The ?fallow? months after the gameshooting season can, in fact, be a fertile time for the fieldsportsman. They offer some excellent poor man?s sport, such as roostshooting and pike fishing. Drey poking is another, and though it can be frustrating, it is hugely enjoyable and as exciting as a driven day, but without the pressure ? or the cost.
I love the slightly eccentric pastime of drey poking, so I went to Hampshire to meet keeper Nick Parker and his friends for a day of thrusting poles up trees. Nick, who looks after a 1,000-acre private shoot, is a wonderful character who seems to fit perfectly into the smoky atmosphere of his ?headquarters? in a farm building. Old shooting posters, decoys, piles of jackets and gunslips, and cartridge boxes from all eras festooned the walls ? even Vinnie Jones glowered from the front of a blue cartridge box. Nick was surrounded by the memories of his keepering life.
It was to be a leisurely day and over a coffee the conversation flowed, covering topics such as squirrels, guns, sea fishing, tropical illnesses, whether ferrets kept in straw have more ticks than those kept in hay, and how one chap?s father had caught malaria during the war after swapping his quinine tablets for cigarettes. It would have been easy to sit and chat all day, but we had to rouse ourselves from this cosy den and go and disturb some tree rats.
The poking technique
The poles Nick was using were purpose built by Gamekeepa Feeds (www.gamekeepafeeds.co.uk). They were robust aluminium poles, equipped with locking nuts, with a useful hook on the end which serves two purposes. It can be used to hang the poles on a branch while another length is added and, more importantly, the hook can be used for pulling the drey out of the tree. If you have not been ?poking? before, the tubes are added in the fashion of Bangalore torpedoes as seen in many a war film and ?fed? up the tree until the desired height is reached. When fully extended some care is needed, as they can start to bow and the whole length may fall with quite a whack.
On reaching the drey, the ?poler? or poker gives the drey a good prod. Sometimes nothing happens, but frequently a squirrel or multiple squirrels erupt from the drey, skittering in all directions. You have to shoot fast, as they move like lightning. Some squirrels flee at the merest tap, while others holdfast until the drey is destroyed around them. Once the first few dreys are empty, the Guns? concentration can lapse, and when a squirrel does launch itself they can get caught off guard.
Remaining alert is imperative to success. The ultimate test when squirrel shooting is to wait for, and achieve successfully, a mid-air shot when the squirrel is leaping from one tree to another. This is the mark of a true squirrel-shooting sportsman.
After several blank dreys, a squirrel finally made a break for it, and fell to a succession of shots that came from a mixture of pump-action and semi-auto .410s, 12-bores and over-and-unders.
Nick had already been at the squirrels, but there were a few left to root out. Nick thinks that everyone should be doing their bit to control the numbers. One of his tips involves plastic feed hoppers: he uses metal feeders to stop squirrels chewing through them, but a trap placed inside a plastic hopper, which the squirrel can and will access, can be very successful.
Nick is a mine of information on squirrels and country lore. ?My mother used to cook them in a stew. There wasn?t much she didn?t cook. Times were hard and if there was anything edible about, it didn?t live long.? If the recession gets much worse, those old days could return ? perhaps we?ll soon see squirrel on more menus.
Nick has always lived in and around the Wiltshire and Hampshire area and he recalls seeing the first greys sometime in the 1950s. By the ?60s, they were established and any red squirrels were long gone. Nick keeps accurate records and thinks that the numbers of squirrels dealt with on the estate has more or less remained stable over the years. As regards the latest bête noire, the black squirrel, he has not had the pleasure? yet.
As we pressed on, I asked about a deep pit in the woodland, something I have seen on many estates over the years. ?That is a chalk pit. You will notice it is steeper at one end than the other. They used to reverse horse-drawn carts and fill them as they cut away the chalk from the face. It was also a good way of keeping the horses fit in the winter before the ploughing of the fields in the spring,? Nick told me.
The Guns snaked through woodland that was squirrel heaven: trees wheezing under the strangling grip of thick ivy, which made it hard to spot the dreys. In between the avenues of dark green ivy, golden clouds of pollen knocked off catkins wafted away on the breeze. It was here that Nick made an interesting point about the current trend in woodland management. At the moment, there are moves in the UK to remove as many non-native sycamores as possible, but Nick had heard that in the US, sycamores are deliberately planted amongst maple trees. This is because squirrels favour stripping sycamores, which means that the more precious syrup-bearing maples are less likely to be attacked. He believes that sycamores bear the brunt of squirrel gnawing here, too, and this reduces damage to the more desirable tree species.
After a coffee break, we moved off again. Amid the craning of necks and the clouds of dead leaves, the excited shouts echoed: ?There, there, there!? followed by: ?Where, where, where?? The party accounted for eight of the grey scuttlers.
It is strange how different cultures value different things. In the US, the squirrel is highly regarded; here it is a pest. Conversely, the introduced carp is treated as a pest in the US, while it is much sought after in the UK. Whatever your views on squirrels, whether you want to eat them yourself or use them as ferret food, a day out drey poking will rarely disappoint. Like ratting with terriers, it seems to bring out the youthful side of everyone.