I don?t need much encouragement to venture out with my air rifle during the autumn months. The woods are at their most beautiful at this time of year, and my number one adversary is at its most active.
My airgun pest control hit list includes rabbits, pigeon, corvids and rats, but it?s the grey squirrel that most landowners are keen to see thinned out.
These acrobatic rodents have notched up a long list of foes since they arrived on our shores. Their rampage has contributed to the demise of our native red squirrel; their bark-stripping and shoot-nibbling antics have made them an enemy of the forester; their taste for pheasant feed ? not to mention their hunger for the eggs of ground-nesting birds ? means the gamekeeper will not tolerate them; and their ability to trash bird feeders and seek out and predate on the nests of the feathered garden visitors the feeders were intended for has even put them in the bad books of much of suburbia.
Reassuringly, even the grey squirrel?s fluffy appearance and cheeky-chappy demeanour fail to hoodwink most people once they?ve acquired an understanding of the rodent?s antisocial habits. As a result, I?m frequently called upon to bring grey squirrels to book. My airgun pest control supplements the trapping efforts of keepers and the poisoning regime adopted by foresters on local estates ? and I?m getting an increasing number of requests to rid gardens of them.
With the exception of squirrels that have grown bold as a result of successive raids on garden bird feeders, these rodents can be surprisingly skittish. In summer woodland, they?ll hear the crack of a dry twig or spot the silhouette cutting through the barred light of the understorey and make themselves scarce long before a shooter can spot them in the foliage, let along stalk within range. But when autumn arrives, the tables are turned.
Like many wild creatures, grey squirrels have noticed that change is in the air. The shortening days and falling temperature mean the tough times of winter are fast approaching. There?s a brief final flourish to be enjoyed in the shape of the autumn crop of nuts, seeds and berries, and the squirrels frantically make the most of it.
The autumn glut sends them into a flurry of activity, filling their bellies with nature?s bounty and, when they?re too stuffed to eat any more, they cache as much as they can in readiness for the lean days that lie ahead. Look at the trees and this year?s bumper crop is clear to see: hazels are heavy with nuts, oaks are groaning under the weight of acorns, and beeches are bursting with beechmast.
The squirrels don?t know which way to turn and can be caught off guard when distracted by the autumn feast. The sudden abundance of grey squirrel corpses on the road is testament to this. They forget about the danger of cars, as well as the threat from shooters, when their thoughts are filled with food. One of the most effective, and most enjoyable, ways to capitalise on this chink in the grey squirrel?s armour is to rove the woods at dawn and dusk. Set out at first light and you can expect to encounter hungry squirrels foraging for a nutty breakfast. An hour or two before sunset, they?ll be busying themselves again, filling up their bellies in readiness for the long night that awaits.
Although dewy mornings can be very productive, squirrels don?t like to get wet and will hole-up in rainy weather. You can expect a real flurry when warming rays eventually break through the cloud at last knockings to give a sunny evening after a wet day. The extended wait will have put an edge on the squirrels? hunger, and they?ll be desperate to get out and tuck in before the banquet is mopped up by woodpigeon and jays.
I like to range the autumn woods, paying close attention to stands of fruit-bearing trees. Drifting slowly through the shadows, I?ll pause every few paces and scour the trees for any sign of a squirrel ? not forgetting to check the woodland floor for those that may be foraging for windfalls.
Sometimes I?m too clumsy, and all I see of my quarry is the flash of a silver tail or just a bouncing branch as a spooked squirrel makes a dash for cover. Often, though, squirrels will be motionless. They?re hard to spot when sitting still, but you get a knack for it with experience.
Look for irregularities along the straight silhouettes of the treetop branches ? what looks like a knurled twist of wood will sometimes turn out to be a squirrel, hunched over with its tail curled over its back. Occasionally, an oblivious squirrel will continue feeding above you, sending a hail of displaced acorns and discarded cases pattering down through the branches and betraying its whereabouts.
Carefully inspect the cleft where rising branches fork into two, and you?ll occasionally see the ears of a squirrel that thinks it?s hidden from view. Steady yourself against a tree trunk and watch through the scope, because the shot will be on when he peeps over the top to see if you?ve passed.
During these roving shoots, I?ll often stop and linger if I find a spot that looks particularly promising. If one or two squirrels scarper as you approach, but don?t go too far, it can be worth waiting for them to venture out, especially at the end of the day when they know they?ve not got long to feed up for the night.
Waiting in ambush
Sometimes I?ll wait in ambush ? not because I?ve actually seen a squirrel but because I?ve found a sign of their presence. A drey is an obvious indication of squirrel activity but there are other, more subtle, clues.
Squirrels have favourite branches where they like to sit and feed. These places usually offer them a good vantage point from which they can keep watch for danger, and they?ll often carry morsels to them so they can dine at their favourite spot.
Such places are usually identified by a scattering of nutshells and husks on the woodland floor. Squirrels also have favourite tree stumps where they like o sit and nibble. You?ll know when you?ve found one because it will be littered with smashed shells. Settle down quietly with your back to a tree within range of one of these woodland dining tables, and it?s very likely that you?ll get a visiting squirrel in your sights before the sun sets.
The only problem is, there?s precious little time to make the most of the autumn frenzy. The days are growing shorter and it?s getting increasingly difficult to sneak shooting trips between work and family commitments. Nonetheless, it?s well worth making your excuses and heading into the woods while the squirrels are going nuts for nature?s rich bounty.