Squirrel hunting in lockdown

Rich Saunders gets to grips with some pesky squirrels who’ve been allowed to do their own thing for far too long during the first lockdown

We may have been enduring the frustration of lockdown, but squirrels on one of my woodland permissions have been having a whale of a time.

The trees, which are grown for their lumber value, cover several hundreds of acres in Oxfordshire. The battle with the grey pests is relentless. By stripping bark, they kill young trees and scar the wood, costing the owners many thousands of pounds each year.

That’s bad enough, but their presence is devastating for the indigenous woodland creatures as well. Not only do grey squirrels predate on bird eggs and chicks, they also eat much of the natural food before it is ripe. Field mice and dormice, for example, rely on hazelnuts only to find them all gone when they emerge from hibernation.

I’m part of a small team responsible for controlling the squirrel population, splitting our huge area into smaller, more manageable zones. When we started shooting the forest about five years ago, bags of 20 or more squirrels a session were not uncommon.

The Covid-19 lockdown meant Rich’s woodland permission had been off-limits to shooters for many months
Unfortunately, several of the hides that had had to be abandoned during the lockdown period didn’t survive the ravages of the weather

Over the years the gradually dwindling bags and the fact that our network of feeders needed filling less often was evidence we had the squirrels on the run. The woods were better for it as well – full of bird song.

And although it doesn’t take long for squirrels to re-populate a piece of prime real estate, we were planning to move into more of a maintenance phase of pest control to keep the squirrels away.

And then Covid-19 struck. Classed as volunteers, the staff responsible for managing and coordinating us were put on furlough and the forest was closed with all access points padlocked. Getting back up to speed once lockdown measures were eased took the owners longer than most, and it wasn’t until the end of October that we were allowed back in.

On the one hand I was delighted to get one of my favourite permissions back, knowing it would likely be full of squirrels again. But on the other, I knew we’d be back at square one, with all those years of hard work largely wasted.

Grey squirrels will have a devastating impact on the woodland ecology, as well as the value of the lumber itself

The temptation to take a rifle and march straight through the unlocked gates was strong, but fortunately common sense prevailed and instead we set about repairing the hides and the network of feed stations, which we also topped up with bait. Some of the rangers use maize because it’s cheaper, but I’ve stuck with peanuts simply because the squirrels find them irresistible.

Over the next several weeks the rapidly diminishing level of bait showed the squirrels were back with a vengeance. Once they’d rediscovered the feeders, I was having to top them up with several kilos every few days. At last though, after a ceasefire of nearly 10 months, we decided it was time to start shooting again. 

I’d been allocated a zone in a particularly dense section of the woods. The squirrels love the thick, year-round overhead cover and the protection it offers against owls and other birds of prey.

Whilst there was still some natural food to be had in the woods, mainly acorns and walnuts, I felt confident I’d see some action on my peanut feeder.

I set up a simple camo screen hide at a range of around 20 metres. Although I had anticipated the squirrels being preoccupied with getting themselves a seat at the all-you-can-eat peanut buffet, I still took the precaution of wearing a head net and gloves and made sure I had a solid backdrop to reduce the potential for squirrels to spot any movement.

Putting up a trail cam means you can see how many squirrels are coming to your feeder, how often and at what times of day

Knowing I could be in for a long vigil, I took my bean bag seat for comfort and a set of trigger sticks to shoot from. In terms of hardware, one of my favourite rifles for squirrel and rat shooting is a tactical stock BSA R-10 Mk 2. I bought it years ago second hand, and although I have no way of knowing if it has been properly tuned, it has performed faultlessly. 

Some people will dismiss R-10s, especially earlier models, citing troublesome regulators, but I can honestly say that unlike many of the much more costly rifles in my gun case, the R-10 has never, ever put a foot wrong for me.

And with a Hawke Vantage 4-16×50 scope on top, it will put .22 Air Arms Diabolo Field 5.52 pellets through the same hole for as long as you are prepared to keep filling up the magazine and pulling the trigger.

Once I’d settled into my hide and cleared away twigs and leaves around me so I wouldn’t make any unwanted noise as I fidgeted about, I set my sticks up, mounted the R-10 and cut a hole in my camo net for the barrel to poke through and for a clear line of sight.

It was whilst performing these tasks that the first squirrel of the day turned up. I was squinting through the scope to adjust the parallax and magnification settings when it suddenly appeared in the crosshairs.

A simple camo net screen is often enough to deceive hungry squirrels, especially if you use a decent backdrop to conceal your silhouette
Squirrels can approach your feeder from all directions, and a shower of leaves from up above is often a sign that one is on its way

At that point I realised I hadn’t even had time to fill the R-10’s 10-shot magazine with pellets. It was still a little murky amongst the oak trees and moving as slowly as I could I removed what I thought was the lid, but turned out to the bottom of the tin of pellets. Fortunately, it was less than half full, so no big disaster. 

Glancing up to check the squirrel was still there, I removed the magazine, put just three pellets into the chambers and returned it to the breech, pulled the locking catch back and closed the bolt. The closer I got to completing these manoeuvres the more I dreaded the squirrel bolting.

Luck was on my side though. As I put the BSA to my shoulder and peered once again through the scope, the squirrel was still sitting unconcerned on its haunches, stuffing its face with peanuts and looking right at me. With a deep breath I placed the reticle right between its eyes and squeezed the trigger. 

The pellet hit with a meaty thwack that seemed deafening in the still of the forest morning. The squirrel dropped forward and onto the floor. I tracked it through the scope as it thrashed about, the nervous system shutting down, but I could see it was clearly dead.

Unfortunately, far from setting the tone for the rest of the day, I accounted for only another four squirrels. If I sound ungrateful for a bag of five you may think differently if I was to explain that my vigil, perched only on a lumpy bean bag seat remember, lasted nearly eight hours. And because I was one of several shooters that morning, I couldn’t move to another part of the woods; I had no option but to keep to my allocated zone.

Chances were few and the waits in between were quite long, so Rich wanted to make sure of every opportunity

It’s not that I didn’t see plenty of squirrels. I probably saw at least three times more than I shot. Several of them came close to my feeder tree, and one or two even scurried up and down it, but they didn’t hang around long enough for a shot. In fact, most ignored the peanuts in the feeder and instead combed the surrounding woodland floor, constantly on the move and not offering a shot. 

My only other distraction during the day was by a group of female pheasants – which are known by the rangers as ‘the hen party’ – that would occasionally ransack my feeder before moving onto to the next one. Frustrating and slow my day may have been, but my colleagues and I, all of whom reported similar behaviour from the squirrels, accounted for 17 bushy-tails that day. 

And whilst that’s a good start, it was clear to all that the volume of grey pests we saw meant we could look forward to plenty more hours in our hides. And once the last of the natural food has gone and the only restaurants open will be those serving peanuts, we can expect the sport to liven up.

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