By Ian Valentine
Thursday, 27 March 2008
We provided an experienced squirrel controller with a new calling gadget from the US to see whether
it increases his success rate. Ian Valentine reports from the woods of East Sussex
This magazine has long been a champion of the enduring fieldcraft skills of generations past but, like every industry, we have to move with the times. Therefore, new inventions claiming to benefit activities such as vermin control should be given our full attention. When we saw a thread on the shootingtimes.co.uk forum debating the merits of a new US grey squirrel call against the more traditional methods of drey poking, tunnel trapping or ambush with shotgun or rifle we decided to give it a trial.
The forum visitors had passed on tips about vermin control. Among other topics including ballistics, camouflage and cooking, the conversation turned to the Primos Squirrel Buster Pak [sic], a bellows-style call from across the pond that promises to attract the bushy-tailed varmint with remarkable ease. From the distress squeal of a young squirrel to the chatter of a grey, this call does it all. You wont be disappointed with your selection, boasts the blurb on the package. This call reproduces all five calls of the grey and fox squirrels language: alarm bark, distress scream, grey squirrel chatter, grey squirrel squeal and fox squirrel chatter.
Happily we do not have the American fox squirrel here, but we do have their greys in out-of-control numbers, so any gadget that makes controlling them easier should be applauded. According to commentators in the US, the squirrels fall over themselves to come into range of an air rifle when they hear the lifelike call of the Squirrel Buster, so for the benefit of science, not to mention our own indigenous red squirrel, we put the gizmo to the test.
To give the Buster the best chance of succeeding, we needed to place it in the hands of a fieldcraft expert who knows the woods and its occupants intimately. Roy Foster is a poacher turned gamekeeper from Sussex who can read a woodland scene like Miss Marple can a country house tea party. Growing up in Lancashire, one of 13 children, fresh meat was often beyond the family means, so anything he could glean from the neighbouring countryside was a welcome windfall.
Squirrel meat has always played a part in my diet, as it has for my children, Roy explained, when we met up on the morning of the experiment at Ashbourne estate, where he works as a part-time keeper. Now approaching his 50th birthday, Roy still enjoys the delicate flesh of these damaging pests. Just whip off the fillets and legs, flash-fry them and theyre delicious. My children ate almost every variety of meat imaginable when they were growing up. They didnt know what it was, so it never worried them.
Roy has spent many hours over the years chasing the squirrel, though he has never thought to use a call that would bring the squirrel to him. His preferred method of squirrel control is the tunnel trap. I admit that I enjoy trapping, he said, as we had a nose round his workshop before setting out. Anything which demands that you pit your wits against a wild animal in its back yard is extremely satisfying when it works. You are playing on the animals weakness, in this case the squirrels curious nature. They are a little bit like small children, in that they will test out anything new or inviting by putting their paws or mouth on it. A dark hole or tunnel, especially if it smells of another animal, is simply too tempting to ignore.
The benefit of a trap is that it works 24 hours a day, allowing the trapper to go off and do something else. Roy prefers to check his traps twice a day rather than the recommended once because a tripped trap is a trap out of action and it is not uncommon for an engaged trap to be destroyed by an opportunistic fox.
Setting an ambush
There is more than one way to skin a squirrel though. Roy has harvested many a meal for the table by simply sitting at the base of a tree and waiting. It is easy to over-complicate things, said Roy, settling down into a groove at the foot of an oak tree, as he has done many times before. By slipping a camouflage balaclava over his head, he quickly melted into the surroundings. If you get to your post at 6am, before the woods wake up, then you will be amazed at what comes by, totally unaware that you are there. Animals leave the most blatant tracks where they like to pass.
If you learn to read the signs it is not difficult to predict where they will go. Just like us, they follow the same path almost every day, sticking to where there are familiar sights and smells. Squirrels are no different. Work out what they are likely to be eating that day, whether it is nuts, fruits, invertebrates or grain from the pheasant hopper, and they will invariably turn up. It is then a case of waiting for the shot to present itself. With a bit of patience, any animal will end up at the right distance with a backstop for a safe shot, whether it is a deer, fox, rabbit or squirrel; but if it doesnt, then so be it. Leave it be and wait for the next time.
