Have you got as many weather ‘apps’ on your mobile phone as I have? All of my half-a-dozen promised a morning of no rain. Loaded up for a session on the squirrels I hadn’t even got to the end of the road when I had to turn on the windscreen wipers. Not a deluge but the onset of one of those tedious smirrs that would last all morning. A damp drizzle that hardly touches the floor and stays below the tracking ability of Storm Radar’s satellites; yet drenches everything above floor level.
Squirrels don’t particularly like rain but at this time of the year, they are so obsessed with storing food for winter that a mizzle won’t hold them to the dreys. Find a close-canopied wood and you’ll barely get wet yourself. I have several such sanctuaries and headed for one today. The only concession I made to the weather-gods was to don a lightweight camo rain top. As I hurried into the shelter of the wood, intent on keeping my scope lenses dry, I was too rash. The small vixen that rose from slumber beneath a hazel clump was away in a flash, leaving me fumbling to bring the rifle from ‘slung’ to ‘ready’. Resorting to my grouse-hen squeaker was pretty futile but I tried anyway. She had seen me, clearly. She wouldn’t be back.
Above the wood, the smir turned into a gentle patter and I looked for somewhere to make camp. On days like this, it’s often best to set a base and let the enemy come to you rather than chase around the wood. There will be more greys on the floor than in the canopy when it’s raining. My friends ‘Choppitt and Burnitt’ had been through the wood earlier in the week, clearing the understorey and lopping branches off both beech and yew in a seemingly wanton act of vandalism. The piles of ash from their fires puzzled me. Why burn when you could leave piles of brash for mouse and wren? They had done me one big favour, though. The view across the forest floor was clear. Soon, I found a spot where I could take advantage of the open vista.
One of the trees most beneficial to the hunter is the wild box (Buxus sempervirens). Many of you will be familiar with the box in its use as a boundary hedge in gardens. It’s also a favourite for Topiary due to its dense, waxy leaves. In a woodland environment, it grows like a small weeping willow. The trunk is hard (the timber prized by wood-turners) and the branches turn downwards forming a parasol. As well as shelter from the rain, the cascade of slender boughs makes for perfect concealment. Finding one today which had been uncovered by the clearance work, I set up my seat and went to work with the secateurs. A few minutes later I had a spacious natural hide with some viewing windows.
Settling to wait and watch, I let the ambiance of the wood sweep over me. There is something reassuring about the pitter-patter of raindrop on leaf. Out on the water meadows, I heard the honking of landing geese. Recent deluges have swollen the Wensum and water-splashes abound along the valley. At the edge of the woodland, in a line of oaks, something was worrying the jays. Probably a foraging squirrel but I did wonder if the vixen had crept back towards her crib. Now and then, a small gust would shake a shower of brimstone beech leaves to the floor; every movement drawing my hunter’s eye and lifting the adrenalin levels. The unmistakeable twitch of a grey brush at ground level brought my eye to the scope. At 40 yards I might have thought twice with the air rifle, with little to see but body and brush. The thump of a clean connection vindicated the use of a .22LR subsonic round. Clinical, flawless, and humane. With the vixen in mind, I left the squirrel where it lay. The pheromones of the fallen are a powerful attractant to any predator, either mammal or bird. I stood and stretched for a while then sat to resume my vigil.
There is something mystical about a flask of Heinz tomato soup. Honestly! I set the little CZ455 against the box bole and drew the Pioneer drink pod from my bag, gave it a shake, and took off the lid. Taking a sip, I pulled the pod from my scalded lower lip as my specs steamed up. I stood the flask on the floor carefully and, as the lenses cleared, found myself staring at a grey squirrel scuffling in the leaf mulch just 20 yards away. Bugger! I turned slowly, brought the rifle back to me silently, and before I could mount it the tree-rats head was up, alert. I froze for some seconds and the rodent returned its head into the mulch, tail twitching. Another engine-room shot. Another nut never to be reclaimed. So when you read that squirrels and jays sustain woodland by caching nuts and forgetting they are there, please remember how the hunter plays their part too. I returned to my soup, which had (by now) cooled enough to sip without burning. I wish I had a £10 note for every time I’ve laid aside my gun to take a drink and my quarry has appeared. Squirrel hunting, decoying pigeons, baiting corvids. As I said, mystical.
I needed a stretch now, so leaving everything in my ‘hide’ but camera and rifle I went walkabout. Again, I left the squirrels where they lay. That pheromone thing. Stepping out of cover there was still a light rainfall but guns are merely tools. If they can’t endure a bit of moisture we, in the UK, would rarely get to shoot. At the far end of this wood is a crumbling stone wall. My clumsy stalk (exercise more than artifice) put a silhouette up on the wall. With a backstop of a ploughed field, squirrel number three tumbled. I circled back towards my base and crept up hoping to find some vermin interest in the dead squirrels. Nothing, but I wasn’t fazed.
On my way out of the wood, I dropped two of the corpses next to a badger sett. Anything that keeps these mustelid bastards away from hedgehogs or peacock chicks for a few hours has to be good. The other squirrel was gutted and spread wide for the buzzards to enjoy. It would keep their eyes off the gamebirds. I admire raptors and raptors enjoy carrion. They should never be encouraged to rely totally on human charity though. The YouTube vids of red kites being fed truckloads of offal while being photographed by the public saddens me. Turning a wild-eyed hawk into a circus show is not ‘raptor protection’. They will forget how to hunt. Take away the ‘easy supply’ and they will starve.
I packed everything up to head home. A hat-trick on a day when many would have stayed indoors was enough … and I had another book that needs finishing. No, I lie. I have three books that need finishing! Truth is, I’d rather be listening to the patter of rain in a wild place than the patter of a keyboard at home.
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2020