Once the gameshooting season is over, the weather is cold and the woodland canopies are bare, it's the ideal time to get to grips with your grey squirrel population.
There are people who are fond of this tree-dwelling rat with a furry tail. It’s hard to see why, when you think of the damage it causes. The grey squirrel strips bark from trees, steals eggs and young chicks and carries the squirrel pox virus which has decimated the native red squirrel.
The grey squirrel is an inveterate chewer too and no friend to the keeper, causing major damage to hoppers, water pipes and feeding bins. Inside a house they will gnaw on wooden beams, causing structural damage and the protective casing of electrical wires, raising the risk of fire.
Culling grey squirrels is essential.
Catching squirrels at home in their nests (called dreys) is a useful way to reduce squirrel numbers. A squirrel may build several dreys from twigs, lined with moss, grass and bark to create a safe refuge. In winter the drey is often shared for warmth, so if it is disturbed an explosion of squirrels results.
As well as providing education on pest control I use drey poking to judge my gamekeeping students knowledge of shotgun handling and safety. There is no substitute for the unpredictability of a session in the woods, away from the controlled environment of a clayshooting ground.
I’m usually asked why we don’t shoot at a drey, instead of poking it with poles. Well, it’s vital to avoid shooting a non target species and other creatures such as tawny owls may use an unoccupied drey. In addition you need to ensure the animal has been killed cleanly rather than just wounded. Lastly you need to destroy the drey properly to prevent it being used as a grey squirrel refuge in future.
When we set out it was unseasonably warm which meant that our chances of finding many squirrels at home were low. Subzero temperatures and a good fall of snow, which reduces opportunities for foraging on the ground, are more likely to keep the quarry in their nests. Wet and windy days can also be productive.
We started with the usual risk assessment and safety brief. You only need four people to do the job effectively. Two to shoot and two to work the poles. As we were a larger party, setting the ground rules was doubly important. Those doing the shooting were instructed not to fire below an angle of 45°, and to take nothing on the ground.
Quite apart from loaded shotguns, everyone had to be aware of the hazards involved in working with poles, which might be extended as high as 48ft. Steel toe-capped boots and chainsaw helmets, with their built-in visors and ear defenders, were the order of the day for the pole men. A fully extended pole is heavy, and dislodged drey debris is a hazard in itself when you are standing directly underneath and looking up.
Finding the dreys
Mole, my spaniel, was an enthusiastic if imperfect squirrel dog. She ensured that any squirrel on the ground would prefer to be up a tree, but in reality an enthusiastic terrier or similar breed is far better suited to dealing with a wounded squirrel than a soft-mouthed gundog.
We found the first drey quickly, some 40ft up and tucked against the trunk of a tall beech. Positioning our two Guns well to each side of the tree, the pole handlers stationed below the drey and worked out the best approach to it through the branches. The first three poles, each 6ft long and made of aluminium, handled easily enough when slotted together and clipped firmly with their locks engaged, but soon enough the extending pole started to bend and wobble its way higher and higher. The students swiftly established that holding it as upright as possible, and using the tree trunk and branches to guide it towards the drey, helped to keep it straight and moving in the right direction as more sections were added. The team leader was a great help, standing off to one side and giving clear instructions to the pole men, who were largely unsighted when it came to obstructions directly above them.
Before the top of the pole had even touched the base of the drey, a squirrel bolted, running along a horizontal branch towards a neighbouring tree. Both Guns fired and the squirrel fell to the ground, stone dead.
Sometimes, squirrels will sit tight and need a bit of persuading to leave their nests. This is when the head of the pole needs to be worked well into the drey in order to give a little bit of encouragement. The Guns stood by expectantly as the pole men worked the drey, but soon it was apparent that this animal had been alone.
Breaking up the drey
After emptying the drey of squirrels the structure needed to be broken up. Here the T-piece at the head of the pole could be used to hook into the bundle of twigs to drag the drey out of the tree. Like every drey poker before them, the pole men learned soon that it’s best to keep your visor down and your eyes averted.
With the nest cleared, the pole was taken apart and we went in search of the next. The whole operation had taken about 20 minutes.
That morning we took care of more than 20 dreys, most of which were unoccupied, but a number of squirrels were found and killed.
How to trap grey squirrels humanely and legally
“In most of the UK there are only a handful of refuges left for red squirrels,” said Dr Cathleen Thomas,…
There had been none of the excitement you get when multiple animals decide to depart in all directions, but that was not the aim of the exercise. I was pleased to see that gun handling was safe and accurate, that everyone had had a chance to learn how to use the poles and that there had been some first-class teamwork. Just as importantly, we had a satisfied local gamekeeper with one less job to do on top of a busy schedule.
A version of this piece was originally published in Shooting Times in 2014