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Gamekeeper Mike Appleby discusses how he tackles squirrel control

Paul Quagliana talks to gamekeeper Mike Appleby about how he takes on the onerous task of reducing the burgeoning non-native squirrel population of our isles

grey squirrel

Highly adaptable and prolific, grey squirrels require a degree of control

I grew up in rural north-west England and recall with great fondness sitting and observing red squirrels playing outside our house and gazing at them through the patio windows. Around the mid ’80s a grey appeared in the garden. Needless to say, it didn’t last long. However, that was the last time we ever saw a red squirrel. As the tide of greys advanced, the reds seemed to evaporate. Greys are now firmly established and cause damage to forestry, native wildlife and shooting interests.

These days I work part-time on a trawler and recently I watched many migrating songbirds passing us at sea and in some cases landing on the boat exhausted, or even sitting in the wheelhouse. They seem to lose their fear of humans in such circumstances; I even had one perching on my hand. Watching them valiantly battling their way through the teeth of a north-westerly across the Channel to England left me with a tinge of sadness. How many of these delicate creatures, having survived the perilous journey, will lose their eggs or fledglings to grey squirrels? 


Grey squirrel – prolific and adaptable

As with any non-native creature, it is not the grey squirrel’s fault that it was introduced by humans to the UK. They have become a prolific and highly adaptable creature in the British Isles and while appreciated by some, they are a creature that requires control. The UK population of greys is estimated to be nearing three million. Foxes, weasels, stoats, cats and rats can all climb to varying degrees but the grey squirrel can reach the parts other predators cannot reach. Few songbird nests are safe if the squirrel decides the eggs or fledglings are on the menu.

red squirrel

As the greys advance the red squirrel has become much rarer

Mike Appleby, who is gamekeeper for and runs the Honeycombe shoot in Dorset with underkeeper James Rock, has developed an efficient system for dealing with the greys in the form of targeted cage trapping. Mike buys his cage traps from a company near Bridport and runs 100 of them at a time. The laws on trapping in the UK have changed and Mike feels that using live catching traps is a good avenue to pursue. He says that any trapping is labour intensive but by placing cage traps in localised areas the labour can be reduced. 

He uses a method he refers to as ‘pulse trapping’. In one area, where squirrels are deemed to be present, he places the cage traps and holds the doors open with wire. He uses wire as squirrels may chew through string or cable ties. The cages are baited with grain and the squirrels can enter and leave as they please, thus building confidence. In a second area that is next to be trapped, Mike simply places dummy metal mesh ‘tunnels’, again baited with grain that look a bit like the real traps. This allows the squirrels to get used to the presence of the mesh and traps. The dummy tunnels are placed where the real traps will go.

After a couple of weeks of feeding the squirrels in the first area selected, the wire that holds the doors of the cage traps open is removed and the work of catching and despatching the squirrels begins. As catches drop off it is an idea to invite an air rifle enthusiast to sit out near the traps to pick off any remaining squirrels. (Read here for our advice on the 10 top tips for productive air rifle squirrel control). 

Mike Appleby puts his traps near the pheasant feeders and stores



The traps are then moved to a second area, the dummy mesh tunnels to a third location and the process repeated; essentially you are leapfrogging the traps from one place to the next. As the squirrels at the second location have grown familiar with the dummy mesh tunnels and the feed provided, the cage traps can be used straight away. There is no need to wire the doors open and allow for a period of familiarisation. Mike says that squirrels are less savvy than rats and they enter traps more readily. He recommends experimenting to see how many days you need for the squirrels to lose any fear of the traps. 

Mike feeds his birds throughout the year but there will be less feed around in February and March than after birds have been released, so feeding an area for squirrels may still take time to condense them there until they know a regular food supply exists.

Wherever you are feeding pheasants is a good site for traps

There are alternative traps on the market but Mike has had mixed results with them, so he sticks to the cages. As with other traps, they must be checked at least every 24 hours. For cage trapping to be successful you cannot do it piecemeal. If you have several woods on your ground, target one wood and when catches drop off, move on to the next wood. It is effective when used in a concentrated fashion and will save you time if the traps are in one location.

Mike has several thousand acres on his hands, so planning the trapping programme to maximise time for him and James is essential, especially when using 100 traps. There are also ongoing forestry operations on his ground, and squirrel control is very much part of this.


Mike’s top tips for squirrel control

  • Cage traps can come in a galvanised form or ready-painted in green. Mike prefers the green ones as they are less obvious
  • Make sure that traps are pegged down or held in place by logs or stones
  • If you have mink on your ground then the squirrel traps will work equally well for these predators
  • Avoid placing traps near public rights of way; camouflaging traps is advisable
  • When siting the trap under a tree disturb some soil or leaves in front of it as squirrels will investigate this
  • Wear a thick glove when handling the trap with a live squirrel in it. It may protect your hands, even when using the handle on the trap a squirrel may be in reach of a bite or scratch. Also, rats may have been present and urinated on the trap, which can cause disease
  • Squirrels carry ticks and fleas, so watch out for them
  • Place a stick upright in the entrance, which will help to deter hedgehogs from entering
  • Store traps in a dry place and in the unset position when not in use
  • You may be able to take your squirrels to a local butcher, while the tails are popular with fly tiers


Squirrel issues

Mike says: “Squirrels are an issue on three fronts: they damage forestry, they predate native wildlife and they are an endless source of issues on any shoot. Chewing through feed hoppers is the main concern. While February and March are a good time to get to grips with any predators, before wildlife starts breeding, squirrels can be controlled throughout the year if you have the time. (Read here for why summer is a crucial time for squirrel control). 

“A good spot to site traps is wherever you are feeding pheasants, particularly if using hoppers, as squirrels will be drawn to these. Another place to site a squirrel cage trap is at the base of large oak trees, particularly if they have thick ivy on them as squirrels will seek to shelter in this. Squirrels can have two litters per year with up to five young in each litter, so it doesn’t take long for them to repopulate an area.”

Keeping grey squirrel numbers down is one of the many pressing jobs of being a keeper. Drey poking is also an effective way of thinning their numbers. Mike says: “When you are doing your rounds make a mental note of any dreys you see and organise a day drey poking with your friends. Competition to spot dreys before your fellows can be as much fun as the drey poking itself.”


Grey squirrels can cause a considerable amount of tree damage