GREY MAT­TERS

Char­lie Portlock looks in­side a squir­rel’s skull to con­tinue our anatom­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion

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Late last year, we bi­sected a rab­bit’s skull in or­der to learn more about this an­i­mal’s anatomy as well as de­bunk some en­dur­ing myths about shot place­ment. It’s now time to do the same for the grey squir­rel. If you think that a rab­bit’s brain looks small at 25 yards then a squir­rel’s is even smaller, but only by about 15%. Squir­rels ac­tu­ally have a sig­nif­i­cantly larger brain to body mass ra­tio which re­flects their adapt­abil­ity, di­verse diet and leg­endary prob­lem-solv­ing abil­i­ties.

Grey squir­rels have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing strong, ro­bust crea­tures and whilst it’s true that they’re more tena­cious than rab­bits, a shot to the brain will kill them just as ef­fec­tively. When wounded, they will show few out­ward signs of pain or dis­tress, but will run on­wards and up­wards un­til they reach safety. How­eve, this does not mean that they’re ‘ tough’. They will, of course, be in a great deal of pain, but like many small mam­mals have evolved to keep silent in an ef­fort to avoid de­tec­tion. A more ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion might be that they’re vig­or­ous and it’s this twitch­ing, ir­re­press­ible vi­tal­ity that leads hunters to see them as be­ing dif­fi­cult to kill cleanly. This is a myth. If our shot place­ment is solid, they’ll drop; if it isn’t they’ll run, so let’s not fall into the trap of us­ing their ‘ har­di­ness’ as an ex­cuse for our own poor shoot­ing. ( Well said! Ed.)

Dou­ble agent

Although rab­bits are easy enough to come by at most ru­ral butch­ers, squir­rels are much harder (at least in my neck of the woods) and although there’s a mar­ket for them, the ef­fort to meat ra­tio is high. For this rea­son and no other, I was forced to make a trip over to the dark side and use my 12 bore to take two an­i­mals at a late sea­son pheas­ant feeder. Although the spring is edg­ing closer, nat­u­ral food sources are still scarce. If your ground is shot, it’s very likely that the keeper will con­tinue to feed the birds through­out the year in or­der to hold them in the area, mak­ing it eas­ier to round up the hens for the breed­ing sea­son. Ly­ing in wait near any con­sis­tent food source at this time of year should prove pro­duc­tive and can save you wan­der­ing around your per­mis­sion look­ing for hotspots. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that squir­rels will al­ways fol­low the calo­ries.

I’ll say this for the shot­gun – it was ef­fi­cient, and I took two an­i­mals for the freezer with min­i­mal meat dam­age us­ing 28g/6 car­tridges at about 25 yards. Both were stone dead be­fore they hit the ground with the skulls in­tact, which was the en­tire

“let’s not fall into the trap of us­ing their ‘ har­di­ness’ as an ex­cuse for our own poor shoot­ing”

point. It was good to be out with the shot­gun but I won’t be do­ing it of­ten be­cause I found the shoot­ing side of things to be al­most as bor­ing as my ex­pe­ri­ence with a PCP; very lit­tle skill is in­volved in shoot­ing sta­tion­ary tar­gets in this way and it felt pretty un­sport­ing. The ne­ces­sity of ear de­fend­ers also stripped me of the au­di­tory en­joy­ment of be­ing out in the woods and made me rely on my eyes a lot more, which I found in­ter­est­ing from the per­spec­tive of en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness, but ul­ti­mately frus­trat­ing. In the end, I just sat with them around my neck lis­ten­ing for the sig­na­ture sound of a squir­rel com­ing through the trees be­fore I put them on and took my shot.

Af­ter this, trai­tor­ous trip side­ways, I was left with the in­tact heads of two adult males that I froze and then sawed in two with the help of leg­endary un­der-keeper Gwyn­daf Jolly. It’s worth not­ing that I broke two blades in a row af­ter they be­came stuck and snapped. If you’re tempted to try this for your­self, you’ll need to keep the blade in mo­tion at all times to pre­vent it be­com­ing wedged and im­mov­able; stop for more than a sec­ond and you’ll have prob­lems.

Re­sults

The shape of the squir­rel’s brain is re­flected in the low-slop­ing con­tours of the skull. As you can see from the pho­tos, the squir­rel’s brain is smaller and more ob­long than a rab­bit’s, but in­hab­its the same rel­a­tive space, and a shot placed be­tween the ear and the eye will kill cleanly, but aim­ing slightly lower and fur­ther back just for­ward of the base of the ear seems like the op­ti­mum point of aim.

Shot se­lec­tion

We of­ten use the term ‘ head shot’ to de­note eth­i­cal shot place­ment. This is mis­lead­ing be­cause the head is rel­a­tively large and the brain isn’t.

A solid shot to the brain will en­sure in­stant death with­out suf­fer­ing.

