With the countryside at its most beautiful and quarry species distracted by a rich natural harvest, Kev Hawker heads out to bask in the colder seasons.
Late autumn and early winter really are the hunter’s months as far as I’m concerned. Not only is it a wonderful time of year to be out in the countryside, there is also some excellent sport to be had during this season of great opportunity.
The potential for a red letter day at this time of year is down to several factors, and the main one is food. Wild animals, including most of the airgun quarry species, instinctively know that there are tough times ahead, so they will be making the most of their time by fattening up on the last of the autumn harvest and doing their best to cache away any surplus ready for winter.
This means that pests such as grey squirrels will be spending a lot of time around areas where natural food is still abundant; a habit which makes them pretty easy to pinpoint at this time of year.
Hunters are also assisted by the reduction in daylight hours. With less time to forage for precious morsels of food, diurnal pests can usually be encountered right through the day.
There will still be spikes in activity, and these are likely to occur when species, including corvids, pigeons and grey squirrels, wake up hungry after a long cold night or want to feed up in readiness for the next one.
As a result, the committed shooter who heads out around dawn and dusk is still likely to get the best results, but the period between these two peak times is now much shorter so you won’t have to endure the long lulls that can make summertime shooting feel like a futile exercise during the middle part of the day.
Furthermore, most of the pest species we’re likely to find ourselves targeting over the coming weeks probably won’t be as wary as they will by the end of the winter.
Overwintered animals tend to be extremely wily – it’s no surprise as natural selection ensures that only the craftiest and most resourceful critters survive the combined challenges of dwindling food supplies and freezing cold temperatures just after the turn of the year.
In the meantime, though, there are still plenty of uneducated youngsters from this year’s broods and litters for us to bring to book.
I have just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon session in the woods. Although I was unable to stay until nightfall, there was still more than enough going on to keep me interested.
One of the secrets to successful, and comfortable, woodland shooting at this time of year is dressing for the occasion. Camouflage is important because you want to be able to move amongst the trees without being spotted.
My choice is a leaf-print camouflage jacket which works with the drab greens and browns of the rest of my gear to blend in inconspicuously with the late autumn woodland.
My jacket also serves as a waterproof and windproof shell to shield me from the elements and work with the layers I wear underneath to seal in the warmth of my body.
Never underestimate the benefits of wearing plenty of layers when the weather turns cold. It really is the best way to stay snug, and you can always take off a fleece or a sweater and stuff it into your backpack if you get too warm while trekking around.
My outing started out as a roving foray, as it so often does. Although ambush tactics usually work best, I do like to drift through the woods. Apart from being a thoroughly enjoyable way to take some light exercise, a roving approach is a great way to stay tuned in with your shoot and keep an eye on what the resident wildlife is up to.
The first thing to strike me was just how many acorns were still present on the woodland floor. We must have had a bumper crop this year, because the squirrels have been well on to them for the best part of two months now, yet there are still lots left over.
I made a point of keeping a close eye on the woodland floor as I wound my way through the trees, because squirrels would almost certainly be foraging for those remaining acorns.
Sure enough, I eventually spotted a bushy-tail scratching amongst the leaf litter. I was caught away from cover, and it clocked me more or less as soon as I realised it was there.
I instinctively sank to my knees, shouldered the gun and froze as the startled squirrel dashed away. Squirrels often make the mistake of lingering after darting off, and this one did just that. It made for the closest tree, leapt onto the trunk, scrambled up a few feet and then froze to look back.
The foolish bushy-tail was no more than 25m away from me and presented side-on on the outside of the trunk. I brought the crosshair to rest on its head, gave the shot a tiny touch of hold-under to compensate for the high point of the .177 pellet’s trajectory and touched off the trigger.
The quiet pap of my Air Arms Ultimate Sporter’s muzzle report was instantaneously followed by a sharp crack as the pellet connected with the squirrel’s head, killing it cleanly and flopping it onto the deck.
After picking up the squirrel and noting that the pellet caught it right between the eye and ear as intended, I carried on through the woods until I reached a large stand of oaks. These mature trees produce lots of acorns, which inevitably attract plenty of grey squirrels. Their uppermost branches are also used as a lookout by the numerous crows that inhabit the wood.
These corvids decimate the eggs and chicks of game birds and songbirds through the spring months and also prey on the farmer’s newborn lambs, so I’m always happy to help with ongoing efforts to keep their numbers in check when I’m out and about.
Simply keeping still usually provides sufficient concealment when targeting squirrels that are distracted by acorns, so I settled into a spot at the foot of two smaller oaks.
The corvids are rather more wary and although I didn’t go to the trouble of building a hide I did put on a head net to stop them from spotting my pale face as I stared up from the undergrowth.
Soon after settling in, I decided to have a play with my new toy: a Pulsar Axion Key XM30 thermal imager from Scott Country. My main intention for this piece of kit was to use it as a spotter when targeting rabbits and rats at night, and it has worked very well indeed for that.
It struck me that this neat piece of kit could also be useful for spotting grey squirrels up in the treetops, and I have been trialling it during my recent woodland forays. So far, it has proved to be very effective, although the ambient temperature does need to be fairly low in order for a squirrel’s heat signature to be clearly visible.
For that reason, it works well at this time of year and while it’s not an essential item of kit for squirrel shooting it has helped me to locate and shoot numerous squirrels over the last few weeks that I would never have spotted without it.
Straight away, the Axion Key picked out the warm glow of a squirrel up in the treetops more than 100m away. I decided not to break cover to go crunching after it, and hoped instead that the lure of the acorns would draw it in closer to me.
About half an hour later I shot a squirrel from a tree about 30m from where I was sitting, along the route the squirrel I was watching would probably have taken to reach the oaks. I don’t know whether it was the same squirrel, but it certainly could have been.
While I was sat waiting, the occasional crow drifted over and a few even pitched into the oaks. Unfortunately, they were just out of range and obscured by branches.
I sat it out for more than an hour, but the lack of further squirrelly activity, combined with the frustrating sight of crows landing where I couldn’t get at them, eventually convinced me that it was time for a move.
Needless to say, the crows departed long before I got anywhere near close enough for a shot, but I soon settled into a spot that gave me a very clear view of the trees they had been frequenting.
Rather than sitting down, I chose to stand amongst the trees as it enabled me to cover a much wider area. A quick scan through the thermal imager failed to reveal any squirrels, but I felt confident that there might be one or two around.
It wasn’t long before the crows started to show again, although most kept high and didn’t appear to be interested in landing. A considerable time passed before one eventually pitched in the treetops about 30m from my hiding place. Crows are adept at spotting the slightest movement, so I shouldered the gun very slowly.
Peering through the scope, I managed to pick a clear route through the twigs to the corvid’s head. The pellet walloped home and the big old crow came crashing down through the branches and slammed into the ground with a thud that I felt through my feet.
That corvid marked the end of the session as I have to leave this particular woodland permission before dusk. The gamekeeper doesn’t like his pheasants to be disturbed when they are settling down to roost, and while it is frustrating to miss what would probably be the best part of the day, I have to respect his wishes.
I was well pleased with how my short session had gone though. Quite frankly, I’m happy just to be out in the woods at this time of year, but it’s even more rewarding to know that I’m doing my bit to keep the pests at bay while I’m out there