It can be a tough nut to crack for airgunners. Mat Manning thinks inside the box to get the cull back on track

Squirrel control using an air rifle can be a real bind during the summer months. Dense foliage can make it virtually impossible to spot your quarry in the treetops, and the abundance of natural food means it’s difficult to pinpoint them to any specific area.

It was so much easier during the colder months, when the trees were bare and hungry squirrels were drawn out from their hiding places by the lure of the pheasant feeder. It was while bemoaning the challenges of summer squirrel shooting — compounded by the fact that the woods are no longer dotted with the gamekeeper’s grain hoppers — that I decided to try to create a squirrel-feeding station of my own.

hunter with airgun

Airguns really come into their own with this sort of pest control, especially when fitted with a sound moderator

My initial ideas revolved around setting up a grain feeder similar to the keeper’s. However, I felt that I needed to offer the squirrels something even more appealing to compete with the glut of natural food at this time of year. I also wanted something that would be more portable than the conventional drum-style hopper — a feeder that I could leave in situ for a week or two before ambushing the diners, then move it on to another part of the woods or on to another shoot altogether.

Peanuts seemed to be the obvious offering. From time to time, I am called upon to deal with squirrels that are making a nuisance of themselves in people’s gardens. The offending bushy-tails are usually concentrated around the bird feeders, where they enjoy a free meal of peanuts. Indeed, many of the squirrels I have shot in my own garden have been picked off while raiding the hanging nut feeders.

wooden squirrel hopper

The wooden hopper’s contents spill onto a small trough in front of a hole at the base, creating honeypot areas in which squirrels can be targeted

My initial attempts at fixing shallow wooden trays to trees brought some success, but their limited capacity meant they were quickly emptied and the constant trips to top them up became a nuisance. So, over the past couple of years, I’ve been using a wooden hopper. It’s a simple box that, once loaded with peanuts, gradually spills its contents into a small trough in front of a hole at the base, courtesy of gravity. These boxes can easily be set up and moved from tree to tree, and only need filling once or twice a week, depending on the number of squirrels in the vicinity. So far, they have given excellent results, enabling me to create honeypot areas where I can target squirrels throughout the year.

peanut filled hopper

Woodland conflict

Apart from being useful in the summer, the feeders also mean that I can set up feeding stations in woods that are not used by pheasant shoots and where I’m unable to depend on the lure of the gamekeeper’s grain —woods where squirrels are conflicting either with timber or conservation management. The only downside is that squirrels are inclined to chew through the wooden box, with the result that the front section needs to be replaced from time to time. I’m trying to persuade a friend to knock up a metal version in order to overcome the problem.

I try to set up my feeders in areas where the squirrels are present in high concentrations, identified either by seeing squirrels or their dreys, or by locating the tree species they like best. The feeder is then set up about 5ft off the ground. This is high enough to keep it out of the way of badgers but low enough for me to top up without any great difficulty.

I sometimes go to the trouble of building a hide, but it’s not usually necessary, as incoming squirrels are more distracted by the urge to fill their bellies than the threat of lurking shooters. Settle down in the shadows with a decent backdrop and you’ll probably go unnoticed. What is important is to havea clear view of the feeder. You need to find a hiding place where you’ll be able to pick off squirrels from between 20m and 30m away, depending on your marksmanship, and which has a safe backstop. It’s worth considering these factors and settling on a spot before you fasten your feeder to a tree.

hunting man with air gun

Settle down in the shadows with a decent backdrop and you’ll probably go unnoticed

Squirrels are quick to notice changes in their surroundings and will usually start visiting peanut feeders within a day or two of them being set up. I have sometimes used trailcams to keep tabs on the number and frequency of visits — and have been astounded by the variety of wild birds that dropped in to help themselves to the peanuts — but this level of surveillance is not really necessary. Squirrels are quite messy feeders and their raids are usually indicated by a scattering of nutty scraps beneath the hopper.

Squirrels are bullish around any kind of feeding opportunity

What is particularly interesting is the usual sequence of events. For the first few days, small birds such as blue tits, nuthatches and chaffinches are the most frequent visitors, with jays soon joining the banquet. It is apparent that the flurry of feathered diners eventually catches the attention of the resident squirrels, which quickly muscle in on the feast. Squirrels are bullish around any kind of feeding opportunity and it’s surprising how quickly the birds back off once the greys arrive in numbers. These invasive rodents don’t just feed on eggs and the young of woodland birds, they also deprive the adults of nourishment.

Airguns really come into their own

It’s tempting to reach for the air rifle as soon as squirrels start to show an interest in the peanuts, but it pays to be patient. Just as the birds initially led them to the peanuts, squirrels will attract more of their ilk to the feeder as they scamper back and forth to empty it. Six to 10 days is usually about right — if there’s no sign of visiting squirrels after a fortnight, the feeder should be moved.

Once the squirrels are on to the peanuts, a good bag is on the cards. Ideally, you want to slip into position just before first light so you can intercept incoming greys when they venture out for their dawn binge. Getting up at the crack of dawn is a tall order at this time of year and the feeder will usually attract a steady trickle of squirrels throughout the day once they have a taste for the peanuts — bed-heads may take a few more visits to mop up the squirrels than the early risers, but you’ll still get some shots.

Airguns really come into their own with this sort of pest control, especially when fitted with a sound moderator. The pap from the muzzle of a silenced pre-charged pneumatic is barely audible, so squirrels are unlikely to be discouraged by the sound of your shots. I’ve had as many as seven in an hour.

squirrels shot with air gun

Squirrels will not be discouraged by the sound of your shots. I’ve had as many as seven in an hour.

I find that it takes three or four visits before it’s time to move the feeder and try somewhere else. By this time, I would expect to have bagged between six and 15 squirrels – my best so far is 21 from a single feeder – depending on how many there are in the locality. What is particularly intersting is the way the birds come back on to the peanuts after the squirrels have taken a hammering. This is a useful indication of the impression being made on squirrel numbers in the immediate vicinity, as well as a gratifying reminder of one of the benefits of keeping them in check.