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The art and joy of precision field target and airgun shooting. Photos, tech spec, reports.
"Airgunning" is the oldest Field Target website in Portugal. Online since 16-02-1999,
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Squirrels and Rats
Reprinted from Air Rifle Hunting by John Darling


One of my favorites is the grey squirrel. It's a handsome and tricky quarry -- rarely as easy to hit as you hope, but often giving opportunities that really bring out the marksman in you. I can think of several very satisfying shots I've had at squirrels. One day I was so much on form that it seemed as though a supernatural force was steering my shots. I think I was feeling super-fit, or something, but the cross-hairs seemed to sit untrembling on every mark I went for. It was great. I came across a squirrel at extreme range. I was standing in a valley, and the little animal was sitting at the top of a tall larch growing out of the bank. The squirrel was out on a branch, its silvery tail looped like a handle on its back, about a foot away from the trunk. It was a long, high shot. To make it harder, a thin tracery of larch twigs hung between us. Mounting the rifle, I found my mark. The squirrel was watching me, but through the six-power scope I could also see twigs that would interfere with my shot. Some, almost out of focus, were close to me. Others were right in front of my mark.

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I carefully shuffled to one side, keeping the squirrel in the sights until I could see clear sky all the way through. I aimed high, well aware that my pellet would have to pass half an inch under one twig if it was to find its mark and not ricochet harmlessly into the tree. With the cross-hairs about two inches above its eye, and without a sign of a tremble, I softly squeezed the trigger. The squirrel leapt from its branch, and sailed through the air, tumbling down the bank and landing stone-dead at my feet in a patter of autumn leaves. I'd hit exactly where I'd intended. I have pulled off some memorable shots at moving targets. They're easy to miss by miles. If you're presented with a squirrel racing through the trees swing past its nose, keep the cross-hairs there, and when the moment looks right, push through a bit faster and squeeze at about six inches past its whiskers, keeping swinging.

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Naturally, your own technique may differ from mine, but this is the way I learned to shoot moving targets. The difference between shooting this way and with a shotgun is that you have first to find a precise sight picture with a rifle. Running squirrels rarely offer such an opportunity. Shot-gun shooters use a tubeful of shot which they swing like an extension of their right arm. All those dozens of pellets permit much greater fluency of action. Squirrels have preferred feeding places, and marked routes from these to their dreys. Some of these highways pass over long branches which act as bridges between one mass of cover and another. It is on these that you can take moving shots as the squirrel scampers across in front of you, Be quick and decisive or your mark will be gone.

Get it right, though, and the squirrel will be knocked flying off the branch. As you pick it up and see the telltale bead of blood staining the fur above its heart, you'll think to yourself 'Did I do that?' Squirrels aren't popular with foresters because they have a passion for nibbling at growing shoots. This can result in misshapen mature trees, thus lowering the ultimate size and value of the crop. I feel moved to remark that humans are incredibly arrogant to condemn a wild creature simply because its mode of life clashes with the presumed needs of man.

Nevertheless, foresters have quite a strong case because the grey is not only an introduced species, but it has ousted the smaller red squirrel from much of its natural habitat. The reason I hunt squirrels is because the estate I shoot on has been given over almost entirely to wildlife projects. Grey squirrels are curious animals and like to meddle wherever they can. They also have a taste for the pupae of one of Britain's rarest butterflies, the purple emperor. The grey is quite capable of holding its own: though like all wild creatures, the young are incredibly naive early in the autumn. You'll find it necessary to wear full camouflage for squirrel shooting.

They have very sharp eyes and often slip away before you're in range. At times they will sit frozen on a branch as you walk past. You, too, need sharp eyes to pick them out from the leaves and branches. Very often you'll see them chasing each other through the boughs, allowing you to plan a stalk. Yet from their high vantage point they can spot every movement beneath them, and often there just isn't enough cover to allow you to get within range. Much depends on how jumpy your squirrels are. Because at all the conservation projects on the estate, the squirrels get hammered by my friend and his twelve-bore. Nowadays they race away to the thickest yew tree or belt of conifers like scalded cats. If squirrels don't feel as persecuted as this, they'll often run to a tree, climb up about five yards, then clamp to the trunk or a branch, if there isn't a hole or a drey to shelter in.

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As you walk around the trunk, you'll catch the sight of fur, then as you creep into position for a shot, the squirrel will sidle further around the trunk, probably climbing even higher. The trick is to place your coat or something highly visible on the ground a few yards away from the side of the tree you started from and hope that as you and the squirrel play hide-and-seek around the trunk, it'll decide that the coat is more threatening than you, allowing you to get it into your sights. However, it doesn't often work like this, and you'll bc presented with plenty of opportunities for vertical snap shooting. Remember that when you're shooting vertically, the pull of gravity on the pellet is at right angles to how it was when you zeroed the rifle, so the trajectory is completely different. Aim slightly low. Better still, take a few vertical shots at the undersides of dead branches and mark how the point of impact differs from your point of zero. Squirrels spend a lot of time in their dreys.

