Phil Hardman works hard for a modest winter brace
Hunting can be hard in the winter months, but our ‘hard man’, Phil, still manages to bag a couple of squirrels
Winter has been relatively mild round these parts. After what was a cold and windy start, things settled down and we’ve enjoyed relatively warm and settled weather, with only a few evenings seeing the temperature plummet. This has meant that despite my worries last month about the lack of predictable quarry patterns due to the harsh beginning of this winter, things have begun to get back on course these past couple of weeks, and I’ve been able to get a much better sense of where we were with regards to my permissions and the animals that live there.
The winter flock of woodpigeons that had been missing in action finally started to arrive in their usual winter roost, but due to the pheasant shooting season, I haven’t yet been able to target them. Instead, I’ve been forced to use part of the land that isn’t been used by the game shoot, so with the woodies off my hunting list, for now at least, I decided to have a good stalk through another, larger wood in search of some grey squirrel action.
At this late stage of winter, cover is at its minimum, so there are not only bare trees to contend with, but the ferns and other terrestrial woodland plants have also completely died back now so although there may be nowhere for the squirrels to hide up in the branches, there is nowhere for me to hide down on the ground either. If the squirrels are moving and I am not, I’ll see them before they see me and get a chance of a shot undetected, but if I’m moving and they are not, I won’t – and I can’t shoot a moving squirrel as it leaps away. Those are the rules of this hunt; a simple fact that both the greys and I have to face – it’s simply a case of ‘who detects whom first, wins!’
I drove a little way into the wood
“it’s simply a case of ‘who detects whom first, wins!’
and parked up. I like to enter in the 4x4 if I can, because animals are less wary of cars than they are humans, so after parking up and letting things settle for a minute, exiting the vehicle is almost like I just appear in the middle of the woods, with less disturbance and less chance of being spotted than if I have to enter on foot.
With the 4x4 parked up, I got the rifle ready as I scanned the surrounding area. In the past I’ve had shots as soon as I stepped out of the door, but on this occasion nothing stirred. I slipped the fully-loaded, 14-shot magazine into my trusty HW100 and set off along a narrow path that leads deeper into the wood. The track is well worn, so silent stalking is easily achievable without ever glancing down, which lets me keep my head up in the trees, in search of squirrels and pigeons as I go.
This woodland landscape is dominated by a burn that runs through the centre on its way to the River Wear. Over the centuries, it has carved out its own small valley through the wood and although the squirrels can leap over, using the treetops as a sort of bridge, I have to follow its winding path until I come to an actual bridge, before crossing and working my way back along the other side. This severely limits my options for approaching certain areas, I’m forced to follow the flow of the water, making the wood’s eastern, and western sides almost seem like two separate hunting grounds. I had forgotten my hat, annoyingly, and I spent the first 150 yards huffing and puffing about that instead of concentrating on the job at hand.
WHERE’S YOUR HAT?
Those of you who are regular readers will maybe note that this is the first time ever that I have appeared in these pages without a hat on, and that’s because I will not usually hunt without one. I’m so used to hunting whilst wearing a baseball cap that when I don’t have one on I’m not as comfortable shouldering my rifle and aiming it. The peak of the cap usually rests on the top of my scope in the same place each time, and it signals that my head alignment is as it should be, and helps me keep it consistently the same for every shot, or at least in my head it does. I have no idea if it actually makes a real difference or not, but because I believe it does, then it must – simply by making me feel comfortable and confident. Anyway, right now in those woods, not having it was really bugging me.
My sulking about the lack of hat was interrupted suddenly by movement in a large, old beech tree about 40 yards ahead. It was a grey squirrel and it had seen me. I paused, frozen to the spot, hoping that it would stop for a better look, and give me the chance I needed for the shot. As I stood there, I became aware of another, moving from left to right, crossing above the path in front of me, and heading toward the burn, and safety. As I watched, the second squirrel make its way up and around the small twigs and branches, my attention was pulled to a third squirrel and then immediately behind that, a fourth. They were all exiting the same beech tree, but they all seemed to heading away in a hurry and none was looking like pausing.
When there are so many of them in one place at the same time, it’s hard to track them all – a single squirrel can be difficult enough – and to make matters worse, a fifth had appeared. I did my best to track them through the scope, and get a shot, but by the time I had noticed one pause, and taken aim, it had started to move again, and another had stopped. They say there’s safety in numbers, and that certainly proved true on this occasion. I simply couldn’t pick out a single target amongst the mayhem in the branches above me, despite the fact that three of the five probably didn’t have a clue I was there, and were simply spooked by the fleeing of the first pair.
