Tuesday 20 November 2007

Squirrel shooting tactics

With the leaves falling fast, it's realistic to go after squirrels again – and that's what I did with my daughter Emma last weekend. That's her pictured, with a couple of greys, and a couple of long-eared non-squirrels that we kicked out of the brambles. She was shooting a 20-bore Beretta Silver Pigeon, with 25g Lyalvale Express 7s from justcartridges.com.

When I was her age, I used to spend hours hunting squirrels with my airgun. It's tricky, because they're skilful at hiding in even the barest-looking tree. But there are some tricks you can use to improve your chances. Going squirrel shooting with Emma reminded me of some of the lessons I learned long ago. Here's a few notes – feel free to add any tips of your own in the 'comments' section at the foot of this post.

• Every squirrel has a 'home' tree where it feels safe – most likely because it lives there, in a drey or a hole in the trunk. If you surprise it when it's out feeding, it will make a mad dash for its home tree. That gives you a chance to spot it, because they are very difficult to see until they move. Which is why it can sometimes pay off to move quickly, even noisily, through a wood when you're after squirrels.

• When you spot one making a dash through the trees, your best chance is to overtake it, and get between the squirrel and the tree it's making for. If it once makes its home tree, it stands a good chance of evading you completely. Since the squirrel has to move through the branches, while you are on the ground, this is often possible – but don't run with a loaded gun, and watch out for ditches, bramble bushes, rabbit holes etc.

• If you manage to overtake the squirrel, turn to face it; with luck it will stop and hide as best it can. If you're even more lucky, you may have stopped it on a tall spindly tree with no big branches to hide behind. If you're not so lucky, it may be a thick, tangled old oak with dozens of Vs for the squirrel to hide in. They are very good at hiding, choosing a V that shields them from almost all directions and flattening their body tight against the trunk.

• Legend has it that you can hang your coat on a bush, then walk round the other side of the squirrel's tree – and catch him by surprise while he hides from your coat. Well, I haven't met a squirrel that stupid. They hear you scrunching round the tree, and sidle round to keep out of sight.

• So what can you do? Well, it's a lot easier if there are two of you. Last weekend I acted as spotter, using a pair of binoculars to scan the likely places (in or just above a main V, although occasionally a squirrel will 'reach for the sky', and head up the furthest, thinnest branch available – more likely in fir trees, or trees with some leaf still on the branches). You're not looking for a whole squirrel, just a tell-tale wisp of furry tail, or a patch of grey fur. Then it's a question of bringing the gun into position as quietly as possible, pointing out the squirrel's location, and selecting an angle that allows the shot to hit a vital spot for a clean kill.

• And if you're on your own? Then your options are more limited. I usually start by moving around the tree slowly, and as silently as possible, scanning the branches all the time. Sometimes you'll spot a movement, or see a head peeping round as the squirrel tries to assess the threat. Other times you may just see a flick of tail. If you see nothing on the first circuit, move farther away from the tree and make another circuit. This lets you look into the Vs from a different angle.

• If that fails, there are two possible methods: either wait it out until the squirrel thinks you've got bored and wandered off (which could be a long time), or try lobbing a few stones or sticks into the tree in the hope of breaking its nerve so it makes a run for it. If you're well prepared (I wasn't!), you'll have a catapult and a few small stones in your pocket for this job – also good for rattling the dreys to see if any squirrels are at home.

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