Parking on a track alongside my target wood today, I was greeted by the cattle herd. For them, the appearance of a human means ‘silage’ but they were to be disappointed. As I stood at the back of the motor assembling the .22LR, I was serenaded with a symphony of cow-farts and pissing. I stared up at the sky to check the ozone layer above me. Pure blue sky and no sign of a hole; a pleasant day for October. As I walked past the gate I tipped my camo baseball cap and said “Good morning, ladies!”
Settling amongst the trees I took some time to acclimatise. Last nights torrential rain had dampened the Autumn leaf fall and would make for noiseless stalking. I relaxed and took pleasure in the efficiency of my new glasses. Looking back out of the wood across the fields it seemed I could see forever. A worthwhile investment. Raising the rifle I adjusted the ocular lens, dialling in on the bark of an oak tree to get a crisp, clear view matched to my right spectacle lens. Then I calibrated my camera viewfinder to my left lens. Time for a walkabout. My quarry today was that annoying little beast recently glorified in the Lynx Men’s Deodorant adverts on TV. The cartoon caricature of a pelvis-lunging squirrel is not too far removed from the truth; they are ridiculously fecund creatures.
Before I had taken twenty strides, there was the first grey squirrel. Head down, tail up and digging a deep enough hole to cache the cob-nut between it’s teeth. Totally pre-occupied, it had no idea what hit it and slumped into the leaf-mulch. I stood for some time waiting for other activity, as at this time of year there are normally more squirrels harvesting the same hazel stand. Not so in this case, so I moved on. The buzzards had already joined me overhead, on hearing the muted shot. The squirrel was an old buck, judging by it’s brown incisors. The meat would be too sinewy for my table so I stretched it across a log-pile on the edge of a clearing. Not too easy for the buzzards to find, but the white underbelly would be spotted by diligent eyes. I left the carcass intact. A split belly would attract the attention of all manner of horrors – from bluebottle to stoat to magpie. I wanted my buzzards to find this. Not just to keep their attention from the pheasants. They deserve it for the entertainment they give. Soaring high, circling and mewling on warm thermal days. Spooking me when they launch from a bough, huge wings out-stretched, in the midst of the wood. Yet there has to a balance ‘twixt diversionary feeding and dependency. The online videos of red kites being fed trailer loads of offal disgusts me. Take the lazy food supply away and most of those birds will die, having forgotten how to hunt and scavenge for themselves.
Grey squirrel control is a controversial subject for the urbanite and I ‘get it’. Other than a scabies-ridden fox or scurvy rat, the only wild mammal a city dweller is likely to see is the grey squirrel. It looks ‘twee, fluffy and cuddly’. It’s intelligence is legendary, including video clips of complicated garden bird-table raids accompanied by Mission Impossible soundtracks. All of which serves to justify the actions that we rural folk take to control the little alien invader. Its displacement of our indigenous red squirrel has been swift. The pox that many carry is an irritant to them but slaughters its red cousin. Oblivious to the toxic content of unripe acorns its rape of the green crop leaves red squirrels without a basic food source. They can only eat ripe acorns. The grey squirrel has an omnivorous nature and won’t hesitate to harvest birds eggs and chicks. In lean times it seeks sustenance by pulling bark from young trees to reach the nutrients in the soft wood beneath. This practise (known as ring-barking) either kills or maims the growing tree to the extent that the timber is worthless. The grey squirrel is definitely not a foresters or conservationists friend. Just take a good look at its front and rear paws; perfectly evolved for gripping and climbing.
Soon I chanced upon a tree-rat picnic spot. A pile of empty sweet chestnut kernels sat beneath a beech bole, dragged there one by one by a grey and chewed open to extract the chestnuts. I set up my portable seat to just sit and watch the wood for a while. Within ten minutes I’d bagged another two greys as they laboured to cache cob-nuts under the damp forest floor. Those buried nuts would now go unclaimed and hopefully the next generation of hazel trees will burst forth come spring.
With the call of family duty beckoning I settled for todays hat-trick but took the plump squirrels home rather than leave them for the buzzards. There was enough meat on this trio to form the basis of a tasty Masala curry. Just cut all the meat you can from the bone, dice it, add to a slow cooker with a packet sauce (I use Schwartz tikka masala mix), mushrooms, spinach and 200ml of water. Slow cook for 4-6 hours and serve with basmati rice and naan bread.
Just remember, at no time during the process should you spray it with Lynx Africa.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2021