The young peacocks on the roof of the old woodshed crowed loudly at my arrival. I feared for their safety; perched on an old, decrepit structure which is a disaster waiting to happen. They watched as I screwed the sound moderator onto the rifle and slid the bolt into place. I added a five-shot magazine loaded with .22LR subsonic ammo but I hate odd numbers. Loading a cartridge into the breech, I engaged the robust safety catch of the CZ455, then removed the magazine. I added another bullet and clipped it back in. One in the breech and five in the mag. Six is a happy number. Moving into the wood I paid tribute to the rain gods for providing such a lush, damp carpet of leaf mulch to soften my footsteps. Checking the breeze, I mentally charted a route which would maximise opportunity and minimise detection. There was a time when my preparation would happen under the scrutiny of a loyal dog rather than a pair of peacocks. More on that later. Turning down a steep concrete ramp towards the river meadows, I trod cautiously. A combination of overnight rain and cow squit made the slope treacherous. Half way down I could see a quartet of grey squirrels chasing each other between the two flint walls lining the track. I stood and raised the rifle, pulling back the safety catch. One of them stopped and the thump from the standing shot rolled it over. It’s three companions scrambled up the wall and two bolted into the wood. The other sat on the wall hissing in anger. With an ancient yew as a backstop, the shot was safe. The young long-tail tumbled behind the wall, out of sight. Collecting the first kill, I continued on to the gate into the wood.. Hidden woodies burst from the conifers as I walked and a jay nagged at me from its perch half way up a leafless birch. A shot I wouldn’t have hesitated to take with an air-rifle but with a herd of cattle in the meadow beyond, too hazardous with the .22LR. I cursed at the squeak from the rusty spring-catch of the gate as I entered the wood and made a mental note to slip a tin of WD40 into my bag next time. Turning left, I followed the flint wall back up but within the wood, looking to retrieve that second squirrel. I was conscious I’d only taken out two of the four litter mates. Spotting the corpse I was about to collect it when I sensed movement ahead. Squatting in a clearing, nibbling on some morsel, a third grey was quickly added to the bag. Less than twenty minutes after leaving the car I already had the makings of a Tree-rat Kedgeree in my bag.
The squirrel culling is my ‘raison d’etre’ on this estate since the rabbits disappeared. I shot my last rabbit here over two years ago. On the occasional sighting of one or two, I have resisted shooting them, hoping they would do what rabbits do and re-populate the hedgerows. Sadly this has never happened. RHVD has ravaged this locality. My secondary role (more recently adopted) is helping with fox control, though on my own terms. I won’t be the only airgun hunter to have been frustrated at watching Britain’s most efficient and resilient predator trot past while I was holding what felt like a pea-shooter. In my airgun books I have advised ways to divert a prowling fox, such as plugging a nearby fence post or firing into the ground in front of the animal. Please note the word ‘divert’. Those foxes lived to continue their mischief elsewhere when the landowner would have wished them removed immediately. The reason I mention this is, on moving on today, I found fox sign. Two separate hen pheasant kills in a close area.
This is weaning season for vixens and I knew there must be a live nursery den close by. I searched the area thoroughly, but found nothing. If I’d had my canny old lurcher Dylan with me, he would have led me straight to the den. He’s long gone now and circumstances already documented on this blog site have prevented me from taking on a successor yet. I crossed a style and headed out towards a pine wood which houses a huge badger sett. The vixens often dig in amongst the badgers and both seem happy to tolerate each other. Nursery dens are relatively easy to identify as they will littered outside with remains of the victims brought to the cubs by the parents. I found no such sign among the setts today but took out another grey squirrel which sat along the ride at the wrong moment. The minor disturbance roused a small herd of fallow hinds who stood, bobbing their heads and trying to identify me. Before long they caught my scent and sprinted off, disappearing like wraiths into the depths of the wood.
I gathered the fourth squirrel and before I left the badger sett, gathered a couple of heavy flints thrown up by Brock. I passed the site where I cast Dylan’s ashes some years ago and added the stones to his cairn. I laid my bonus squirrel on top of the stones, leaving the old dog a spirit to chase in his ethereal hunting grounds. I know he catches them, as whenever I go back the squirrels have gone.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, May 2021