As I write, the harshest weeks of winter are looming.
Typically, forecasters are predicting some extreme weather; some say it’s going to be very wet, and others are warning of a serious cold snap.
I hope it’s going to be the latter because while I do my best to get out with my air rifle whatever the weather, it’s a darned sight easier to keep warm than it is to keep dry.
Shooting in torrential rain can be a miserable affair and, more often than not, it turns out to be pretty unproductive, too. But, with the right gear and a bit of common sense, cold-weather hunting can be comfortable and worthwhile.
Sub-zero pest control can be exceptionally productive as the punishing conditions force quarry species into tighter concentrations.
In the woodland, biting cold winds and a dearth of natural food can leave vast acreages almost devoid of wildlife. But find the places where pests – like grey squirrels, magpies and woodpigeons – can find food and shelter, and you could well encounter them in large numbers.
Where I live in the South West, the winters are usually relatively kind, but even we have had our fair share of snowfall over recent years.
The prospect of waking up to a covering of the white stuff makes me as excited as it did when I was a kid – only I tend to reach for the gun before the sledge these days!
Our last dusting was even better than usual – simply because it wasn’t forecast. Warnings of snowfall were in place further north, but we were promised nothing more than the usual dose of sleet and rain.
But I had a feeling that we’d had some proper snow overnight before I even opened the curtains.
Dawn had that strange glow about it, the one you only get when the countryside is encased in a white veil that reflects and intensifies the sunrise.
Peeping eagerly through a gap in the curtains, I was thrilled to see that my locality had been transformed into a winter wonderland.
Unfortunately, I don’t get to abandon my responsibilities quite as easily as most people when we get a ‘snow day’. Although the covering of snow on the roads made the long drive to my office impossible, I’m set up to work from home.
This arrangement is very useful for most of the year, but it’s frustrating to have access to the work computer network when all of your mates – and most of your colleagues – get a bonus day off. Still, I knew what I had to get done, and I went at it like a rocket in order to grab a couple of hours in the woods before nightfall!
As a shooter who likes to travel light on hunting trips, I regard ‘excess baggage’ as an unnecessary hindrance. However, I always carry more gear when the mercury plunges below zero.
One of my cold weather essentials is a flask loaded with hot tea or coffee – and I’ll even take another with soup in for longer sessions. It’s easy to get cold and despondent in the bleak winter countryside – especially if you have to endure the pincer-grip of a freezing breeze.
A simple thing like a hot drink can really revitalise you; restoring warmth and enthusiasm at a time when the call of a cosy house and all its creature comforts can threaten to cut short your outing.
Another one of my winter essentials is my beanbag shooting seat. Packed with polystyrene balls, this seat provides excellent insulation and prevents the chill of the frozen ground from creeping through to your backside as you sit in wait for your quarry.
As for clothing, I wear my usual hunting gear with a couple of extra layers underneath. The base layer is a long-sleeved vest made from bamboo fibres, which really does keep body heat sealed in.
A hat is an absolute must in really cold weather and I also like to wear a fleece neck snood to stop draughts from sneaking down my collar. My long snood can also be pulled up over my face for added insulation and camouflage.
Extreme cold also makes me appreciate the importance of having properly-sized boots, so I can wear an extra pair of thick socks without having to ‘squeeze’ my foot in. Tight boots don’t have any space to retain the warmth generated by your body and tend to conduct heat rather than insulate it.
Your circulation will also be compromised if your feet are squeezed – this often results in painfully cold toes, so make sure your boots fit you properly.
In sub-zero conditions, I also swap my usual shooting gloves for something more substantial. My latest pair – which set me back less than a tenner at a game fair – have woolly mittens that completely cover my fingers, but roll back to expose my digits when I need to operate the trigger or complete fiddly tasks like reloading and pouring a drink from my flask.
Spurred on by the urge to get out with the rifle, I’d finished my work chores by just after lunchtime and was ready to head for the woods. The covering of snow was already beginning to recede, which was a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, I was frustrated that the winter wonderland could be so short-lived, but at least the roads were clearing and I was able to delicately drive the short distance to one of my woodland shooting permissions.
This particular permission is home to quite a large pheasant shoot, and the keeper loses a lot of feed to grey squirrels. You can’t really blame the bushy-tails; the pheasant hoppers provide an easy helping of high-protein corn at a time when they’re really struggling to find natural food.
