Grey squirrels, rats and egg-robbing corvids getting really annoying? Now's the time to get out the airgun. Mat Manning advises.

Airguns are an excellent tool for pest control. Their limited power and relative quiet mean they can be used safely and discreetly, particularly when a shotgun would be too noisy or risky – such as in a confined area like a garden. Many is the time I have been asked to deal with greys, rats and magpies in a garden where they have been terrorising songbirds.

With diligent use of robust backstops I have stopped the nest-robbing antics of these pests on many occasions.

pcp air rifles

A pcp air rifle

Discretion is the word

A modern, pre-charged air rifle is a quiet tool when fitted with a good-quality moderator. This allows silent and discreet vermin control – which is what you need if you’re dealing with grey squirrels or magpies and don’t want neighbours getting involved.

garden air gunning

A large concrete slab makes for a reliable backstop

Create solid and safe backstops

You’re  breaking the law if a pellet strays beyond your boundary, so take steps to avoid this.

  • Panel fences aren’t that robust – an airgun pellet will usually rip straight through the flimsy strip of wood.
  • However, walls made of stone or concrete will stop an airgun pellet in its tracks, flattening the soft lead projectile and sending it tumbling to the ground. Coax your quarry to a spot in front of such a backstop, and they can be picked off without risk of ricochet.
  • If a garden just has hedging or flimsy panel fencing I set myself up where I can take shots at a downward angle and safely into the ground.
  • Alternatively I’ll prop up a large concrete paving slab to create a solid backstop exactly where I want it.
pest species in garden

Garden pests: it is always a good idea to shoot from an elevated position so that the ground acts as a backstop

Encouraging your quarry

For squirrels and rats, try putting a handful of peanut or birdseed in front of the backstop. Magpies are more particular. They usually home in on easy sources of food and like pickings from a bird table.  Tear up a stale loaf and scatter it in front of your backstop and they may be persuaded to drop by.

We keep hens in our garden and, apart from drawing in the odd rat, from time to time they also attract attention from magpies. I use a Larsen trap to keep down numbers of these corvids — not just to stop them helping themselves to the chicken feed but also to give nesting songbirds a decent chance of success. Most years I manage to trap seven or eight, but I usually get one or two that hang back from the Larsen; sitting in the nearby apple tree but refusing to succumb to the trap. My take on this is that these birds are more wary after having had a lucky escape from springing the track.

I can’t aim at these corvids directly into the apple tree for reasons of safety obviously. Instead, I prop up a concrete slab beneath the apple tree, then crack an egg in front of it and scatter a few vegetable scraps to grab the birds’ attention. The magpies will usually flutter down for a closer inspection, offering a safe shot from my hiding place.

How to use an airgun for rat control

If you don’t want the hassle of using cat food, small fishing pellets will keep rats still while you take aim

Keeping rat numbers down

I’ve had calls from angling clubs on the local fishing lakes who wanted help controlling rats who were helping themselves to the eggs of nesting duck. I heard that the rats had a liking for the sweetcorn that fishermen were using for bait, so I used heaps of the stuff to lure them out to where I could take clear, safe shots. I quickly dispatched several dozen large rats— mostly by night shooting with a scope-mounted lamp. It is now five or six years since I first visited these fishing lakes, and I only ever see one or two rats there now. I’m pleased to say that not only are the resident duck flourishing, the place is also home to a colony of water voles, which are no doubt thriving as a result of the significant reduction in rat numbers.

garden airgunning

Garden airgunning

Anyone who has a moderate sized garden probably has sufficient space to set up a shooting range for an air rifle, and there is…

Pest control for pheasant shoots

I mostly use my airgun for pest control to help out pheasant shoots.  Firstly to reduce the eggs and chicks of gamebirds that fall to predators. However the wild birds and small mammals nearby also benefit as numbers of rats, corvids and grey squirrels are controlled.

Though there is less risk of pellets straying beyond boundaries when shooting in large expanses of woodland, I still use various ruses to draw my quarry to where I want it. This enables me to incorporate safe backstops when necessary, and also to tempt wily quarry close enough for me to achieve clean kills consistently. Scenarios include using grain to lure rats away from their lairs and decoys to coax crows and magpies within range of my airgun.

Grey squirrel “magnets” usually come ready-made in the shape of pheasant feeders, but they tend to disperse when feeding ceases from late spring. Frustratingly, this coincides with peak nesting season, and the bushy-tails will no doubt switch over to eggs to avoid going hungry. In the absence of the keepers’ offerings, and with the added problem of the screen of dense foliage, I used to struggle to bag decent numbers of squirrels through the summer months — until I came up with a solution.

I was called in to thin out grey squirrels in a wood where the owner fed large amounts of peanuts so he could watch the nuthatches and woodpeckers when they dropped in to feed. However the greys were faster, jumped the queue and ate the nuts before the birds had a chance. The feeders made life easy for me — I just had to sit back and wait for the squirrels to arrive. It occurred to me that I could employ the same set-up on some of my other permissions. Landowners and keepers were quick to give me the nod, so I built some rather rustic feeding stations that not only benefit wild birds but also create “honeypots” for grey squirrels. By feeding them up for three of four days in a row, I can usually expect a steady trickle of greedy squirrels when I come back with my airgun.

grey squirrel

The RWS Z Lang is a suitable round for squirrels and rats

Kill zones

Grey squirrels and rats

The head is the most reliable kill area for an air rifle when you’re aiming at grey squirrels and rats. Take them from the side and aim to land your pellet between the eye and ear. A .22 calibre will also produce clean kills with a strike to the heart and lung area, delivered from the side to strike just behind the shoulder. If a squirrel clings to a tree with its back to you, a shot between the shoulders will strike the heart and lung area.

Magpies

As above, headshots are the best kill area. However magpies can also be despatched with a strike to the chest, or shot from behind, directly between the shoulders, to hit the heart and lung area.