Peter Yeats learns from a master about red squirrel conservation
Peter Yeats is in the field learning all he can from a master conservationist
AsI wrote in my last article, ‘Seeing Red’, I was lucky enough to spend a full day with Glen Graham, a red squirrel conservation officer, who as full-time estate ranger has sole responsibility for protecting red squirrels over an estate of 20,000 acres. His preferred tool for the job is an air rifle, and for the curious, it’s an AA S510, in .22 calibre, running at about 30 ft.lbs., shooting H& N Barracuda Match pellets. He does say that full- power sub-12 ft.lbs. air rifles are fine for hunting grey squirrels, but he prefers the flatter trajectory of FAC simply because his other estate duties require an FAC ticket, anyway.
Over a coffee, I explained that I hoped to write about reducing grey squirrel numbers to help conserve our native red species and to set up two feeder locations in the wooded area of my permission, making my practical contribution to the cause. As we talked, Glen showed me the kind of evidence I should look for when I start with my feeders.
Greys like maize, but reds don’t, so one of the first clear signs will be the condition of the maize in the feed mixture. Reds will throw the maize to the ground, undamaged, but feed on the other preferred seeds; if the maize has the soft centre gouged out, then grey squirrels are present. Other signs are provided by gnawed pine cones, in coniferous woodland, and the hairs attached to double-sided tape stuck to the underside of the feeders’ hinged lids. Greys’ hair is not only a less rusty colour than the reds’, but it is thicker, coarser and different in cross-section from the finer hair of the reds. Checking for these details at your feeders will tell you immediately if you need to set up your hide and get down to shooting.
Once we’d finished our coffee, it was off to the first hide and feeder location of the day, and I could immediately see why Glen loves his job.
“This is where I work,” he said. “The best office in the world!” It’s hard to disagree.
Glen’s hide and feeder were very carefully positioned. The hide itself lay in dappled sunlight near the edge of the wood – it was a simply glorious, sunny day of this year’s heat- wave – exactly 25 yards from the large feeder.
“The vast majority of my shots are taken at the feeder. My gun is zeroed at that distance, even though it shoots flat right out to 40 yards. Because every shot is taken at precisely the same distance, a scoped and zeroed sub-12 ft.lbs. gun is just as effective as FAC for this kind of job.” Glen told me. He also pointed out that the line of fire to the feeder allowed for shots to the foot of the tree, for greys that might choose to feed on the ground. The feeder platform was also in line with the trunk of a tree that stood five yards further on.
“Safe back stop,” he said, even though we were in a private wood, well off the beaten track.
I really appreciated his attention to detail and would remember that for the sighting of my two smaller feeders.
“I use larger feeders than the ones you’re going to use, because the area
that I cover is so large and squirrels won’t stay long near an empty feeder, so the time and food would have been completely wasted.”
I made a mental note to visit mine frequently and avoid that mistake.
“Why have you used the edge of the wood for the feeder?” I asked. “Aren’t there more squirrels toward the centre?”
“I’ve found that the edges of woods are more productive, and some of the larger clearings. I think that it’s something to do with being able to see clearly anything that might be approaching. They seem very sensitive to movement, as well as exposed skin. The type of cammo that I use seems less important than the simple fact that it is camo, and I have my face covered with a shooting veil. Once you’re inside the hide, you’re very quickly forgotten. I’ve had squirrels right next to the hide and even on the roof!”
Other great advice included taking food and drink, as well as a comfortable seat and cushion. Glen also recommended using a two- man hide because it enables stretching during a long observation and enough room for your gear.
After checking the feeder and deciding that he’d need to return without my presence, we left this idyllic spot and travelled to the next feeder location, which was even more isolated. The first task?
“Tuck your trousers into your socks. There are quite a few deer in these woods and, where there are deer, there are ticks. Lyme disease isn’t pleasant, and I’ve known ticks to get inside trousers above socks. That’s why I wear good- quality, high lace- up boots over my trousers.”
I didn’t need to be told twice! I remembered seeing deer in the wood of my permission, on several occasions, so would be more careful from now on. Clearly, experience really does count.
The next feeder was deep in the wood, with no path. GPS led Glen easily and quickly to its location and, as good fortune would have it, there was a red squirrel at the feeder. We were able to observe it for a few seconds before it became aware of us and then scampered up the tree from where it peered as us over the edge of a horizontal branch with endearing, cheeky curiosity. Magical!
The other good news was the maize strewn all over the ground – classic behaviour for reds, none with the grooves characteristic of feeding grey squirrels. This red was safe from invading greys, at least for now. Seeing, and knowing this was a great way to end my day learning about red squirrel conservation from Glen.
Soon, we were in his 4x4 and heading back toward my car, and our time together was almost over, but not before a clear view of a deer running through the woods right next to the road on which we were travelling.
It had been a fantastic day, one that I would never forget. Glen had taught me very clearly why airgunners reducing the numbers of grey squirrels is so very important. He shared with me a lot of knowledge, born of experience, that I would soon be able to apply to my own efforts in reducing greys, all to help conserve our native habitat, birds species targeted by greys, and especially, our delightful red squirrels.
The trail camera offers invaluable information about who has been feeding
RIGHT: The best office in the world!
BELOW: We checked to see what food had been eaten