A Lockdown ‘Call To Arms’

By the third week of the new ‘lockdown’, I had stuck rigidly to the rules. My Twitter timeline (about as live and topical as you can get) described how even deer stalking was being curtailed by various corporate landowners. Concessions have been made for essential pest control. Grey squirrel and corvid control can hardly be called essential at times like these. Particularly in winter. So I have been doing the decent thing and keeping my distance from my permissions. I’ve missed it terribly but now is not a time for selfish intention. Yet how do we define that word essential ?

When I got the call that Sciurus carolinensis was running rampant at the Old Hall, I was sceptical. Many of you have read my ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ script over the past two decades, ad infinitum. Surely though, not that quickly? I should have known better. This is an estate that I visit at least weekly and know it intimately. Every nook and cranny of its one thousand acres. Every badger trail, every deer path, every fox earth and, pertinent to the case in point every grey squirrel highway. What I can’t know, until the leaves have completely deserted the trees, is where the winter dreys are.

For the uninitiated, it’s important to know that the grey squirrel is as organised as an old Russian oligarch. They have often have a summer ‘dacha’ and a more cosy winter retreat. The summer drey is built high in the open canopy where it can ‘feel’ the sun and breeze. The winter drey is built tight to the tree trunk (often in a cleft or fork). This protects the nest and its occupants from the ravages of gales and blizzards. Quite a clever natural behaviour as the heat from the heart of a mature tree will be a few degrees warmer than the outer canopy. 

When you are trying to reduce grey squirrel numbers in any woodland area, knowing where the dreys are is essential; not least because you need to find the highways that the rodents are following to feed. There is still a misplaced belief by many (who should know better) that grey squirrels hibernate in winter. A complete nonsense. Like many mammals they have the ability during harsh weather to sleep tight and slow down heart rate to conserve warmth and energy. The fox and the badger do this. Squirrels will react to a climb in temperature (such as a sunny winters day) to leave the drey to feed. The wise squirrel hunter will be alert to this and will go out to meet them on those feeding highways. During mid-winter that, of course, means ground feeding. Digging up the buried protein they cached during autumn. 

This year has been strange in more than one way. Putting Covid aside, I have never known such a mild approach to winter. This weekend folk around me were putting up Christmas lights early (in an effort to raise some lockdown cheer) while I was mowing my lawns. I have never, ever mowed a lawn in late November before. It was gnawing at my mind that the squirrels would still be acutely active.

Was my trip to the Old Hall ‘essential’ ? Yes, it was. On the drive into the estate I suffered the ignominy of watching five greys skipping away along the road, while the rifle was in my boot. Later on, the .22LR thumped it’s way quietly to a double hat-trick. Four on the floor, two pinned the trunk. Three of these were very spritely youngsters out of July’s matings. Constant control is essential, for both sapling and songbird. And today, particularly, for my sanity, my soul and my reputation.

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler November 2020