At last, the editor gets out in the winter woods with a thermal spotter
Phill Price goes out in persistent rain with the Pulsar Helion thermal spotter and finds it very much fit for purpose
Winter squirrel hunting is the cream of my shooting year, offering a challenge that has so many fascinating facets whilst cementing my place on the pheasant shoot all year round. Somebody I know who controls grey squirrels at a professional level tried using a thermal-imaging spotter during daylight and told me that it transformed his work, allowing him to cover three times as much forest in a day, compared to when he used binoculars. He was never to go back.
Because of this, I’ve been aching to try the technique for myself and now the lovely people at Scott Country have loaned me the incredible Pulsar Helion XQ19F thermal spotter. Of course, Mother Nature decided to counter that good fortune with nearly continuous rain, but I noted on the Pulsar website that this device was designed for those exact conditions. Things were looking up, literally!
HERE I GO!
After a quick check with the estate manager that I was clear to visit, I set off full of excitement, finally to get my chance. The sky was leaden and I was greeted by steady rain, but I’d had the foresight to take a few clean, dry lens cloths along, sure that wiping lenses would be a significant part of my day.
Thermal imagers are quite different from light-intensifying, night-vision devices. Put simply, they ‘see’ heat and if something, such as an animal, is warmer than the soil behind, it will stand out brilliantly, so it’s quick to scan big areas because anything warm will pop out of the cold background. My squirrel-hunting friend told me that a squirrel in the cold, bare winter woodland would glow like a 100-watt light bulb, catching your eye in a second. Now was my chance to see that for myself.
I went to the biggest wood where I’ve had little success this year. I’d hit the other woods very hard, so I expected the squirrel population still to be high in this one. There are two pheasant pens in this area and the gamekeeper was upset about the huge damage the rodents were causing there.
The XQ19F is surprisingly compact and lightweight, so much so that it fitted into the cargo pocket of my shooting coat with ease. I’ll tell the truth and say I’m not a huge fan of overly complicated devices, so I was pleased to find out that I was able to set it up with minimal hassle, and only a quick trip to the manual for help. It was mostly quite intuitive to use once I had the basics in my head. I want to hunt rather than read complex manuals.
I stepped into the wood and began to scan the area in front methodically, whilst trying out the three magnification steps, 1.6, 3.2 and 6.4x. It was immediately obvious to me that for short-range work the lowest mag’ was the choice because it gave the widest field of view. Soon enough, I was being drawn to heat sources; blue tits, tree creepers, deer, rabbits and yes – at last, a squirrel, or rather two squirrels playing race-and- chase in a large oak. I was surprised at just how far away I’d spotted them and began to close the range in the hope of getting a shot. By the time I arrived
within shooting distance, they’d moved on, but no matter – I was impressed.
I know this wood well and moved slowly from hot spot to hot spot, noting all the wildlife along the way. The bluebells were already tall so even though I saw several squirrels on the ground, I wasn’t able to get the sights on them. However, I looked across a small valley, saw a squirrel foraging in leaf litter and began to close the gap. I think it saw me because it bolted up a large tree and I lost sight of it. I began to scan with the thermal and sure enough I quickly found it, swapped to the rifle and sent it crashing to the ground. Perhaps I’d have found it by searching slowly with the binoculars, but the thermal found it in seconds. This was the first of seven squirrels that fell to the thermal’s talents that morning.
Perhaps it’s the speed with which you can find quarry that’s the XQ19F’s biggest advantage over binoculars. You can sweep big areas very quickly because the animals and birds stand out like a sore thumb, so you don’t waste time. With print deadlines being what they are, I only had time to scratch the surface of this optic’s talents and I’m sure that there’s more performance to be had by tuning all the settings to suit your own eye, and the conditions of the day, or night for that matter.
Using it was a tantalising look through the window of another world of technology and the performance it can deliver that only whetted my appetite for more. Of course, these things are not cheap, although Scott Country has this one discounted from £1899.95 to £1399.95 at time of writing. Just a few years ago, this kind of performance cost £ 5000, so relatively speaking it’s very good value for money. Hunting with a thermal imager is surely the way our sport will go and one that I’m keen to learn more about, so watch these pages to follow my journey to the future.
I liked the fact that the XQ19F is so small and light
All the controls are along the top surface
My first thermal squirrel opened my eyes to this technology
The battery is a chunky module that comes free from the body for charging
This metal heat sink keeps the unit cool
A built-in lens cover is a neat feature