The game shooting season only finished on 1 February, but gamekeeper Tony Lowry is already fed up with his mates saying how nice it must be now he can now take things easy. Easy? This is one of the busiest times of year for a keeper.
The most urgent job is to hit the pests and vermin hard – and fast – before the nesting season gets underway. Tony’s biggest problems are foxes, crows, rats and squirrels. Foxes and crows are the two biggest enemies of ground-nesting game birds, and after taking so much trouble to establish grey (English) partridges on the ground – a species that has seen numbers decline by over 80 per cent in the past 25 years – Tony wants to give them every chance to breed successfully.
As we’ve seen in previous issues, Charlie’s air rifle is a useful ally in Tony’s war on rats. However, Tony also has a secret weapon up his sleeve – or tucked into the cab of his Kawasaki UTV to be more precise. It’s a Kalashnikov-style, 10-shot semi-auto .410 shotgun by Saiga – and when Tony pulls round the corner of a feed ride wearing his woolly hat and toting his all-black ‘AK’, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d strayed into Taliban territory! “It’s just the job for rats,” he assures with a grin…
Today, though, squirrels are on his mind. With the game season over, Tony can stop filling the feed hoppers around the shoot with grain – but experience tells him what will happen next. “The blasted squirrels will chew the hoppers to pieces,” he grimaces. “I don’t know what it is. Perhaps they think there’s food left inside? But they chew out the nozzles, the sides and the tops – and my hoppers will be ruined in no time.”
Keepers have other reasons for getting rid of tree-rats, too. The bushy-tailed vermin eat songbirds’ eggs and kill the chicks – and they also do terrible damage to trees in forestry areas. In some parts of Britain, the US imports (that’s where the grey squirrel emanated from) are driving out our native red squirrels, fighting them for territory and passing on squirrel pox – a dreadful disease that’s fatal to ‘our’ reds.
Tony despatches a good many squirrels by way of his tunnel traps, although he says they are trickier to catch than rats. “A rat usually bumbles straight down the tunnel and is caught fair and square in the jaws of the Fenn trap inside,” he says. “But squirrels are more skittish and nimble, and have lightning-fast reactions. They sometimes even manage to jump out of the way as the jaws close.”
Very occasionally, one will be caught by the tail and need to be despatched – and that’s a job for an airgun. Last year, when Charlie was on work experience here, he took his trusty Air Arms S200 PCP when he did the rounds of Tony’s traps.
This year Tony has a new work experience lad, but Charlie’s services are still required. Now, though, he’s been promoted to squirrel foot patrol. The idea is simple enough: he walks softly through a block of woodland, watching carefully for squirrels. When he spots one, he gets into position and shoots it. Sounds easy… but it isn’t.
Charlie finds that morning is best, when the sun begins to warm the squirrels’ dreys and they come out to look for food. Squirrels are very territorial, so their day includes plenty of posturing and calling to lay claim to their patch. That can be their downfall, as the noisy chak- chak-chak and flicking tail often gives away their position.
As Charlie creeps quietly through the wood, he’s watching on the ground as well as in the trees. Often he sees a squirrel bounding across the woodland floor and, if he’s careful, he may be able to stalk close enough for a shot by using tree trunks to cover his approach. He’ll also use a stump or branch for a rest if he can, to get a steadier shot.
If the squirrel is up a tree, different tactics are called for. Charlie still approaches stealthily, hoping to get a clear shot before the squirrel is alarmed. But with a high vantage point the squirrel will usually see him coming and take evasive action. “They’re very good at scrambling around the trunk as you move around the tree,” says Charlie. “Often they will hide in a ‘V’ and it’s then very hard to spot them. Sometimes it’s just the tail fluttering in the wind that gives them away.
“Watching his feet for any noisy leaves and twigs, Charlie edges round the tree one way and then the other, trying to outmanoeuvre the squirrel and get a shot. “Squirrels are incredibly tough animals,” he says. “It’s no good going for a central body shot. You have to hit the head, lungs or heart.”
Shooting up into the trees, Charlie knows he has to be extra careful about where his pellet will fall, too. Even a solid hit could allow the pellet to pass through, and you can’t rely on a tree trunk to provide a failsafe backstop. Charlie always checks the fields behind his shot to make sure there is a safe ‘fallout’ area. It was one of the first lessons the lad was ever taught.
Just occasionally there’s a bonus on Charlie’s squirrel patrol. Today, his stealthy creeping through the woods has brought him within range of a pigeon, sunning itself on a branch after stuffing its crop with the farmer’s oilseed rape. Charlie steps this way and that looking for a clear path for his pellet through the tangle of branches – and eventually he finds the right spot. Typically, there’s no handy branch for support – but at this relatively close range, he’s confident of holding the gun steady unaided. He squeezes the trigger…
It’s a solid hit and the pigeon flutters slightly as it falls to earth, but it’s dead by the time Charlie’s gone to pick it up. He beams: “I quite like eating squirrel. I skin off the back legs, dust them in flour and fry them. But you can’t beat woodpigeon – delicious. This’ll do me.”