The autumn wood can be a remarkable place. Not just for the display of rustic hues painting the leaf cover. The deciduous trees are fruiting, offering sustenance to birds, insects and mammals. Beech mast, hazel nuts, acorns, sweet chestnuts. I could add horse chestnut (conker) but the only animal that can peel that spikey kernel lain on the forest floor is the same one that can pull open the rolled-up hedgehog. The powerful claws of the badger, which easily scoop flints the size of a cricket ball to delve a sett. The cairn I maintain over the ashes of my faithful old lurcher (Dylan) employs stones brought from a nearby badger colony.
The summer growth of bracken and briar that choked the under-storey is receding, offering access to the hunter. Up in the tree-tops, the little grey invader (Sciurus carolinensis) is harvesting food – not only for ‘now’ but also for winter storage. This is a good time to control grey squirrels, when they are busy and distracted. How this is dealt with by ‘yours truly’ depends upon time, weather and my energy levels.
Grey squirrels are omnivorous. Natures larder provides them with an array of protein to fuel their active lives; hence they are dubbed by many as ‘tree rats’. They don’t have the fecundity of the brown rat but they do have the appetite. Eggs, chicks, nuts, berries, bark, maize kernels; the menu is varied. At this time of year they are to be found either high in the receding leaf canopy scissoring hazel cobs or acorns or on the ground burying them for retrieval when times get harder over the winter. Targeting the pests can be done with a range of options. In the canopy, the airgun can pay dividends, if you can get a clear sight of your quarry. On the ground, it’s usually safe enough to use either an air rifle or .22LR rimfire. The one gun that covers both ground and tree canopy is that noisy old beast the 12 bore shotgun, my choice for todays patrol of the deciduous woods on my permission.
I had only walked two hundred yards into the wood and climbed a short incline when I noticed the trembling of a low hazel bough. Almost at eye level. A young grey slid around a clump of unripe cobnuts, totally absorbed in its task of trying to detach them. Touching an ear to check I’d put the Auritech plugs in, I brought the semi-auto Escort to my right shoulder and closed my left eye. I’ve never mastered shooting with both eyes open as I have a dominant left eye. Even with Eley subsonic loads, the Hatsan kicks like a mule so I pushed off the safety button, aimed just beneath the squirrel and fired. The resulting boom echoed around the hillside as I watched the little rodent drop into the brambles below. I stood for a moment then pulled out the ear defenders to just listen. The smell of cordite was met with an apocalyptic silence. Yet I knew that the subsonic round, while it may have sounded like a thundercrack within the immediate vicinity, would have disturbed very little further into the wood. A point that would be emphasised later. By the time I had recovered the squirrel from the bramble patch, the birdsong had begun again further into the wood.
Following the ride deeper into the trees I discovered a trail of sparrowhawk kills. The spar had clearly developed a taste for yearling jackdaws. This wood is dotted with dead elm and ash, which always attract jackdaw colonies. Like magpies, the younger birds tend to gravitate back to the birthing tree as a point of social contact. Clearly I wasn’t the only hunter in this wood to take advantage of the fact.
Stalking on, I nearly put my foot in it. Literally. Unlike many of the bunny-hugging British populace, I have little love for the badger. It is an iconic national creature, nurtured through literary mis-representation. Kenneth Grahams “The Wind In The Willows”, Bill Badger in the Rupert Bear cartoon series etc. Those who know and farm the countryside appreciate how destructive Britain’s largest mustelid can be when left uncontrolled. The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 has drawn a ridiculous level of defence against the very creature that is single-handedly eliminating that other British icon – the hedgehog. I haven’t seen a hedgehog on any of my shooting permissions for ten years. Not surprisingly, the badger population has quadrupled. Were it not for the rural and suburban army of furze-pig garden feeders (I’m one of them) the hedgehog could disappear from our fauna list forever. So where is the Protection of Hedgehogs Act 2021?
Having avoided the badger latrine (at least they attempt to half-bury their shit) I tracked along the rides, deeper into the wood. Some rapid movement around the base of a beech tree caught my eye. A pair of grey squirrels, chasing around. Wrong day for them, right gun for me. As one of the pair stopped, facing downwards on an oak trunk, I placed the bead just under its head and shot. As the animal dropped, the gun recycled and the other squirrel ran up onto the trunk at nearly the same position. Boom! I stepped forward a few paces to start to recover the pair and stopped short. A pretty face was watching me just thirty yards from the scene. She was passive enough to wait while I lifted the ever-present camera around my neck and capture her soul. A young doe, apparently unphased by the two subsonic shotgun discharges. Or perhaps just bewildered by a new experience?
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, September 2021