Airgun Shooter editor Nigel Allen looks at a few obvious – and not so obvious – ways for airgun retailers to capitalise on the grey squirrel pogrom that has recently been announced…
Forgive the rather Sun-like headline of this month’s column, but no journalist worth his salt should fail to ride the back of the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey – the controversial book that’s sold 100 million copies and made its author, EL James, over $266 million so far! So what’s the shooting link? Well, the truth is there’s also been a lot of hype recently about another shade of grey – that of our non-indigenous tree-rat, aka the grey squirrel. And that happens to be an opportunity to exploit on the airgun front, too.
Imported from the Americas by the Victorians, who considered it an exotic species, Sciurus carolinensis has built up enough of a bad reputation over time to have recently had a price put on its head. While the general public has always viewed the hunting of squirrels as ‘not quite Carling’ – they perceived it as a clever little fluff-tail that could master the toughest of garden obstacle courses, as portrayed in the old television advert – things may soon be about to change.
Last October, the national media reported on Prince Charles’ declaration of war on the tree-rat pest population of the Duchy of Cornwall estate – and much was said about the £10 million worth of damage that the grey causes to British woodlands annually, essentially through bark stripping (though they also predate on songbird nests and cost gamekeepers a fortune by way of their grain-robbing antics on pheasant feeders and the like).
The debate also highlighted the plight of our native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), the population of which has been decimated to just 30,000 in a few small pockets around the British Isles due to the fatal squirrel pox infection. Sadly, the lovable red succumbs to this virus that’s hosted by the grey, even though the invasive species is itself immune to it.
Then, at the beginning of the year, the extraordinary news broke of a national grey squirrel cull, one for which the UK government and European Union are offering financial incentives to those landowners who can identify that grey squirrels are ‘an issue’. And that incentive is a good one: up for grabs is up to £100 per hectare per year for the next five years. With a reported grey squirrel population of around five million, those airgunners who are lucky enough to shoot on land infested with the bushy-tailed critters could well find themselves in big favour with the holders of their permissions, eager to claim grants.
And, naturally, this has potential for the airgun retailers to get a slice of the squirrel pie – pun intended given that celebrity chefs have recently taken to showing squirrel meat as a culinary dish not to be scoffed at. Those who made it back from last month’s British Shooting Show at Stoneleigh Park may have caught Jamie Oliver’s squirrel recipe on the Channel Four cooking programme, Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast – and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has even gone on record as saying: “Squirrel’s long been on my menu.”
As the pogrom begins to gather pace, there will no doubt be much reportage in the press – and that’s about as good an advert as any gun shop could wish for when it comes to stocking squirrel-related paraphernalia. And don’t think it’s not as clear-cut as, for example, pigeon shooting – there’s plenty of kit the airgunner could be tempted into buying if they want to take their grey squirrel remit seriously. Here are a dozen ideas to stimulate the grey matter…
Incredibly, while looking to find something to cover in Airgun Shooter, we’ve been unable to find the best-known of them all – the Primos Squirrel Buster. Even Amazon supplied from the States! Yet at £17, it’s priced perfectly for the airgunner who likes to accessorise – and it’s a highly effective way of getting greys to arrive within range of an air rifle. The astute retailer who gets these in stock is bound to find a steady trade.
This is a bit left field, but one of the best ways for the airgun pest controller to make a dent in that five million is to deploy baiting tactics – and a simple, knocked-together box that holds peanuts is a squirrel shooter’s ‘pigeon magnet’. Even a hanging garden bird feeder will work – and could well be one of those ‘well I never thought of that’ items which will go well as an impulse buy at the checkout!
While airgunners tend to think ‘shooting’ prior to other pest control methods (such as poisoning or trapping), there’s no doubt the effectiveness of both. Providing they’re able to check it once every 24 hours (in order to comply with the various legislative requirements across the UK, Spring, Tube, Fenn and other types of tunnel traps will be on the keen airgun hunter’s kit list.
An air pistol should never be used for general hunting, but where a tunnel trap is being used as a method of controlling squirrels, it is an ideal tool to administer the coup de grace. (It’s an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 to release a squirrel back into the wild; it should be despatched quickly and humanely).
Because of the need to get close when hunting with the air rifle, camouflage is essential. As well as choosing a jacket and trousers that blends in to the surroundings, airgunners will benefit from other clothing accessories, like face masks, peaked caps and gloves. Squirrels aren’t the trickiest of quarry, but they are clever enough to associate human flesh with danger once their colony is dwindling to the gun.
Airgunners love an excuse to try another brand of ammo, and aside of the calibre debate, squirrel hunting provides the need to consider a purpose-chosen round. The grey’s is a hard nut to crack, so pellets with a hollow-point configuration will be the choice of those shooters who believe in maximum shocking power, while pointed pellets will be favoured by those who prefer extra penetration. Yes, the classic roundhead will do… but a concerted squirrel effort brings with it the golden opportunity to move the ‘specialist’ tins off the shelves.
When hunting in woodland, even the pop of an air rifle can put the quarry down, so silencers are a particularly valuable asset to the squirrel shooter. When using tactics like a baited feeder, the pests often arrive in groups, so the stealthy hunter has more chance of an even bigger bag.
The cull creates a need for the airgun hunter to have a dedicated rig for greys, and that second rifle can be made into a combo with a new scope, too. Low power is probably the way to go here – the hunting is undertaken at relatively close-quarters and when following a scuttling squirrel through a mass of twigs and branches, a high magnification telly can be far too confusing.
To shoot your squirrel, you first have to locate it – and if you happen to have a low-powered scope on, the airgun hunter will be in need of some bino’s for his longer-range reconnaissance!
Squirrel tails can earn the clever airgun hunter back his pellet money as they’re sought after by angling clubs and fly-tying associations. And as well as de-tailing, the move toward bringing squirrel meat to the human table, rather than just leaving it for Charlie Fox is also another reason the airgunner needs to invest in a decent blade.
If a few feeders have been located around the airgunner’s permission, then there’s probably good reason for him to have a ‘mobile’ hide so he can set up wherever he needs to in an instant. The truth is, the classic pop-up tent hide probably has more worth to the airgun hunter who’s after squirrels than if he’s after pigeons.
And finally, as it’s not just the hunting fraternity who are likely to get caught up in grey squirrel mania, consider putting a tree-rat bias on targets, whether paper or knockdown. If it’s squirrel-shaped, it’s just as likely to get the plinker’s attention as it is the hunter who’s keen to hone his field skills.