Roy chose to sit in a location where he has seen squirrels before. These oak trees, covered in ivy are a favoured place for the grey, he
said, going through the routine of shakes, rattles and rolls as outlined by the friendly American voice on the CD that accompanies the gadget. Youll also spot a few dreys in the treetops, though I have to admit Ive shot most of them out with a shotgun. Through one it was possible to see a round hole where the shot had passed. However, since the storms in 1987, weve noticed a marked reduction in the number of dreys, because there are so many natural fissures and holes in the damaged trees that the squirrels dont need to make nests from leaves.
The woods held plenty of signs of squirrel life, including bark damage where the omnivores had plundered the sap, which is rising at this time of year. Roy stuck his knife into the side of a silver birch and the sweet liquid ran out like water from a leaky tap. You could get enough for a cup of tea in no time, he said, sealing the puncture with a small twig. Boil it up and add an ordinary tea bag. It is delicious and it does no lasting damage to the tree, as long as you stop the flow once youre done. Roy also pointed out a stick which had been stripped by the strong incisors of a rabbit.
Bark is a food source for rabbits during leaner times. Scuff marks in the leafy woodland litter showed where squirrels had rooted about for insects lurking within, and almost every feeder hanging from the branches for the pheasants had nibble marks. It is amazing how they can bite their way though thick plastic, Roy said, with begrudging admiration. On some feeders, they have chewed all the way through. I often think the role keepers play in feeding other animals is forgotten by our detractors. I would say only about 50 per cent of grain is eaten by gamebirds in these woods.
Put to the test
We had given Roy a week to put the Squirrel Buster through its paces. He quickly learned how to recreate the distress call of a young squirrel, the chatter of squirrels squabbling in the treetops and even the aggressive bark of a territorial squirrel. But sadly the results had been unconvincing, despite numerous attempts. Im afraid that every squirrel I have tried to talk to has run away, said Roy. I have hidden and waited for a squirrel to get close, which I might have ordinarily been able to shoot with my .22, and as soon as I made a chatter noise with the call it ran off. But on the plus side, I have shot two foxes with it. One of them came running in the hope of getting an easy meal. Ive also noticed that carrion crows will come for a closer look.
Certainly, during the two hours that we sat and tried out the call in the woods, there was no sign of a grey squirrel. Given that there were three of us and a camera it was perhaps no great surprise, but there was no chance of being over-run with squirrels as the blurb for the Squirrel Buster promised. Yet Roy is prepared to give the new call the benefit of the doubt. This has hardly been conclusive, exhaustive research, he said,
giving a final forlorn rattle on the bellows. I would say that the chatter and warning bark calls are pretty accurate, so maybe at a different time of year it might work. After all, there are times of the year when a deer or fox can be squeaked and others when they will run away. Perhaps
it is the same for squirrels. I have never heard them make the high-pitched whistle noise, which they say is similar to the distress call, but then that does double as a fox squeaker.
I imagine it would fool a barn owl if you wanted to photograph one. And I reckon the chatter noise would do a good job as a mallard call. The whole thing is well made and easy to use, but I cant say Ill be taking it out again in a hurry to control squirrels. In conclusion, therefore, it was a cross against the Primos Squirrel Buster and a tick in the box for old-fashioned trapping and fieldcraft. However, at a different time of year against more talkative squirrels in higher densities, then perhaps it would earn its stripes. Yet, for all that, Roy was in no hurry to give it back. It may not fool the squirrels, but foxes seem to fall for it every time. Maybe I could find a use for it after all. If anyone has had better luck with the Squirrel Buster Shooting Times would love to hear.
For further information on the Primos Squirrel Buster Pak, visit www.bushwear.co.uk For more on Ashbourne estate, including clay shooting, trout fishing and the Ashbourne McDougal challenge, visit www.ashbourne country.com or email mail@ashbourne country.com Also visit www.shootinguk.co.uk/forums
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