In pro­file

As with rab­bits, a shot to the brain as the an­i­mal presents in pro­file is by far the most eth­i­cal and ef­fi­cient. The small kill zone is largest in this po­si­tion, as can clearly be seen, and the risk of wound­ing is min­imised. This is a com­mon shot be­cause the squir­rel of­ten presents in this man­ner when mov­ing along branches – by far the best op­tion. Shots to the base of the skull are also pos­si­ble from this per­spec­tive, but are not rec­om­mended.

Head on

This is not an ef­fec­tive an­gle to shoot from. A per­fectly placed shot from this per­spec­tive would cer­tainly kill, but the risk of wound­ing is far too high. The kill zone is smaller than a five-pence piece and dropped shots will shat­ter teeth or en­ter the nose and soft palate. Near misses risk hit­ting the an­i­mal in the eye which could, de­pend­ing on the el­e­va­tion, cause a great deal of pain with­out im­mo­bil­is­ing it – one to avoid. Much sim­pler to wait for the an­i­mal to present in pro­file.

Rear

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, head or base- of-skull shots on squir­rels are quite un­usual. This is mainly be­cause the squir­rel arches its back when feed­ing, ren­der­ing its hindquar­ters higher than its head. The po­si­tion of the tail nor­mally con­ceals any view of the skull and prob­a­bly serves to cam­ou­flage the an­i­mal dur­ing feed­ing by break­ing up its out­line. This re­laxed tail po­si­tion is in con­trast to the flick­ing and flag­ging seen when the an­i­mal is alarmed, in which case it’s prob­a­bly fac­ing you any­way - a valid shot, but rare.

Body shots

With a le­gal-limit ri­fle, body shots are not rec­om­mended. The squir­rel’s phys­i­ol­ogy and man­ner of feed­ing mean that from most an­gles its forelegs usu­ally cover its vi­tal or­gans. Even though a close-range shot be­hind the armpit can pen­e­trate the rib cage, le­gal limit ri­fles sim­ply lack the stop­ping power for this kind of shot. It’s far more than likely that the shot will wound, and un­like deer, squir­rels will nor­mally at­tempt to gain height when in dan­ger, mean­ing that a slow and painful death is likely with­out any chance of re­cov­ery. In short, if you have to ask your­self if the shot is on, it isn’t. You should just re­act.

The freeze

‘ The freeze’ is prob­a­bly a com­mon sight for those read­ers who hunt squir­rels. Most of­ten seen when an an­i­mal is head shot on the trunk of a tree, it tenses and grips the bark hard, some­times need­ing a sec­ond shot to dis­lodge it. Only a dead squir­rel will re­act like this be­cause the rapid en­gage­ment of the mus­cles and limbs is a spas­modic re­ac­tion to se­vere brain trauma. The an­i­mal is not alive but ‘cling­ing on’ and there’s only the need to wait whilst grav­ity does its work. Learn­ing to recog­nise this is use­ful to avoid wasted shots.

In con­clu­sion

It’s dif­fi­cult to come by anatom­i­cal pho­tographs of rab­bits and squir­rels. Af­ter read­ing through vet­eri­nary text­books, reams of hunt­ing lit­er­a­ture, web­sites, books and aca­demic pa­pers, there wasn’t one cross-sec­tional photo of a rab­bit or a squir­rel to be found. Even an email to the ar­chiv­ist at the Royal Vet­eri­nary Col­lege in Lon­don proved fruit­less. Per­haps this is be­cause these crea­tures have such lit­tle fi­nan­cial value in com­par­i­son to horses or live­stock. What­ever the rea­son, we should al­ways know ex­actly what were shoot­ing at, and I hope that the above will help read­ers to fur­ther that knowl­edge in some small way.

There’s cer­tainly much more to be ex­plored within the top­ics of quarry anatomy, an­i­mal pain and post­mortem move­ment, and the more in­formed we are on these sub­jects the bet­ter. Un­com­fort­able as the re­al­i­ties might be, it’s im­por­tant that we know as much as pos­si­ble about our quarry in or­der to en­sure a clin­i­cal kill and, dare I say it, to en­joy our time in the woods; no­body en­joys los­ing an an­i­mal. A fu­ture ar­ti­cle fea­tur­ing cross sec­tions of brain-shots on the three main quarry species is planned and when com­bined with spe­cial­ist vet­eri­nary knowl­edge, this should help us to un­der­stand ex­actly what’s go­ing on when we make that per­fect shot. Best of luck in the field, Char­lie.

“the squir­rel’s brain is smaller and more ob­long than a rab­bits, but in­hab­its the same rel­a­tive space”

Above Inset: If you want clean kills, aim here Right: A squir­rel’s brain (right) is slightly smaller than a rab­bit’s

Main: Those squir­rels are out there dam­ag­ing the coun­try­side as you read this

Left: Note the brain stem trav­el­ing back and down the neck

Right: I used a shot­gun to avoid dam­ag­ing the skulls

Right: I found the re­mains of fox­poached turkey

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