Since its introduction the Grey Squirrel has done very well in the UK and easily outnumbers the native Red Squirrel which finds itself limited to pockets of land across the UK.
Although, I’m pleased to report that following a number of well-considered initiatives the numbers of Reds and their habitat is increasing steadily; great news for the smaller and tufty-eared cousin!
It is true that the Grey can cause damage to trees and consume substantial amounts of nuts which, in turn, deprive other animals; not just Reds so a balance needs to be struck.
From time to time I am asked to reduce the numbers of Grey Squirrels on specific land; this is usually because their numbers have steadily increased and landowners are seeing them in, what they perceive to be, large numbers.
From an early age I learnt to efficiently despatch Squirrels with Air Rifles and as finances allowed I upgraded to a Pre-charged Pneumatic rifle (PCP).
The Air rifle is the perfect tool for despatching Squirrels with plenty of power to ensure a humane kill.
My rifle of choice then remains my rifle of choice today; I chose wisely I think is the expression. I can recall, with fondness, the adverts in the Shooting magazines which were full of plaudits for the, then, new kid on the block; the Theoben Rapid 7; a revolution in Air rifle terms. The quirky looking, full power rifle had a bolt action and a magazine, it was like a REAL rifle; it sold in thousands and quickly built a reputation for itself! Being aimed at the sporter market, the rifle was designed for function in real-world conditions.
In the ensuing years there have been many rifles that meet and perhaps exceed the original criteria but the Theoben has retained a loyal following and some die-hard fans. I don’t quite fit into those categories but I do appreciate what that rifle and I have shared over the years and I definitely appreciate how robust and reliable it has been.
We have spent many hours in the woods waiting for the Pigeons to roost after a day of them feeding on the adjacent crops. We have spent time ridding Grain barns of Feral Pigeons and, of course, reducing the Rabbit population too. The Air rifle is a flexible tool that lends itself to controlling many of the smaller species when engaged at sensible ranges. It is inexpensive to live with too; with pellets generally less than 3p each the savings are soon realised over any powder burning cartridge! They can be safer as well but that is really another subject; suffice to say that there are times when even the smallest rimfire is just too much and this is where the Air rifle fits in nicely.
This particular calling was to a local Golf Club that had Greys in abundance; they were doing lots of digging and constantly wrecking the bird feeders which the club put out to help and encourage and sustain the wild birds. The task was not to eradicate the population rather a reduction programme. Timing is everything; these animals are more active an hour or two after sun-up in the morning and the reverse of that in the evening. They are definitely active throughout the day but the greater appearances are at either end of the day. Golf clubs rarely close during the day but some liaison with the Head Greenkeeper got me there on one of their scheduled maintenance periods which is preferable to the bad weather days when the course is forced to shut down and I end up either drenched or bitter cold and sometimes both! The first foray was an early evening; I managed to get away from my real job (the one that pays the bills) and arrived around 4.30pm. The weather was awful; a very fine rain that was relentless but it didn’t hamper the proceedings as the moment I walked onto the course I spotted two Greys! I checked that there was no one on the course and made a bee-line to them. First shot within two minutes of arrival and I had one sorted; a relatively simple operation as they are used to seeing people and he took little notice when I closed the range down to about 35m, checked for backstop, pushed the safety forward and squeezed the trigger. The pellet found its mark and dropped the Squirrel on the spot.
The second was a bit more tricky as he really didn’t want to sit still but I was patient and took the proper opportunity when it arose. Number two sorted! The third one was a different challenge; he was up the trunk of a tree and froze as I approached; a typical tactic of the Grey as they wait to see if you have spotted them. I had spotted him and lined up for a prone shot off the bipod at a rather stretchy 47m; allowing for drop and a bit of windage I sent the Bisley Magnum pellet and watched the Squirrel release his grip and drop to the floor, stone dead. Three more shots resulted in a further three Squirrels but with the light fading and the weather getting worse I packed up my gear and settled for six that evening.
The weather had cleared the following morning so I headed out again, arriving around 8am and activity was already visible; two greys were darting around and then one started digging up one of the greens to bury a nut I assume; he became Target Alpha! I moved several paces right and put a tree with a thick girth between him and I and set off to close the range knowing he wouldn’t be able to see me; I kept vigilant and made swift progress. I stopped at the tree I used to obscure his view and dropped to prone and set the rifle on the bipod. I hadn’t even had chance to have a test fire of the rifle and experience has taught me that my rifle shoots the first pellet a little high only, say 6 or 7mm high at 40m but it is enough to miss a head shot on a Squirrel. Taking this into account I aimed slightly low and made an allowance of 20mm for wind which was coming in from 3 o’clock. I steadied aim and let fly. The calculations were accurate with the pellet hitting squarely between the ear and eye whilst the Grey was in a full broadside position.
The next three were very straightforward but by 9.30am I was seeing no further activity and went to work. I returned at around 5pm that evening to immediate activity so, again, without chance for a warm up I got into position and took 2 more in about 30 seconds at fairly close range, around 25m. Another one fell to the Theoben around 1 hour later but I saved (by happenstance) the best one until last. This particular chap was busy, busy running from tree to tree and darting around in, seemingly, no order! He seemed agitated with lots of tail flicking which made me wonder whether I’d been rumbled. As soon as I broke cover he shot up a tree and positioned himself on the intersection of a branch and the trunk and sat very still. I couldn’t move as he would, undoubtedly, dash around the back of the tree but I couldn’t shoot him where he was as I had no clear line of sight due to leaves obscuring. I inched left and right trying to find a route through but nothing! These Greys are very patient and will happily wait for 30mins or more before deciding to move; with the light fading I thought he may get the better of me but I held on long enough for him to move along the branch and with a bit of manoeuvring I was able to get a trajectory to him. He was about 12 to 15ft up the tree and the wind was waving the leaves all around him so I knew I would have to hold off target and allow the wind to drift my projectile onto the target. I settled the crosshairs a full head width off the centre of the head and knocked off the safety. A quick check for run-off and then a squeeze of the trigger; he was hit exactly where I needed and dropped to the ground, dead.
I gathered my gear and counted up my bag. Over the three short’ish outings I managed to reduce the population by 14 which will make a big difference to the damage levels at the club and, coming into winter, will aid the wild birds by ensuring the food put out for them will remain theirs.
I always enjoy being out in the countryside and when there’s a purpose for my being there it is even more rewarding. It was great to get the Air Rifle out and remind myself of what a challenge air rifle shooting can be. As I said at the beginning of this article, Squirrels are difficult to control humanely but with practice, patience and a good set up the job can be done very effectively. I would urge you to get your air rifle dusted off and go and shoot it and enjoy owning one once more. Kevin Harper