But their thefts will not be tolerated. Not only do the squirrels’ raids cost the shoot financially in terms of having to buy extra grain, they help to sustain the pest population in weather which would otherwise see numerous losses to starvation.
Squirrels that enjoy a winter diet supplemented by pheasant feed will be plentiful, strong and healthy in the spring, ready to turn their culinary attentions to the eggs of pheasants and songbirds just as the supply of corn ceases. Consequently, winter pest control by yours truly is much appreciated by the syndicate shooters.
Leaving the car, I trudged out across the fields and made my way along the woodland edge. The dull crunch of the snow beneath my feet quickly made it apparent that a static approach would be called for. I’d not been out in snow for the best part of a year and had forgotten just what a noise it makes underfoot. Still, a feed hopper ambush seemed appealing.
Passing through the woods, I made my way as quietly as I could to a clearing which is the site of a hopper that gets a lot of squirrelly attention. Sure enough, a bushy-tail bolted as I closed in – no doubt spooked by the sound of my crunching footfalls.
I was frustrated not to get a shot, but the sighting was welcome reassurance that the squirrels were indeed coming to the feed hopper. The ground all around the feeder was clear of snow as a result of heavy diner traffic, proving the draw to both game birds and pest species when conditions are tough.
Closer inspection also revealed several rat-holes around a nearby tree stump, suggesting that some other hungry rodents were frequenting the hopper.
I set up about 25 metres from the feeder, using the trunk of an ash tree as a backdrop to break up my silhouette. Even after quite substantial snowfall, there are still a lot of greens and browns to be seen in the woodland environment, and I was satisfied that my conventional camouflage clothing would do the job.
The first chance came quickly. A hungry squirrel – perhaps the one that I had startled on my arrival – scurried down a tree trunk about 40 metres away from me and bounced through the snow towards the feeder.
Infuriatingly, the cheeky little tree-rat made it to the back of the hopper, where it sat stuffing its face. The squirrel was completely obscured from my view, save for the occasional view of its flicking tail. I don’t think it was aware of my presence – just lucky.
Through my sights, I could see little more of my mark than the occasional tantalising flash of fur, but I sat tight. And my patience eventually paid off. The squirrel reappeared after a few minutes’ feeding and trundled back towards the tree it had emerged from.
I clicked my tongue and the grey made the fatal mistake of freezing to look back towards the source of the sound. My crosshairs quickly settled just behind its shoulder… and I snuffed the little grain-robber with a wallop to the heart and lung area.
The ‘pap’ from my Daystate’s muzzle echoed through the cold, still air, sending a couple of distant woodpigeons clattering from the trees and making a cock pheasant cluck its alarm call. I reached for the flask and treated myself to a cup of steaming hot tea while calm returned to the woods.
Overhead, thick snow clouds were gathering, blocking out the weak rays of the falling sun and bringing on an early dusk. Pigeons were flighting overhead – small groups of two or three at a time – no doubt returning to roost in the fading light.
One pair circled back round, opened out their wings and swooped into a stand of oaks about 30 metres from my position. Both were on my side of the leafless tree, and perfectly silhouetted against the pale grey sky.
I steadied myself and drew a bead on the nearest one. Another solid impact shattered the peace of the winter evening, and the pigeon crashed down with a crunching thud as its mate took to the wing.
Squirrels can usually be relied upon to venture out to feed right at the end of the day during the colder months; they need to fill up their bellies in readiness for the long cold night that lies ahead. And, sure enough, I got another chance at a bushy-tail just as the light was going.
This tree-rat betrayed its presence by sending a flurry of snow cascading down from the treetops as it bounced across a particularly springy branch. The culprit had made it to a sturdy trunk when it spotted the movement of me shouldering the gun.
Being clocked by your quarry is usually a calamity, but on this occasion it worked in my favour. The squirrel froze stock still, hoping that its motionless little form would go unnoticed.
Unfortunately for Mr Bushy-tail, the impromptu snow flurry had already blown its cover, and its decision to freeze meant I had a static target. At around 20 metres, the shot was a formality – and I claimed the third and final addition to the evening’s game bag.
I wrapped up what had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the woods with another cup of hot tea before trudging back to the car. I’d add the pigeon breasts to some already in the freezer – a hearty casserole would be a nice, winter warmer to round things off.