The stocky man leans backwards on the edge of the ride and slowly raises the gun. The long 36in barrel, painted drab olive, points at the squirrels drey set in the fork of an ash tree. The hammer clicks back and then, with a roar, a flash of flame and a cloud of blue smoke the nest disintegrates and the one occupant, instantly slain by the 3oz charge of No 1 pellets, falls to the ground. That, said Lewis Potter, the renowned gun and riflesmith, was very satisfactory. The old gun still performs.
The old gun was, in fact, a single-barrelled muzzle-loading percussion 4-bore, made by Isaac Blissett in 1830. It is still going strong and performing a thoroughly useful task after 180 years. But more of the gun in a moment. First, let me explain why, on a Sunday morning, we were causing minor disruption to a small estate high on the Cotswolds escarpment overlooking Cheltenham and the extensive plains that reach to Herefordshire. Grey squirrels!
Here, on a steep-sided hill, some 200 acres of woodland, much of it hawthorn scrub intermixed with ash, oak and beech, and supplemented by extensive planting of maple and sycamore, is being developed by the owner as a wildlife reserve. There is no shoot here, but fallow, roe and muntjac are managed from high seats, and bird and insect life is encouraged.
A grey serpent in Eden
But the serpent in this Eden comes in the form of grey squirrels. The damage caused to the trees is formidable and can be seen on all sides. Deciduous trees, some 10 to 15 years old, were ring-barked to such an extent that, in several cases, the mature tree was killed. Its not only trees that are attacked, plastic bird-feeders also receive the squirrel treatment. I was shown one feeder that had been partially destroyed by squirrels biting into the plastic to get at the feed. Matt, Lewis Potters son, a dry-stone waller and tree feller, has been working on the estate throughout the winter and,
at the owners request, has made severe inroads into the squirrel population. In three months he has trapped more than 40 squirrels and shot another dozen. Now, in a final mopping-up operation he had invited his father and me to seek out any dreys as yet unaccounted for in order to try to make the woodland a grey squirrel-free zone.
Grey squirrels, said Matt, seem to like maples, oak, beech and sycamore in particular these trees are prime targets. There has also been a severe problem with all field maples being ring-barked and killed, and some beeches that had been planted and grown to 20ft have been destroyed by squirrels through ring-barking.
Trapping has certainly been effective and, in conjunction with shooting, has almost eliminated squirrels from the woodland. Matt builds a wooden box with a hole at each end (on the basis that a squirrel cant resist a tunnel), which he sites either off or on the ground. He uses a No 4 Fenn trap set sideways inside so that it covers the width of the tunnel. Set like this, he explained, the trap is very effective, but if set lengthwise, there is a chance of only catching the squirrels tail. Peanut butter is smeared round the entrances to attract squirrels, though traps set on squirrel runs dont need any bait.
When Matt has to set traps close to a house, or where cats and dogs might roam, he is very careful to ensure that they wont cause injury. But if he has any doubts about the area, he places the tunnel trap on a board about 5ft off the ground and supported by a shaft of wood. He also fixes a note to the top of the woodwork to warm people that it is a squirrel trap and not to touch it.
Back to the 4-bore
Lewis told me that he bought the 4-bore from a friend about 25 years ago when he was still an ardent wildfowler. Its not really a wildfowling gun, he said. Its what you might call a tight 4-bore, about halfway up the 4-bore range and is almost like a scaled-up game gun. As it weighs only about 12lb, full 4-bore loads are a bit of a handful, but anything up to 3oz of shot and the appropriate powder charge works very well, particularly for drey destruction. I use very coarse grained punt-gun powder on the basis that its slow burning and, as a result, soothes the recoil a bit.
I would use the old gun mainly on the Dovey estuary for wildfowling. Another place I went to had extensive reedbeds so I painted it olive drab to make sure it wouldnt show up. When youre on an estuary the paint also helps to preserve the lockwork and metal from wind-borne salt.
Loading it with No 1 shot, if you point it right, can lift an entire drey out of a tree and also be sure of killing the occupants cleanly.
Lewis also told me that Isaac Blissett, the 4-bores maker, was a jeweller and perfumer at 69 Leadenhall Street, London, before he became a gunmaker in 1822.
A bumpy ride
The transport into the wood and round the bumpy rally-type rides was an ancient open ex-military air-drop Land Rover, and it handled the going in famous style. After parking on the edge of thick woodland, we set off on foot to search for dreys. It was a warm sunny morning, warm enough to encourage the first butterflies of the year, a brimstone, a brace of tortoiseshells and a small white. Pigeon cooed, four buzzards drifted in circles high overhead and way below on the plain we could hear the distant sound of clayshooting. There was barely a hint of spring, however, despite the sun and the butterflies. The trees remained drab and dull, and we might still have been in midwinter.
We puffed up slopes, pushed under thorny bushes and slid down banks, and after destroying another drey high in some ivy, it was at last agreed, with some satisfaction, that Matt and his father, Lewis, had virtually eradicated the greys in this woodland. However, as is natures way, vacuums always have to be filled, so Matt had not the slightest doubt that grey squirrels from surrounding woodland would soon take advantage of the situation and move in, and the cycle of control and elimination would have to be renewed.
There was only one way to celebrate the victory, with a fried squirrel sandwich! A small gas stove was produced, an onion diced, a hint of garlic added and then half-a-dozen hind legs from the freezer squirrels that had been shot the previous week were chopped up, leaving the bone behind, and the balls of meat added to the sizzling pan.
Believe me, theres nothing better than to tuck into a squirrel sandwich when youve enjoyed fresh air and exercise. A much underrated game animal, grey squirrel is excellent fare and so it should be, considering the squirrels way of life and the healthy food it consumes.