Annoyed by thieving grey squirrels, rats and corvids robbing nests of eggs? Time to get out the airgun and wait says Mat Manning

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 numerous occasions.

Discretion is the word

A modern, pre-charged air rifle is a quiet tool when fitted with a good-quality moderator. This allows usefully silent vermin control — just the thing if you need to deal with a grey squirrel or an inquisitive pair of magpies without your neighbours cottoning on.

Safety first

Remember that you’ll be breaking the law if a pellet strays beyond your boundary. So take extra care when shooting in a confined area such as a garden. 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.

Sometimes it’s not so simple — perhaps the garden only has hedging or flimsy panel fencing for boundaries. In this situation, I’ll either 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.

Getting your quarry to settle in the right place

Finding or setting up a suitable backstop is only half the battle. Getting your quarry in front of it so that you can set up a successful shot is a lot more difficult. For squirrels and rats, try putting a handful of peanut or birdseed in front of the backstop. Magpies are a bit more fussy. They tend to 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.

pest control with an airgun

“I have halted nest-robbing antics of hundreds of marauding rodents and corvids”

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.

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.

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.

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.