The King’s New Throne

Half-way through my seventh decade, my infatuation with the great outdoors and hunting remains as fervent as it did in my first and second. The four-year-old who hunted snails in the garden gravitated through pond dipping, worm fishing, bird egg collecting, and lamping with lurchers. He emerged as a serious air-rifle hunter, with a book or twelve to his name and more magazine articles than you can shake a stick at. With age comes wisdom but there is a downside too. One of the first casualties of the lifelong countryman is often mobility and I’m certainly finding that. Not enough to stop me yet but the creaking and groaning of joints certainly limit the distance I can cover. Ten years ago I could still spend a day in the field and cover miles and miles carrying a rifle and kitbag. A painfully arthritic left hip (my kitbag side) has curtailed that. I have to be sensible now and limit my ‘mileage’. In the current crisis, I’m not inclined to seek medical help. Too many people are suffering far more than me and (if I’m honest) I’d rather hobble to a wood than go near a hospital.

October is a prime month for grey-squirrel hunting, with either air-rifle or rimfire. I prefer the latter these days, but that is academic. This is the time that Sciurus carolinensis is harvesting nuts – acorns, cobnuts, sweet chestnuts, and beech mast. More importantly, they are obsessed with caching food beneath the forest floor to sustain them during the winter. You will catch more squirrels on the ground at this time of the year than at any other time. For this reason, the best tactic is often to find a spot beneath the oaks and hazel trees. You will hear the ‘harvesting’ in the canopy above, punctuated by the regular slap of a nut hitting the floor. Sitting in cover, either in camo or drab woodland colours, it’s simply a case of waiting for the greys to come back down to bury the fruits of their labour. For me … and this will be the same for many of you … it’s the waiting that becomes the challenge. I can’t squat or kneel in cover as I used to. If you have a convenient tree stump or fallen trunk in the right area, on which to sit, life becomes a lot easier. With a birthday coming up last month, I was looking for a solution and remembered a product recommended in a leading shooting magazine. It proved to be ‘dud’ lead. A revolutionary new camping chair that can be packed down to the size of 1 litre drink bottle. The chair exists, but is part of a ‘crowd-funding’ project and supply is random (and expensive). The search for a solution, however, threw up something I’d never seen before. So I decided to buy one. Delivered by Amazon Prime the next day. Back in the days when I wrote for the shooting magazines I was always keen to introduce useful new products I’d bought. Particularly if they were affordable to my readers and would benefit their hunting experience. I rarely get that opportunity now, hence sharing this.

This morning started with a tour of the feeders in the heart of the estate. Ten days into the season, not a shot has been fired at the wild gamebirds here. The tenant farmer has put out the grain to gather the wild pheasants for just a couple of family-driven days. The previous day’s rain had left a sumptuous feel to the leaf mulch underfoot, perfect for silent stalking. The verdant rides were littered with conkers and split kernels. Gossamer webs glistened, backlit by the rising sun. I tuned into the wood around me, listening for the give-away scuffle or the shake in the canopy that indicates grey squirrel activity. By the time I’d exited the arboretum, three tree-rats had fallen to the muted thump of my .22LR subs. Above me a pair of buzzards wheeled, following my progress as always. Their interest would be rewarded shortly.

It’s pointless guarding feeders and hitting the squirrels hard only where the shooting happens. If you don’t keep the satellite spinneys clear of vermin, they will soon find their way into the heartland. So I set off next for a large stand of mixed conifer, oak, and beech half a mile away. The first barrier to negotiate was the barbed wire fence on a cattle pasture. You will be familiar with the standard method of crossing such a fence alone. Dis-arm the gun, pass it through, drop your bag over, push down on the middle-strand, push up on the top strand, and step carefully through. I used to be able to that flawlessly. Not any more. For with age, comes girth. They just don’t make barbed wire fences tall enough for me. So I had to resort to a long detour to the cattle gate then wade through a foot of slurry to regain my path. The buzzards circled like vultures above. At the crown of the pasture, I stopped and unloaded the squirrels from my bag. I laid them out neatly on the cropped grass and moved on. Looking back, I could see the raptors wheeling lower now. I’ve tried waiting nearby to photograph them collecting the carcasses but they won’t go near if I’m in view. I pushed on toward the wood, along the edge of a ploughed field. As the mud clung to my boots I could feel my hips rocking and the pain increasing. A steady rain was now falling. By the time I reached the high point of the woods ride, I was in discomfort. The perfect time to test my new gizmo.

I found a spot where I could shelter beneath a beech canopy. Natures umbrella. With a view into the oaks and hazel trees, it was a prime Sciurus foraging spot, though I knew that the rain wasn’t going to help my cause. I pulled the disc from my bag, placed my fingers in the holes on either side and twisted in opposite directions. The stool popped open and I pulled it out, like opening up a squeeze-box or concertina. Next, I twisted the other way, engaging all the locking pegs. In just thirty seconds I had a 40cm high rigid stool. A portable tree stump. A cracking piece of kit which would also be useful for my Tenkara fly-fishing and sea-angling. With a weight limit of 130 kg (over 20 stones), it is safe, comfortable, and well designed. At just £20, money well spent. Just Google ‘telescopic stool’.

My ambush point bore fruit before the light rain turned into a deluge. It’s always satisfying to put doe squirrels into the bag, which makes for exponential pest control. I felt like King of the Wood. And I liked my new throne.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2020