Woodland squirrel control
Richard Saunders slips into stealth mode to stalk some woodland squirrels, with one leading him in a merry dance around a tree
Few would deny that ambushing squirrels on a peanut feeder is the best tactic for controlling the grey pests. But let’s be honest, it’s often a test of patience rather than hunting prowess and few things beat the challenge of stalking grey squirrels in the woods.
One of my permissions gives me the opportunity to do both. The 70-hectare wood in south Buckinghamshire is part of a much larger estate for which lumber is a vital source of income. And by stripping wood from the trees, the squirrels cost the landowner thousands of pounds a year.
I’m part of a small team of rangers tasked with keeping the population down.
After several years we’d just about got on top of the grey problem. Then the pandemic hit, and the woods were closed for the best part of a year, allowing the squirrels to re-establish themselves.
Having set up a network of feeders, I keep them topped up all year round and shoot them on rotation. I can drive to most of them, but when I fancy a challenge I’ll go into the woods on foot to stalk a few.
I’d bought a second-hand AGT Vixen, scratching a long-term itch. It’s the long-barrelled version in .22 calibre and FAC-rated at 30 ft-lb. The combination of the CZ barrel and JSB Hades pellets makes it stunningly accurate and at only 2.3kg and 770mm, it’s ideal for stalking the woodland. (Don’t miss our picks for the best airgun pellets). The compact MTC Optics Cobra F1 4-16×50 scope on top suits the rifle perfectly and is held on with Sportsmatch mounts. (Check out the best scopes for best control).
Stalking in the sunshine
Recent warm weather lessened the appeal of a hide, so I planned an early morning arrival with the intention of stalking through the woods to my feeder rather than driving to it.
For once I timed my arrival perfectly, just as the sun was starting to show. After packing a few essentials into a rucksack, I set off. Although there was no noise from any traffic, planes or even dogs, the woods were far from silent, and the air was full of early morning bird song interspersed by a screaming pheasant and the occasional bark from a muntjac deer.
As I left the track and went into the woods, my steps seemed deafeningly loud and despite my most stealthy efforts, it felt like every creature was watching me.
However, as I got further in, I reached a section of woods in which pine trees dominated. The needles lay thick on the ground and the overhead canopy made everything a little gloomier, leaving me padding around in the murky atmosphere. The sun was determined though, and as it rose in the sky my eyes were distracted by the dappled light that broke through and danced on the floor, not to mention the countless flying insects and falling leaves.
As a managed plantation, the trees are planted in long lines, which thankfully makes scanning the woodland floor a lot easier with long lines of sight. It works both ways, of course, so I took my time, keeping to whatever shade I could find and stopping every few paces to simply stand still, look and listen.
I saw the first squirrel after maybe 40 minutes as it scampered across the floor. Thanks to the regimental tree layout, I spotted it from 60 or 70m away. Initially it was just a grey flash, but with my thermal spotter I was able to both confirm the rodent’s identity and pinpoint its position.
Stepping into the adjacent avenue of trees, I bent down low and began to make my way towards my target, checking every third or fourth tree to look through the thermal to see if my target was still there. After 20 or so metres I could finally see it with my naked eye. Ironically it was only a few feet from one of my feeders, but still on the floor.
I kept edging forward, anxious that it would either spot me or simply move off. However, at last I closed to an estimated 30m. Although I’d zeroed the Vixen at that distance, I knew from my time on the range it was flat between 20 and 40m so I could afford to be a little off in my calculation.
The greedy little bushy-tailed rodent was still preoccupied with some peanuts that had evidently fallen from the feeder as I leaned against a tree for support and tracked its movement through the Cobra F1. A second or two later it found something to nibble on and sat on its haunches, providing a perfect side-on shot.
The Vixen cracked in the stillness of the woods, causing unseen pigeons overhead to explode from the trees, and the squirrel toppled over.
The hunt is afoot
With my quarry tucked away in my backpack, I cycled the Vixen’s sidelever and applied the safety catch before resuming my snail pace progress through the woods. After another half an hour of creeping about, I saw another squirrel, once again on the floor.
This time he saw me too and after scampering along the ground for a few metres, disappeared up a tree and into the thick pinewood canopy. Suitably reminded of my failings as a stalker, I carried on.
I’d made it to the edge of the pine plantation and just as I stepped into the clearing of another of the rides, I saw another squirrel shin up a tree. I knew it was no more than 20 metres or so above, no doubt lying flat against a branch watching me. I couldn’t spot it though, even with the thermal.
Movement is always the biggest giveaway of any aspiring hunter, so I abandoned all pretence of being stealthy and stomped around the tree, hoping to trigger a response from the squirrel. It worked after a few seconds as I spotted a grey flash moving further up the main trunk.
Knowing that a game of cat and mouse in which we chased each other around the tree could take forever, I slipped my rucksack off and threw it to the other side of the tree. It rolled amongst the dry leaves and twigs and, as I hoped, the squirrel, thinking the bag was me, scrambled around the tree again, this time to my side.
I was waiting though, and dropped it with a standing shot from about 18 metres. The rodent clung on to the branch for a few seconds before crashing to the floor, dead.
Shortly after that I arrived at my hide, and although I claimed another six squirrels that day, none were as satisfying or absorbing as the two I’d stalked.