?After five months of worrying about presenting birds, chasing beaters and hosting shoot days, it is a relief to get back to some good, old-fashioned keepering,? explained Mike Appleby, headkeeper of the Sherborne Estates, in Dorset. Mike was taking me on a scenic tour of the estate as he or, more likely, his underkeeper Aaron Hocking would do everyday to check the Fenn traps for newcomers. Sherborne?s 300 acres of mature woodland is a honeypot for grey squirrels, and when Mike arrived five years ago, he started the construction of the 200 tunnel traps, which he can call upon when needed.
?It is not just the trees that the squirrels will damage,? he said, as we passed through one of the many cool glades that create a haven for bugs, birds and beasties. ?They cause great damage to the populations of small birds we have here, many of which feed in the covercrops we put up for the shooting. Most people think they are herbivorous, but a squirrel?s incisor teeth, just like those of a rat, take great pleasure in biting into birds? eggs or nest fledglings. I?ve also seen them cause havoc in the pheasant laying pens.?
Though there have always been large numbers of squirrels on Sherborne, which the keepers can only hope to contain rather than decrease, Mike has noticed their numbers swell further in recent years. Whether it is mild temperatures ensuring that reproduction is successful and more frequent, or that there are now fewer country people controlling their population indeed most people would rather feed a squirrel than see it come to harm ? Mike doesn?t know.
?We keep a record of every predator we catch, from rabbits and rats to crows and foxes, as I believe it pays to monitor all the creatures on the estate, and we are taking more squirrels every year. Yet, they still come back stronger than ever. Legally, we have to check the traps every 24 hours, but we want to do that anyway. Once the trap is sprung, it won?t reset itself to catch another one.? Another upshot of this research is that a higher percentage of males has been trapped recently than females.
Has anyone else found the same trend? With such a wide area to protect, the keepers could not hope to set and check every tunnel trap daily. Aaron would be on his quad bike all day. Back in the old days when estates had many more keepers, who each had their own patch, it may have been feasible, but nowadays Mike has to be more savvy, especially as his small team will spend much of the off-season in the rearing pens.
?I employ what I call a pulse system. Rather than do a ?shotgun? approach and try to hit the whole estate at the same time, we will target one area and draw the squirrels to us with bait,? he explained, as he removed a furry-tailed buck from a tunnel made from clay piping. Mike?s ?sting? involves feeding an area with maize and sweet-smelling aniseed, which is greatly appreciated by the squirrels. Word spreads across the treetops that there is free food on offer and soon the woods are moving with squirrels.
The tunnels are left empty for long enough to create familiarity and then Mike will create a ring of steel around the feeding area with Fenns and the trap is complete. ?We will put the tunnels along tributaries to a wood, such as hedgerows or ditches, and nothing will get past that. The trick is to have a nice, wide, inviting tunnel at the other side of a gap, be it in a hedge, a gateway or across a bridge. Your rat, weasel or squirrel hates being exposed to aerial threat, say a hawk or owl, so will scurry across the opening as fast as its little legs will take it, before diving into cover.
It is out of the frying pan, into the fire. Half a second later, it will be over.? When building a trap, it is important that the intended species will not be suspicious. There must be light at the other end of the tunnel, otherwise the vermin will be nervous. ?Squirrels are inquisitive creatures, though. If there is a tunnel or hole in a tree, it may go and have a look ?curiosity will often kill a squirrel.? We passed a miniature bridge across a ditch that looked like it was built by a hobbit or gnome, just perfect for scampering rodents that did not want to get their paws wet.
Of course, the bridge keeper was Mike, who allowed access as long as they ran the gauntlet of the trap halfway across. Instead of a wooden tunnel, this one was made of wire mesh that coaxed the victim (on this occasion a skinny weasel) over the coiled Fenn trap.
?Because it is a passing place,? he said, removing the weasel for disposal, ?I don?t need a wooden tunnel, as the pests will use it anyway. I?ll do the same on a fallen branch in the woods, which a squirrel will often run across. I saw the idea in an article Shooting Times once did on Scottish keepers. There?s always so much more to learn!? Another trick Mike had picked up was to add a small step before the trap, which the unfortunate critter would have to step up before crossing the jaws of death. Not only did this take the trap out of its eye level, but it also meant a clean kill was guaranteed.
As we circulated the trap sites, each craftily positioned to provide a place of refuge for a darting squirrel, we saw the skill that went in to making each tunnel. Most were made from planks of wood that were then camouflaged in sticks, stones and turf, or lodged between large boulders or logs. Had they not been pointed out, I would not have seen half of them. Often the only tell-tale signs were the pair of hazel stakes that are placed outside the tunnel to keep non-target species, such as pheasants and cats, from making a foolish mistake.
?It is important to make them as realistic as possible,? explained Mike, removing yet another fluffy tail from a tunnel beneath a bridge. ?The pests are not completely stupid. And, though we don?t get many walkers through these woods, you don?t want members of the public to see your traps and destroy them. There?s also a little job satisfaction from making a good and successful tunnel trap. I find it therapeutic.?
Mike has caught a few mink in his traps over the years, drawn along the wet ditches that criss-cross the estate. It is one of the reasons he prefers trapping to poisoning, as you have a definitive record of what you have killed on the ground.
On one tree, the keeper had opted for a different style of trap, this time without a light at the end of the tunnel. It was positioned 5ft from the base of an old oak, a favoured destination for hungry squirrels in search of last year?s acorns. When the squirrel runs down the sheer bough (another moment of vulnerability), it is tempted to hop into the rectangular box at the bottom, especially as there is a tasty meal of maize and aniseed waiting. Mike has positioned it to allow just enough space for the squirrel to squeeze between the bough and the opening to the dead end.
With the high number of squirrels, competition for food can be high, and the rodents will target the easiest sources. This can sometimes lead them into direct conflict with Mike?s pheasants in the release pens. He showed us evidence of their attempts to gnaw their way into his hopper tubs. ?You have to give them credit for trying because these lids are made of strong plastic and yet their teeth have made holes in it. They won?t be able to steal the maize, but rain can get in and before you know it, £20 worth of corn is ruined. I?ll often take the rimfire down here and catch a few in the act.? One suspects, however, that the grey squirrel will still be resident at Sherborne long after Mike has gone.