent half an hour scanning the bank, waiting for one of the rabbits to decide it was safe enough tocome back into the field.
Eventually one of them moved into a clear patch on the bank. The Pulsar’s laser showed the distance to be 33m. Resting on the Primos. Trigger Stick, the Wolverine R sent the pellet straight and true, and through the thermal scope, I saw the rabbit fall backwards with barely a twitch. The other ghostly flashes of white wisely disappeared.
Phase three: the tally
I recovered the rabbit from the brambles and returned to the trucks, hoping Kev and Neil would be back from their stalks. They were, and each had bagged a rabbit of their own. Then Neil asked if I’d had the kind of underpants related accident most of us grow out of as toddlers.
Kev burst out laughing. They went on to explain that they’d been watching my patented, sideways-half-a-step-at-a-time stalking technique of which I was so proud through Kev’s Pulsar thermal monocular and thought I’d been
caught short. I explained patiently, as if to children, that it was a highly skilled way of covering distances accurately in the dark, actually.
“Why don’t you just count the fence posts? They’re exactly three metres apart,” they said.
Sometimes you can be too clever.