Feeding stations can be a game-changer for airgun shooters tasked with controlling grey squirrels – Mat Manning looks back on an eventful year
People who carry out squirrel control with air rifles know that the use of feeding stations can boost their results. Offering bushy-tails a source of tasty and nutritious food creates an area of activity where we can expect to encounter them at certain times of the day, which is always going to be more productive than wandering the woods in the hope of getting one or two shots.
Your strike rate, and the ease of running your feeders, can be further improved with a few tweaks to your approach. I thought I would share some experiences with a successful feeding station site this year.
I want to rebuff the criticisms from some quarters claiming that the use of feeding stations is unsporting. We are dealing with a very destructive introduced species that is having a detrimental impact on our country’s woodland environment and the fragile wildlife it supports.
Grey squirrels destroy trees, have contributed to the decline of our native red squirrel and have a serious negative impact on a wide range of other woodland creatures, including songbirds and dormice.
Considering all of the above, it is ludicrous, and remarkably selfish, to assume that the control of grey squirrels should ever be done solely for sporting purposes.
The aim is effective pest control, and to achieve that end by killing squirrels as swiftly and humanely as possible. Feeding stations are great for this because they facilitate large bags while shooting at a static target over a known distance.
The risk of wounding when shooting squirrels at a feeding station (which is done from a sitting position and with a supported gun) is lower than hunting on the move and taking opportunistic shots.
I have also heard laughable comments suggesting that the use of feeding stations is irresponsible because it could attract squirrels from neighbouring ground.
Surely that is beneficial because by killing squirrels from a wider radius we are ensuring that there are fewer left to fill the vacuum we create by removing the resident squirrels from our own patch.
Back to my observations from this year, and the reason that feeding stations are on my mind is because I have now accounted for almost 100 squirrels from a single spot since early spring.
As far as I am concerned, that says a lot about the importance of putting your feeders in the right place and leaving them there if they are working.
The site of this particular feeding station was actually spotted by my son when we were out with our shotguns shooting pigeons flighting to roost towards the end of the winter. George had just returned from a short stroll to answer the call of nature when he announced: “There were a hell of a lot of squirrels running around on the ground over there!” He then went on to explain that he was too desperate to think about taking a shot before he spooked them, but that’s probably too much information.
Action on the pigeon front was slow, so I asked George to take me to where he had seen the squirrels so I could earmark the spot for a future visit. One of the squirrels was already back out foraging on the deck and I wasted no time in adding it to our meagre bag.
It was no surprise that squirrels were showing an interest in this spot as the gamekeeper had been scattering wheat on the ride.
On one side of the thoroughfare, there’s a very dense block of softwood trees and on the other is an overgrown hedge with a row of large interconnecting oak trees, and beyond that several acres of parkland with some really big, old oaks.
The combination of shelter from the softwood plantation, acorns from the oaks and tasty grain from the keeper resulted in what looked like near-perfect conditions for grey squirrels.
Later that week I had a peanut-loaded hopper fastened to one of the oaks. A week after that, the feed was going down quickly so I built a net hide on the edge of the fir trees, where I could cover the feeder from a range of about 23m, and less than 10 days after that I made my first hit of a dozen squirrels.
I made several more good hauls from the feeder before activity began to slow down after about a month.
Apart from making far smaller bags, it was apparent that the feed was diminishing at a much slower rate than it had been, despite the fact that more and more songbirds were visiting because there were fewer boisterous grey squirrels around to bully them off. The confident return of songbirds is always a pleasing sight.
Turning my attention to feeders in other areas of the estate, I decided to keep this one going because I had a hunch that it could still be productive.
I actually added a second feeder to the same site to increase bait capacity, so I didn’t have to go out of my way too often to keep it filled.
Every time feed consumption appeared to accelerate (which was typically after a month or so) I would put in a few sessions in the hide, usually getting bags of between three and 10 squirrels.
Apart from reducing the frequency of my top-up visits, that extra feeder also proved useful as it enabled me to experiment with different baits. Sure enough, peanuts always proved to be the squirrels’ first choice – an important consideration when competing with acorns, beech mast, sweet chestnuts and the keeper’s grain hoppers.
The only downside with peanuts is that they are expensive, so I loaded one feeder with peanuts and the other with cut maize, which is a bit cheaper.
The peanuts always go down quickest, but at least I know there is still some maize there to keep the squirrels interested. A lot of the smaller songbirds also seem to favour the maize, so at least they aren’t all eating my expensive peanuts.
One of the big advantages of this particular feeding site is the fact that the openness of the ride means that the hoppers are in full view from a wide arc. I think that really helps passing squirrels to notice the activity of visiting songbirds and other bushy-tails, which obviously encourages them to take a closer look.
The ride is also a disadvantage, because although it is some distance from the only public right of way through the woods, numerous walkers still feel obliged to ramble along it.
Most of these trespassers are fairly harmless – though their wayward dogs probably cause the resident deer a lot of distress – but some have caused me problems.
Being in full view, the feeders are hard for walkers to miss, and unfortunately both hoppers were vandalised back in the summer.
Whoever did it wasn’t very committed to their cause and thankfully also didn’t do a very thorough job. I found both feeders stuffed in the bushes about 20 feet from where they had been sited.
Both only needed minor repairs, but the attack cost me time, effort and money in lost feed.
When I put the feeders back up, I also made sure that I fastened a trail camera to the tree.
It hasn’t revealed the identity of the culprit yet, but whoever it was appears to be too cowardly to carry out their vigilante activities while being filmed. Three months have now passed since the camera went up, so it seems to be doing its job.
Apart from disrupting my pest control, trespassers who decide to stray from the public footpath and wander the woodland rides are also placing themselves in danger.
The gamekeeper and I quickly identified this as a serious concern and he made me some simple signs to put up when I’m shooting. They work well and I would encourage anyone who shoots in woods where walkers are a potential problem to do the same.
So that’s a brief summary of this year’s trials and tribulations around this particular feeding station, which I’m pleased to say is still delivering the goods. I hope some of my findings prove useful in your efforts to drive down the destructive grey squirrels on your patch.