Squirrel control – The Countryman

Go about it in the right way and invasive grey squirrels can be controlled safely and discreetly in the back garden – Mat Manning explains how.

Unless you’re lucky enough to live in the middle of nowhere, garden pest control can be a tricky business. The main concern is that you have neighbours to consider, but with a bit of sense and forethought it can be done.

By and large, I don’t tend to shoot pigeons or corvids in our garden, although I have in the past used a Larsen trap to control magpies that were decimating the nesting sites of songbirds.

Satisfying the conditions set out in the general licences can be tricky in a garden context unless pest birds are causing really serious problems, and my advice is to familiarise yourself with the requirements and ensure that your shooting conforms with them before you pull the trigger.

As far as grey squirrels and rats go, I have absolutely no compunction about shooting these pests in my garden. Rats spread disease and cause all sorts of other problems, and although my main issue with grey squirrels is their habit of taking eggs and chicks from songbirds’ nests, they have wreaked havoc after getting into our roof in the past.

Because of my determination to keep their numbers under control, we don’t usually have a lot of problems with grey squirrels in our garden. However,
the destructive rodents turned up again this spring and have already rooted
out a blackbirds’ nest. They have also been bullying birds away from the
feeders on our bird table so it’s time to bring them to book.

Identifying the presence of squirrels is just the starting point. As I said at the outset, garden pest control requires a thoughtful approach. After deciding to tackle the problem, it’s time to get started on the groundwork that will ensure a successful outcome.

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.

One week before the shoot – Caught in the act

If you have bird feeders in your garden you will soon find out if grey squirrels turn up. These resourceful little rodents are adept at locating easy food sources and their talent for acrobatics makes it almost impossible to keep them away from your offerings.

Peanuts and sunflower seeds in particular are loved by greedy squirrels, which will often pull feeders down and break into them so they can gorge on their contents.

Mat had a feeling that the squirrels had moved back into his garden before he even spotted one. First of all, the songbirds backed right away from the bird table – this sort of behaviour is typical when there’s a predator lurking close to their feeding place, and his hunch was that a boisterous squirrel was to blame.

A few days later Mat found a blackbirds’ nest that had been pulled out of a hedge and dumped on the lawn – a frustrating find as he knew a hen blackbird had been sitting on eggs, which had no doubt been scoffed by the culprit.

While it was possible that the destruction could have been the work of somebody’s cat, felines tend to wait until the chicks have hatched before they move in for the kill, so Mat’s money was still on a squirrel.

The following day Mat’s suspicions were confirmed by a sighting of the culprit. Peering out of a window on a rainy afternoon to see if the songbirds had made a return to the bird table, Mat was confronted with the annoying sight of a grey squirrel dangling from a feeder that was filled with sunflower hearts. It was time to hatch a plan.

One week before the shoot – Setting the trap

Safety is the prime consideration in all shooting scenarios, and in the garden it is absolutely paramount. You are breaking the law as soon as a pellet passes beyond your boundary, and you also have neighbourly relations to consider.

Targeting squirrels on the bird table would not offer Mat a safe shot, so he needs to create a scenario with a safe backstop. The best solution is to create a feeding station to persuade squirrels to settle in the right place.

Mat is no stranger to using feeding stations in a woodland setting and has numerous hoppers that are made specifically for the job. Unfortunately, they are all in the woods, so Mat will have to come up with something else. Rather than building one of his usual feeding stations from scratch, Mat settles on a simpler and faster solution.

Concrete is one of the best materials for stopping airgun pellets, so Mat sets up a couple of blocks to create a backstop – a large paving slab is just as effective.

In front of this he puts out a pile of sunflower hearts; with the feeders taken down from the bird table, the squirrels should soon start visiting this food source instead, and when they settle on the seeds, they’ll be nicely positioned for a safe shot.

Two days before the shoot – Essential practice

Getting back to the subject of neighbourly relations, the last thing you want is a wounded squirrel making it over the fence and expiring in next door’s garden.

Your neighbours may not share your understanding of grey squirrels’ destructive nature, and all hunters have a duty to ensure that their quarry is killed swiftly and humanely. It is therefore essential to make sure that any shots you take will find their mark and deliver an immediate kill.

