Squirrels and Jackdaws: A Return From Lockdown

During the first phase of ‘Lockdown’ I missed my patrols around the naturalists paradise that is my shooting permission. A mixture of woodland, arable land and livestock farming.

The first sensory delight to greet me on my return to the wood was ‘the orchestra’. I stepped into the ride beneath a verdant canopy illuminated with diagonal shafts of light on this hot May morning. A host of invertebrates laid down the string section, a subtle and constant hum. The warm breeze washing through the treetops provided the woodwind, literally. At the far side of the copse, a drummer added its staccato beat to the symphony. Dendrocopos major, the great spotted woodpecker. As I passed along the ride I picked up the choral section. The unmistakable song of a robin. A loud chorus from Troglodytes somewhere within the under-storey. How does the wren vocalise so forcefully from such a tiny body? The maestro’s performance was suddenly interrupted by ugly and familiar sounds and I backed into the shade of a tree trunk while a magpie passed by. Both robin and wren ceased their harmony and their calls turned to their similar ‘chit, chit, chit’ alarm notes. Both songsters had every right to feel fear. There is rarely a more rapacious creature than a magpie searching for songbird nests. The avian stoat, relentless in its task. That raucous cackle designed to strike fear and send prey species into alert mode. Alas, the tiny wren circling its nest in defence, often exposes its nesting location to the marauder. I held my vigil for a while but despite the noise and proximity, I didn’t even get a glimpse of the corvid … let alone a chance to eliminate the threat.

The magpies passing restored order to the wood and I started to explore. Despite a lifetime of studying bird, beast, tree, or insect, I have always struggled to memorise any but the most common of wildflowers or butterflies. Seven weeks in lockdown have been a chance to study and learn. My ‘exercise’ walks saw me trying to put that learning into practice. Photographing unknown species and identifying them back at home. Which added another dimension to today’s walkabout. Observing the myriad variety of flora.

Walking the first few rides revealed the exclusivity I enjoy here. Though my purpose here was specific, it would have been a travesty (in current circumstances) not to take the time to explore the minutiae of an English wood on the cusp of summer. The sylvan matrix of gossamer crisscrossing the path at head height proved that no other human had walked this trail today. At ground level, however, there had been all sorts of activity. The tarry, loose stools, and snuffle-diggings along the sward told of Brocks nocturnal passage. Some would be pleased with such a revelation. Not so this old-fashioned conservationist, trying to protect amber and red-listed ground-nesting species. The badger is an iconic British mammal and I wouldn’t want to see it disappear from our island. That they spread bovine tuberculosis is without argument. That they have contributed to the massive decline in hedgehog numbers is without argument. That they hoover-up eggs and chicks without compunction is proven. That they are so ‘over-protected” now makes a mockery of sensible conservation.

Though my primary purpose today was (at the request of the landowner) grey squirrel control, I had half an eye out for fox sign too. Not that I was carrying a gun capable of despatching a fox. I was aware that I’d probably missed the best time of year for bringing Charlie to book. For the second year running events have conspired against the Spring vermin controller. Last year the menace was Wild Justice, this year it was Covid-19. The latter threat will eventually pass. The former will mutate and re-emerge constantly. And yes … I did get that in the right order!

The first cull is always the hardest for me, on any sortie. Simply because I find no great enjoyment in the death of any wild creature. I love the hunt, the stalk, the tracking, the sign-following, the ‘getting as close as I can’. For me, matching my capability against my quarry’s is the test. When I get to the point where I’ve won and that wild eye is in the scope, I have to steel myself. For to falter is to fail and your quarry deserves that you succeed. The grey squirrel that I’d heard scrabble from emerging fern to tree trunk was hardly a ‘stalk’ but recognition of sound is an important factor in up-close and personal hunting. Squatting, alert, atop a bough is such a familiar presentation by Sciurus carolinensis. A single pellet just between ear and eye does the job. I moved on feeling much more ‘in the zone’. Not for me the feeder baited with peanuts (which simply serves as a magnet for every ‘squidge’ in Christendom to visit your land). No, I prefer to give my quarry fair law. The hunt should be the challenge, not wanton slaughter of feeding critters. The term ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ comes to mind.

Rat, squirrel, rabbit, hare, fox, or deer. Jay, jackdaw, magpie, rook, or crow. If you have permission to shoot over land and have been asked by a landowner to control any unwelcome species, you have a duty to respond. Yet only if it is within the law and within your own conscience. Don’t ever feel pressured to disregard the law of the land, at risk of losing your shooting certificates. One of the most damning reports to come out of the lockdown period has been the alleged rise in illegal raptor killings. Not just by shooting but also trapping and poisoning. The RSPB put this down to gamekeepers taking advantage of the lack of foot traffic across estates and managed land. Which seems a bit contrary to the vast amount of main-stream media and social media reports of the (well documented) migration of urban ramblers to the countryside? There is no smoke, however, without fire. There are still delinquents within our community who either by command or their own design think that ‘raptorcide’ is necessary to protect game-bird poults. Do these fools not realise that the more they undermine our credibility, the shorter their own career path will be? The day I can’t walk my patch and see the buzzard soaring or the kestrel hovering will be the day I give up shooting.

Calamity is rarely a word I would associate with a Norfolk wood but that’s what happened next. My ears are always tuned to my environment and what distinguishes the real hunter is the ability to filter out the ‘noise’ and recognise the abnormal. The plaintive distress calls of a nuthatch drew me off my path. The bird was circulating a trunk, obviously the nesting tree. I struggled to see where the nest hole was but the emergence of a jackdaw, pink hatchling in its beak, confirmed I was on the wrong side of the tree. While the jake took its prize home to its own nest, I changed position. With the nest hole in sight, I looked for the most important aspect to help this threatened family. The jackdaw is a furtive bird. It plans its burglary with the same stealth as its corvid cousin, the magpie. I knew the jake wouldn’t just flash back in and pluck another nuthatch chick. It would land somewhere close, survey the hole again for a while, then fly in to plunder. I got that landing point wrong on the first time the marauder returned. Another chick lost. I got it right the second time, the raider falling to a .22 pellet. I hoped there were still some nuthatch chicks in the hole. I watched the hole from a distance for some time but decided a tactical retreat would better encourage the return of the parents.

The squirrels kept me busy for the morning but I sometimes feel like King Canute trying to turn back the tide. This is one pest species that is determined to prove that Nature abhors a vacuum. Another reason not to encourage them with feeding points. Yet do you know what? At least they had given me a good excuse for a return to the woods.

Stay alert and stay safe.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2020