Hard­man’s Hunt­ing

Phil Hard­man works hard for a mod­est win­ter brace

Airgun World - - Contents -

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!’

STEALTH AP­PROACH

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.

STOP SULK­ING!

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.

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