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Airgunning in the cold

Cold weather is no excuse for mothballing your airgun until the first warming rays of spring sunshine peep through the clouds. In fact, it’s an excellent reason for wrapping yourself up against the elements and taking advantage of the pest control opportunities that often arise when the temperature plunges.

There’s no denying that stalking rabbits on summer evenings and decoying woodpigeon over sun-ripened crops is enjoyable, but many of the airgunner’s most profi table opportunities occur when conditions are less clement. Extreme weather tends to force pest species such as rats and grey squirrels into tighter concentrations as they seek out precious food and shelter — find your target species’ favourite winter haunts and you’re likely to encounter them in numbers.

However, if you’re going to wait in ambush in freezing temperatures you’ll certainly want it to be worth your while, so it’s vital to set up in the right place. Fortunately, most airgun quarry species are easier to track down in wintery conditions, and I think it’s the best time of all for controlling grey squirrels — especially if your patch happens to be managed for pheasants.

Last year there was a tremendous crop of fruit, nuts and berries, but nature’s larder is running lower now. Squirrels will have munched their way through most of the reserves they stored during the autumn glut, and even if they do still have a few stashes left, it’s difficult to root them out when the ground is covered in snow or frozen solid. It’s at times like these that grey squirrels hit the pheasant feeders — and hit them hard. Furthermore, with fewer feeders being topped up since the season drew to a close, you shouldn’t struggle to find the squirrels’ favourite dining places.

Squirrels are most active at dawn and dusk, and especially so during the short days of winter. Set up within range of a feeder just before dawn and you can expect to encounter a procession of squirrels out to steal an easy breakfast at
first light. There will be another flurry of activity just before dusk as the rodents creep back to stoke up ready for the night ahead. Sit it out until nightfall and you’ll probably see a few rats too.

Grain-robbing squirrels can become bold so you rarely need to build a hide. Wrap yourself in a cocoon of warm, camouflage clothing and keep still — squirrels will soon come scuttling down to feast, offering the chance of some serious sub-zero pest control.

Wrap up warm

With the right kit, cold weather shooting need not be an uncomfortable chore for the airgunner. While I’m not the biggest fan of rain-lashed hunting trips, which, so far, have been the story of this winter, I relish the chance to venture out in freezing conditions. It’s better still if there’s snow on the ground — there are few things I enjoy more than hunting in a snowy landscape.

The best way for an airgunner to keep warm during cold weather is to stay on the move. Yomping through snow that’s just a couple of inches deep is strenuous work, so you’ll create plenty of body heat as you trek around your grounds. But it’s difficult to move with much stealth when you have to tramp through snow. Add freezing temperatures to the equation and you can expect even the lightest of footfalls to create a noisy crunch.

The limited power of airguns means you need to hunt at relatively close range — even when I’m using an FAC-rated air rifle, I prefer to get within 40m if I can. Closing in on wary quarry is tricky at the best of times, and can seem almost impossible when every footstep hits the ground with a “whump”. With that in mind, I tend to give up on stalking if the ground is covered in snow or encrusted in a hard frost. Wrapping up warm and sitting it out tends to give better results.

My winter hunting attire always includes an extra pair of thick socks to keep my feet toasty. My first choice of trousers is the quilted kind, which provide great insulation against sneaky winter winds. A long-sleeved vest helps to prevent body heat from being lost, and I’ll usually put a long-sleeved shirt, jumper and fleece over that before donning my outer jacket. This combination of layers has yet to let me down, and it’s easy enough to remove the fleece if I get too hot.

A hat is an absolute essential in extreme cold, and I keep my bonce snug with a fleece cap that has a peak that helps to keep my face hidden from prying eyes. I also wear a fleece neck snood to stop chilly draughts creeping down my collar, and it can be pulled up over my nose to provide further concealment.

Gloves are another vital garment and will prevent you from getting caught out with your hands in your pockets when the cold starts to bite. I prefer a pair with fold-back fingers, so I don’t have to fumble with tasks such as reloading and can feel the trigger properly when taking a shot.

Sitting comfortably

One of the handiest accessories to take on a cold weather stakeout is a beanbag seat. These lightweight seats are stuffed with the same balls that are used to insulate cavity walls, and they do an equally good job of stopping the cold from getting through to your backside when you’re sitting it out.

While some shooters would rather be curled up in front of the fire when the outside temperature dips below zero, it’s important to remember that most airgunners have a job to do. By and large, we secure our shooting permissions by offering a pest control service to farmers and gamekeepers. The arrangement should be mutually beneficial: we get a place to enjoy our sport and our host receives some welcome help with the ongoing effort to keep pests in check.

However, this agreement means we need to toe the line and show willing whatever the weather. It’s easy to fall for the creature comforts of home when it’s cold or wet outside, but don’t expect your host to be sympathetic. They probably don’t have the luxury of being able to pick and choose when they do their outdoor work and are likely to expect you to show the same commitment to your duties around the farm, fields or woods. Allow your pest control rounds to slip and you can rest assured that some other keen shooter eager to secure a new permission will jump in there.