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Buzzards and Bushy-Tails

The spring sunshine was deceiving. As I screwed on the sound moderator, the bitter easterly warned me to add shooting mitts and a camo Buff to my outer wear. It would prove to be a wise move, particularly as my chosen patrol would take me back into that breeze for some time. Descending to the lower wood, I side-stepped into the old orchard and down a grassy track. Two hares suddenly jumped up beside me. They took off in different directions. One went over the orchard wall; the other sprinted out onto a ploughed cover strip. It stopped there to watch me, well within range of my rifle. Luckily for the bold lagomorph, I don’t shoot hares. Wondering if there were already leverets amongst the long grass I pushed on, the hare watching my every move.

Inside the wood I slipped into the shadow of a huge yew tree. The yews are abundant here, the legacy of an ancient arboretum. They are a utilitarian species for wildlife. The nooks and crannies of the gnarled trunks harbour nests, hide squirrels, shelter owls and serve as roosts for woodpigeons and jackdaws. Their bark crawls with insect life, harvested by treecreepers, nuthatches, wrens and robins. The winter berries (known as arils) are favoured by blackbirds, redwings and woodpigeons. Stooping to one knee I scanned the woodland floor and saw a grey squirrel scuttle across, dragging its tail behind. It paused to delve amongst the leaf litter. A fatal pause. The ‘phut’ of an Eley subsonic round put an end to the digging. Collecting the corpse I wedged it into a cleft on the yew to recover later.

Pushing on I glanced up at a ‘sitty tree’ which often delivers a winter woodpigeon or two when I’m carrying an air rifle. I spotted the end of a fluffy tail draped over a branch. The head and body of the squirrel was hidden from view.

I stood and watched for while. An elevated shot with a .22LR rimfire is considered by many as taboo – unless the circumstances (backstop) are exactly right. I plugged a ‘shifter’ round into the trunk, just below the bough hiding the squirrel. It panicked, leapt up onto the trunk, then turned head down and scuttled a few feet lower. It spread its legs, gripping the bark, to look around. The twenty yard headshot was perfectly safe with the trunk as a backstop. Squirrel number two tumbled down but fell into a tangle of undergrowth. Irrecoverable. Not for the first time in the last few years I yearned for the company of a dog. Incidentally, while trying to locate the squirrel I made an unusual find. A magpies egg, intact and cold. Probably robbed by a grey squirrel but I couldn’t figure out why it was unbroken. Perhaps the magpies harried the thief so much it abandoned its treasure?

Circling around the wood I checked an oft-used fox den which had been re-opened weeks earlier. No sign of occupation or feeding activity, so it can probably be written off as a nursery den this year. While studying it, I saw a silhouette creep along the edge of the wood. Another long-tail. Creeping around quietly I dropped to one knee and scanned the floor with my scope. It was sitting up on its haunches, gnawing on something. The spit of the CZ-455 toppled the grey. I collected it and walked back to the first. Number two in the yew. As always, the buzzards had now found me. I’m convinced that they spot my car then circle looking for my movement nearby. A pair circled low over the canopy and I wondered how powerful their sense of smell might be? Could they scent the shot squirrels? For most predators, blood is a powerful pheromone.

Grey squirrels aren’t top of my culinary priority and I find the meat doesn’t maintain flavour when frozen. I only eat squirrel based meals when I’ve shot at least half-a-dozen. Enough off-the-bone fresh meat to make a decent dinner. Though at the rate food prices are rising at the moment, I may have to re-think this. Grey squirrels make for useful ‘diversionary’ feeding though. There is a small grassy clearing in the middle of the wood so I walked the two cadavers out and laid them, white belly fur up, for the birds to see. As I walked through the far side of the wood I could hear the raptors mewling as they wheeled above the glade. They had seen the donation but wouldn’t descend to accept the offering until I was well clear.

Another fox den checked and confirmed empty, I trod a path up through a narrow pine belt, heading for a plantation. As I breasted a small incline in the path I slowed up before peering over the top. Often encountering squirrels on the path here I was disappointed. Then just as I reached the top a grey stepped from cover just ten feet away. Too close. Far too close. I stood still and waited for it to catch my scent. It didn’t. The squirrel hopped away along the track and when it got about twenty five yards away, halted. It turned side on and rose on its haunches like a meerkat. By now, I was on one knee with the Hawke scope centred on its engine room. Number four on the floor. I paused to reload my magazine

I circled the plantation silently, disturbing a pair of jays. Like magpies, not a bird for the rimfire unless you catch them on the ground. Their raucous cries disturbed a trio of roe deer who broke from the trees onto the ride in front of me. A young prince and his two concubines fled along the track and leapt the barbed wire fence; a sight that always makes me wince. They bounded up into the pines and paused to look back at me. Then sprung out of sight. Back at the car I slipped the magazine from the rifle, ejected the breeched cartridge and dry-fired to check the barrel was clear. Next I withdrew the bolt and put it in its pouch, to be kept separate from the rifle. The moderator was unscrewed (never, ever store a rimfire / centrefire with the moderator attached – you will destroy your barrel). I wound on the screw cover to protect the thread, tucked a bikini cover over the scope lenses and returned my CZ to its slip. The four squirrels for five shots (including the ‘shifter’ shot) made for a satisfactory outing … but it’s not just about the shooting. It’s about being out there, in the countryside.

For a few hours today I was an apex predator again. For that is what human beings are. We are animals, mammals, no matter how precociously modern homo sapiens see themselves now. Being amongst wild things, studying their behaviour, melting into the wood, field, riverside or coast. Observing animal, bird and fish behaviour, culling when necessary, harvesting the abundant, protecting the vulnerable. That is the role we have inherited; be it gamekeeper, hunter, stalker, fisherman, farmer or ecologist. And I’ll be back out there in the wild at every opportunity I get. Levelling the playing field for threatened species, protecting crops or trees and harvesting organically fed meat for the table.

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler. April 2022

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