The best way to stop grey squirrels dead in their tracks is to land a pellet right between the eye and ear when they are presented side-on. It is a fairly small target, but shouldn’t be too difficult over the relatively close distances over which garden pest control tends to be conducted – especially if you are taking supported shots – but it is still essential to practise.

Mat has set up a target on his garden range so he can be sure that his combo is right on the money. He knows that the bait station is 20m from where he will be hiding, so he has placed a paper target in front of a safe backstop at exactly the same range. A few test shots quickly confirm that he’s bang on the mark and ready for the real thing.

08:15 – Time for the ambush

Once squirrels find a tasty and reliable food source they will keep coming back to it, and that seems to be the case with Mat’s garden feeding station. Mat has been putting out a heap of sunflower hearts every morning and every evening for the past week and the offerings are quickly being gobbled up.

Although a few birds have been dropping in to peck at the morsels, Mat knows that the squirrels have also been visiting because he has seen them on their raids. The most he has seen at one time is two, and he hopes there are no more visiting his garden.

With the squirrels now confident enough to settle at the feeding station, Mat believes it is time to try to cull them. Their visits tend to be most frequent just after breakfast time, so he has decided on a morning stakeout.

After visiting the feeding station for several days, the squirrels have grown quite bold, although Mat is still going to take advantage of some useful existing cover. Rather than building a hide, he’s going to set up in the shed, where he will be hidden in the shadows.

Mat is not expecting to have to wait very long, but he still wants to be comfortable during the stakeout, so he’s using his pigeon shooting bucket as a seat. He has also set up his Trigger Stick tripod, as the extra support will help him to shoot with precision.

08:50 – Skittish squirrel

This sort of ambush usually demands patience, but Mat doesn’t have to wait long for the squirrels to turn up this morning. The bushy-tails have obviously got a taste for the sunflower hearts and one arrives about half an hour after Mat settles into position, but it doesn’t turn out to be the easy opportunity he had hoped for.

Rather than settling down to feed and offering Mat an easy shot in front of the backstop, the squirrel runs in, grabs a sunflower heart, then darts back across the lawn and disappears into the undergrowth of a hedge. Mat didn’t even have time to get on aim.

This kind of behaviour is not unusual; Mat has witnessed it on countless occasions and he is pretty confident that the squirrel will soon be back out. Expecting the next chance to be an equally brief one, Mat shoulders his gun and lines up on the sunflower hearts, ready to quickly take aim and shoot the next time an opportunity arises.

Sure enough, the squirrel is back out in a moment, and heading straight for the feed. It is obviously feeling more confident because instead of taking a grain and running, it lingers and starts to nibble. Mat wastes no time in steadying the crosshairs onto the squirrel’s skull and touching off the trigger.

The pellet delivers a clean kill, but at such close range it drills straight through the rodent’s skull and slams into the block, highlighting the importance of having a sturdy backstop in place.

09:45 – Job done

As the first squirrel was cleanly killed, Mat decides to leave it by the feeding station rather than break cover to retrieve it. Sometimes a dead squirrel will discourage others from coming close and sometimes it will go completely ignored.

On this occasion the shot squirrel doesn’t appear to be a problem – another has ventured out onto the lawn and made straight for the sunflower hearts. There’s no messing around with this one; it stops at the feed pile and stays there, happily stuffing its face while Mat lines up and bumps the bag up to two. It’s another clean kill so Mat stays in his hiding place.

Mat waits it out for the best part of another hour without any further activity at the feeding station. He’s a patient hunter, but everyone has their limits and after a long quiet spell he eventually decides to draw the session to a close. It has gone exactly as Mat had hoped, and he has finished up with the added bonus of two plump squirrels for the pot.

Accounting for this pair of squirrels has hopefully dealt with the latest invasion. Just to be sure, he will keep the feeding station going for a few more days and settle into the shed for one more stakeout before he puts the feeders back on the bird table.

Mat’s gear

FX Impact MKII (.177, sub-12)

MTC Mamba Lite

Sportsmatch two-piece

Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign

Primos Trigger Stick Tripod

Jack Pyke Hide Seat

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