As the final squirrel reached the 30-yard mark, I decided to stop waving my rifle around, and instead sit down and just wait to see what happened. They had all headed roughly to the same area, a pair of oak trees on the water’s edge of the burn, and I figured that if I gave them time to settle down, at least one of them would make a mistake sooner or later.
Twenty minutes passed as I sat there in dead silence. Nothing around me stirred, but as predicted, eventually they calmed down enough to begin moving around again. I saw the first to
“it’s simply a case of ‘who detects whom first, wins!’
make a move as it came around the trunk of the oak and jumped up onto a large, thick limb of the tree, where it sat cleaning itself. I knew I had plenty of time so I didn’t rush as I brought the rifle to bear and lined up the scope on the squirrel’s head. I was sitting comfortably; 40 yards, no wind and I had even managed to forget that I wasn’t wearing my hat as I slowly squeezed off the shot and sent the .177 pellet zipping on its way.
The sound of the impact echoed through the woods. That sharp, bone-shattering ‘crack!’ of a skull being completely destroyed by an impacting round instantly told me that I had hit my mark perfectly, and that was before I even saw the squirrel tumbling earthwards. The commotion had spooked another in the same tree. I hadn’t noticed it prior the shot, but curiosity about its fallen companion meant that it wouldn’t sit still. I tracked it down the tree, circling the trunk as it went, but lost sight of it at ground level and despite giving it a full 10 minutes to reveal itself, I never saw it again so I went and picked up my kill and moved on.
SAW IT FIRST
My next chance came just as I reached the bridge to cross to the opposite side of the wood. I was making sure to be a lot slower and more careful since the encounter with the five squirrels, so I managed to see this one long before it got even the slightest hint that I was there. It was moving through the treetop toward me, slowly, thoughtfully perhaps, as it picked its route carefully through a tangle of small branches and down onto thicker tree limbs. It paused every few steps, in no rush to get where it was going, oblivious to me tracking it through my scope as it leapt from branch to branch, before pausing, one final time. My shot flew straight and true, catching the squirrel unaware and knocking the life out of it before it realised I was there. It fell from the treetop, straight down in utter silence, before thumping into the earth and fallen leaves below.
I collected its fallen body and carried it onward with me. The path I was following meandered uphill away from the burn and around to the very top edge of the wood, a good 50 metres or so higher than the rest of the surrounding land. This steep incline, almost vertical in places, lessens until you reach a plateau, where the wood widens again, and sits proud above the surrounding land. In the past, this area has provided me with some of the best squirrel hunting I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy, and I was hopeful that today might see similar results as I started my sweep of the area.
I walked with the rifle slung over my shoulder to rest my arms after the steep climb, but I was ready to swing it round and bring it up on aim at any moment, should a target present itself. The wood was extremely quiet, as it tends to be at this time of year. I didn’t even see any songbirds, bar a single blackbird pecking around in the leaf litter. It’s funny how barren and lonely places like this can seem in winter, in stark contrast to summertime when it’s is bursting with life.
My final chance came at the very far end of this path, and basically, I stumbled on to it. Another squirrel that had been on the ground, behind a fallen log, scarpered up a tree as soon as it became aware of me, but I was on to it quickly and got the shot off before it had a chance to work out what was going on. Unfortunately, the tree the squirrel was in sat on the edge of a cliff, and when it fell it dropped 75 feet down into the valley below, hitting a holly bush halfway up the near vertical incline, and that was the last I saw of it.
I thought about trying to climb down the steep slope to get it, but the risk of a fall was too great, so I walked back to my car and drove back the way I had originally come.
Of course, the view from the bottom of the valley looked nothing like the view from the top, and there were a couple of bushes that could have been the one I saw it land in, that’s assuming it didn’t get lodged somewhere on its way to the ground. I climbed as high up the slope as I could and searched for 20 full minutes before admitting defeat, and by this time I was pretty worn out, tired and ready for home, so I accepted the brace I had managed to bag, and gave up the search before heading off.
That’s it from me for this month – see you all next time! I
Who sees whom first was what this game was all about.
Using this fallen tree as a rest, I was totally confident in the shot.
Using the well-worn path made it easy to move quietly.
This bank was just too steep to risk.
Not much to show for a hard day, but satisfying all the same.
I collected my first kill and moved on.
Because of the burn, lots of walking was the order of the day.