Driving slowly along the concrete drive into my main shooting permission this morning, I felt like the prodigal son returned. A grey squirrel scampered from the grass margin and sprinted along the track in front of the motor. It’s presence annoyed me, sullying my reputation as ‘the squirrel man’ on this land. Yet I didn’t accelerate. A squashed squirrel isn’t a hunted squirrel. Nor does it have any culinary value. I drove through the farmyard to park among the woodsheds.
Stepping from the motor, I stood for a while to test the breeze direction and get my bearings. A worthwhile exercise as the contours of this estate (on a plateau above the Wensum valley) defies the weather apps on my mobile or PC. I got back into the car and manoeuvred it to face West. A simple safety protocol. My way of indicating to the estate staff where I would be shooting today. As always, stalking against the wind where possible.
The word ‘prodigal’ is perhaps harsh on myself. I had simply taken a well earned holiday with my family. Hutton-le-Hole, on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, is a village that everyone should put on their ‘bucket list’. Nestled in a valley on the edge of the Moors it makes an ideal base for exploring both the moorland and coast.
As always, guns were banned but the fishing rods were allowed. On the day we arrived at the Barn Hotel (run by my wife’s brother and sister-in-law) guests were returning from Whitby with horror stories of traffic jams and packed streets. This was confirmed by the laundry driver who told us it had taken him over three hours in Whitby to do seven drops. With the C-word high on our minds and much of the North West already put on ‘sanctions, we decided to avoid both Whitby and Scarborough for the duration. So mackerel from the piers was out but I got to enjoy some time on the River Esk with my Tenkara rod and kebari flies. I didn’t even get a bite, more due to wind conditions than a lack of brownies but as we all know the fun is in trying. When you are flicking flies into pools and runs, you are hunting and all the troubles of the world dissolve behind a curtain of concentration. A few stretches along the Esk offer free fishing. Tenkara fishing (a simple traditional Japanese fly-fishing system) is frowned on by many purists. Much like the shooting of foxes with a .22LR (more on that lately). But I’m nothing if not a fieldsports renegade at times. The walking, as always, was superb and the weather kind to us. For the first time in Yorkshire, I was disappointed by the lack of wildlife but acutely jealous of the burgeoning rabbit population I saw on the lower margins of the moors.
Rabbits, sadly, weren’t on today’s agenda. Every time there has been a hint of a potential resurgence on my permissions, hopes have been dashed by their disappearance again. The ravages of RHD are still blighting this corner of Norfolk. Luckily for the fox and buzzard, wild pheasants are rife and there will never be a shortage of squirrels, voles, mice, and rats among these woods and farms, It was good to be back on home turf with a rifle slung over my shoulder.
Unusually for me, as I passed the gate to the small derelict chapel and graveyard, I decided to call in and see if the peacock chicks were about. Standing looking between the tombstones I caught a flash of rufus fur in some long grass. There were no chicks about but I could see a grey squirrel delving in the turf close by. As the stoat lifted its head I had the crosshairs trained on it in a second and the Eley .22 sub hit with a dull thump. As I cycled the bolt the grey squirrel leaped up onto a gravestone, totally unaware that it had been the target of the little mustelid. However, it wasn’t the squirrel’s lucky day. Secure in the backstop of the flint wall surrounding the graveyard, a second subsonic cartridge left the rifle and found it’s target. Two critters and two shots in five seconds. A rifle- shooters equivalent of a ‘left and right’. A good start to the patrol.
Mid-September is a busy time for Sciurus carolinensis, the grey squirrel. The canopy today was bustling with activity, the squirrels harvesting acorns and hazel cobs. I used to spend much time trying to pick out their shapes among the colour-shifting autumn leaves and dropping them with my air rifle. Now, in the autumn of my own life, I just watch and wait when the greys are busy above. With age, comes wisdom. The young squirrels expend energy carrying a nut from bough to floor, to bury it. The older tree-rats (and three-years-old is ancient where I carry a gun) are much more efficient. They simply drop several cob-nuts or acorns to the floor then go down to cache them all. So both old and young are vulnerable when they arrive on the forest floor. The .22LR with subsonic ammo is flawless in dealing with ground-level or trunk-pinioned squirrels. As a committed airgunner in the past, I used to think that a rimfire would be too noisy to perform such work. I simply didn’t understand how muted a subsonic round from a sound-moderated rimfire can be. You can shoot a squirrel at the base of a tree and another squirrel high in the canopy will be unperturbed by the ‘whump’. Please note that I wrote ‘ground-level or trunk-pinioned’. The velocity, even with a subsonic round, gives such a level trajectory that missing (with a properly zeroed scope and skilled shooter) just doesn’t happen.
All rifle shooting (air, rimfire or centrefire) requires a safe backstop. What is a backstop? Something solid that will arrest the travel of a potentially lethal projectile that misses or passes through your quarry. Should a rimfire ever be fired above the horizontal plane? This can be a controversial subject amongst shooters as there are two schools of thought. One school says (far too simply for my liking) that you never, ever fire a rimfire upwards. I tend to agree with that for high velocity .22 and .17HMR rounds. The latter being highly capable of passing through a bird or small mammal. The other school says that there are circumstances where it is safe, such as when rabbits or crows present against an incline (an escarpment or valley side). Another safe shot is a squirrel flattened against a tree trunk or an avian species (crow or pigeon) on a bough with a thick trunk as a backstop. Only experience can tell you when an ‘elevated’ shot will be 100% safe. If you don’t have that experience, you should never, ever shoot a rimfire upwards. Even the reduced velocity subsonic round can travel half-a-mile unimpeded.
Another subject for debate is the use of rimfire rifles on foxes. For the hunter or gamekeeper doing the rounds on vermin control duties, it is impractical to carry more than one gun. Excluding deer, the .22LR is the perfect multi-purpose rifle. If I am purposely hunting a troublesome fox I will use my .17HMR, which gives me some extra range. Even then I won’t shoot beyond 80/100 yards. I’d rather leave the 200-yard plus shots to the ‘professional’ foxers with their .243’s and night-vision. Going back to the .22LR though, I have shot many foxes (on chance encounter) within 40 yards with subsonic rounds. Every one of them has dropped on the spot to a headshot. The downrange 94+ft/lb power is perfectly adequate for ensuring a clinical fox kill. When a fox has folded, I always follow up immediately with a second shot to ensure clean despatch. You can’t do that with an air rifle and carrying a .243 Centrefire is a bit heavy-handed when most of your vermin control is on grey squirrels, crows, and rabbits. Nor will I ever agree that the .17HMR is the panacea for all vermin from fox downwards. It is a clinically efficient but very noisy gun. Fieldcraft will always win the day for me, not extended range. Decades of hunting with an air rifle taught me how to get close to quarry; the way I still prefer to hunt. The ‘sporting’ way.
There were no fox encounters today but the squirrels took a hammering, which will please my landowner. It was a pleasure to be back on home ground. I noted with some amusement that the farm staff had put some feeders out while I was away. I gave one a shake, and it was empty. They’ll just be planning a Boxing Day drive at the wild pheasants, then!
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, September 2020