Why summer is the most important time to control grey squirrels
Mat Manning heads out on a morning stakeout at a time of year when the drive to control grey squirrels often loses momentum
It is easy to let the control of grey squirrels go off the boil through the summer, but taking the pressure off these invasive opportunists at this time of year
can quickly undo previous efforts to keep them in check.
Lapses in squirrel control during the warmer months can usually be attributed to the summer foliage. In the winter and early spring, when the trees were devoid of leaves, it was much easier to spot the bushy-tailed rodents up in their treetop haunts. Sightings serve as reminders that squirrels are present and up to their usual mischief, and that is as much of a push as most of us need to head out with the air rifle or shotgun in a bid to address the problem.
Now that the canopy has greened up, squirrels seem less abundant, but the truth is that they are simply harder to see. Given that they will have had their first litter of the year, and that these litters can comprise as many as seven kittens, the chances are that there are a lot more squirrels around than there were when we were last easily able to observe them.
- What is the best kit for squirrel control? Check out our top picks here
Even for those of us who are motivated to head out and shoot a few squirrels through the summer, those pesky leaves cause further problems by making it almost impossible to get a clear shot, even if we are able to locate our quarry.
The solution is to set up a feeding station in the shape of a hopper loaded with peanuts or cut maize. Grey squirrels are suckers for a free meal, making this a very effective way to draw them down from their leafy hiding places and out to where we can frame them in our sights.
I have several feeding stations up and running at present and they are all receiving attention. It isn’t only squirrels that are turning up to dine, though, and one feeder has had such a hammering from birds that I have fitted a hinged lid to the feed tray in an effort to slow down the disappearance of expensive peanuts.
The weight of the metal lid means it is too heavy for most feathered visitors to lift, while squirrels are still able to flip it up and help themselves to the tasty kernels. The ruse is definitely making the feed last a lot longer but, as I watched a woodpecker cheekily sneaking out a few peanuts as I arrived for my latest ambush, I realised it isn’t 100% effective.
Seeing woodpeckers around my feeders is always a pleasure, though, and I am convinced that the comings and goings of birds attract the attention of inquisitive squirrels. There was no sign of the latter as I made my way towards the hide, and that was good news because I wanted to do a quick bit of maintenance without being spotted.
It isn’t only the trees that have sprung into life over the past month or so. Greenery closer to the ground has also been growing rapidly and some was beginning to swamp my hide. Brambles and bamboo were romping away to such an extent that they were hampering my view to the feeder — not good when you need to place airgun pellets with precision. A couple of minutes’ work with secateurs opened up a sufficient passage through the undergrowth.
I wasn’t too heavy handed with the pruning, as some of the stems gave a welcome extra layer of concealment to my hide. It’s a decision that I will no doubt regret when I attempt to drag the camouflage net from the tangle of brambles later on in the year.
Inside the hide, I placed a beanbag seat on the deck and made myself comfortable, as staking out squirrels can entail a lot of patient waiting. After loading the magazine of my FX Dreamline Classic air rifle with .177 pellets and snapping it back into its retainer, I positioned my Trigger Stick, threading the front leg through the hide netting to create a rock-steady rest for the gun. The last thing you want to do is fluff a shot after spending long hours waiting for it, and the support provided by a tripod makes a huge difference when it comes to holding a steady aim.
The woodpecker was back on the feeder less than five minutes after I had settled in. I soon realised that, rather than trying to lift the lid, it had worked out that it could use its beak to break up peanuts through the holes in the metal surround of the feed tray then winkle out nutty morsels — an impressive bit of problem solving.
If you do decide to set up grey squirrel feeding stations of your own, check with the landowner so see how they would like you to fasten them
to their trees. They probably won’t want you nailing them to trees with significant timber value. Rope is a less invasive option, but squirrels do have a habit of chewing through it.
If you do end up nailing feeders to trees, make sure you remove all of the nails when you take them down. As someone who worked for several years as a chainsaw operator, I know how annoying — and potentially dangerous — it can be to encounter unexpected metalwork when cutting timber.
After a wait of more than an hour, occupied mostly by watching that woodpecker raiding my peanuts, I eventually clocked the silvery-grey flash of a squirrel slipping down the tree trunk towards the feeder. The greedy rodent knew exactly what it was doing and flipped open the lid with ease before grabbing a peanut and clambering on to the top of the hopper to devour it.
The beauty of feeding stations is that they set you up with shots at static targets over a known distance. That was exactly the case in this instance as the squirrel hunched over to nibble the peanut 25m from where I was sitting. With the tripod taking the weight of the gun and ironing out irritating wobbles, the crosshairs settled on the rodent’s head. I touched off the trigger and squirrel number one flopped on to the deck.
Another long wait resulted in a second squirrel, which turned out to be the last of the morning. A total bag of two is meagre compared with tallies of 10 or more when I first started shooting this feeder, but dwindling returns show that squirrel numbers are down and are staying down, and that’s the important thing.
Both those squirrels were destined for the pot. Squirrel meat is surprisingly good to eat — better than rabbit, in my opinion (check out this delicious recipe that makes the best use of squirrel here. The only downside is that there is not a lot of meat on a squirrel, but I certainly think it is worth making the effort, rather than letting it go to waste.
I rounded off my outing by refilling the feeder with peanuts. Keeping grey squirrels in check is an ongoing job and more of the destructive rodents will doubtless home in on my offerings. It won’t be long before I am back in my hide, waiting to show them that there is no such thing as a free lunch