These are untidy clumps of leaves and branches in the cleft of a tree or woven into the ivy. An old drey is a thin, skimpy affair, with many of its leaves blown away by winds. Those that are in use look new, with plenty of fresh leaves woven into the structure. On occasions, I have chased squirrels out of their dreys. With so much thick thatch around them, it sometimes takes four or five shots before the occupants come scampering out on to the branches or go racing away through the trees in search of a safer hole.

Often their reaction is to dive out of the drey, run up the trunk few feet and clamp themselves to the trunk while they check out the situation. Reload slowly or you'll be spotted and it'll be back to games of hide-and-seek around the trunk with lots of twigs to steer a telling shot through. I have now decided that it isn't fair to shoot at dreys. It is possible to kill squirrel in its bed, but the chances are higher that a wounded animal will emerge. As it is the hunter's duty to avoid this at all costs, I prefer to let them slumber undisturbed, biding my time for when the weather is right. Squirrels like cheerful weather. They hibernate for parts of the winter, but strong sun in even the thickest snow will bring out some to scratch around for their buried stores of nuts.

The best of the shooting has to be in the autumn woods after the first storms have thinned the leaves a bit. Go out on a fine, sunny morning and you'll never find the woods more enchanting. I love to sec the changing autumn colours, along with all the signs of game. These are abundant after the breeding season. Squirrels are everywhere, too, and in the sunshine they'll be foraging all over the forest floor and high in their favorite trees. There's no need to chase them out of bed on a morning like this. By mid-afternoon you should have quite a mixed bag -- with squirrels, pigeons and maybe a magpie or jay - after walking and stalking for several miles through magnificent scenery. You'll probably end up far from home and feeling ravenously hungry, especially if there's a nip of frost in the air. Perhaps I should have a more serious mind, but I have to confess that one at the greatest attractions that hunting holds for me is that it allows me to enjoy my hobby amid lovely scenery and beautiful countryside.

Then, when I do get home, there's absolutely no doubt that I'll do full justice to all those delicious smells that are wafting from the kitchen. Maybe they'll be from the produce of other hunts. There's an important point that has to be observed if you're going to shoot well in woodland - you've got to hide your face, even if that means painting it with blobs of camouflage make-up. Very often you will have to move about with your face pointing skywards, searching for either the quarry or a useful sight picture. But wild creatures feel uncomfortable when they see that little pink moon shining up at them. By hiding it, you'll bc less likely to spook your quarry, giving you longer to compose your sight picture before squeezing off a shot.


I don't think that rats are very lovable, even though people keep them as pets. Mind you, these are nicely sanitized creatures compared to the wild brown rat. This little fellow is linked to some of man's greatest moments of squalor, like the Black Death and the trenches during World War One. Outbreaks of bubonic plague are now rare, but rats still carry diseases, like tetanus and Weil's syndrome, both of which can kill. Obviously you don't mess with rats, but if one bites you see your doctor straight away. It is these undesirable aspects that make people dislike rats so much. Even though they're clean little animals, the diseases they carry are about as appalling as the filthy places where they live - sewers, rubbish dumps, and neglected areas. During the summer, rats spend quite a lot of time in the fields, often in colonies along the banks of ditches. Then they aren't easy to shoot because the cover is generally too long, although a bit of pruning will improve your chances of a clear shot.

You should remember that rats are fair game to cats, owls, and foxes. This is quite enough reason for them to be very shy at times. Once the cover goes, many rats make tracks to farm buildings and similar sheltered areas where they can spend the winter in dry, comfortable conditions, with plenty of food close by. This migration starts soon after harvest time, especially if heavy rains come early. You'll notice the occasional specimen that has been flattened on the road. You don't have to wait until this late in the year to get to grips with rats, lots of them linger around farm buildings throughout the year. It is here that they do most damage, especially to sackfuls of feed and seed, and most farmers would prefer to be without them. Whether or not you'll be allowed to shoot around the farmyard is something else again.

Some farmers may have visions of you blinding the cowman, causing hugely expensive claims for damages. A lot depends on the farm, though. Modern farm buildings and yards consist of areas of solid concrete. This denies rats the cluttered corners and overgrown ditch banks where they build up stable warrens. However, there are still plenty of scruffy, old-fashioned farms around. When shooting rats around farm buildings, you probably won't want a powerful rifle because of the danger of ricochets in a confined space. This applies particularly when shooting inside barns.

Rats live among the rafters as much as under the walls, so frequently you will be presented with opportunities to swat them out of the roof. If the gun is too powerful, you could end up smashing tiles. Even worse, you may break a window. If broken glass falls among hay for feed, you'll have to explain it to an angry farmer. First, you have to find your stock of rats. Look for their runs, holes, droppings, and for signs of foraging. The classic case of the nibbled sack, with corn running out of the hole, is only too familiar to farmers everywhere.

Indeed, these animals are so indiscreet that they readily give away their presence. You have to study them, though, just like any other wild animal, if you're to have worthwhile shooting instead of a long, lonely wait. They're pretty active by day and by night. It all depends on the amount of disturbance they are subjected to, so obviously this has to be borne in mind. However, rats become most active once the sun has set. Get up on the bales of sweet-scented hay and wait for the action. Settle yourself comfortably, for under these conditions you can ensure maximum steadiness by shooting from the field target competitor's sitting position, or by using a bale as a rest. Below you, in the pens, calves are settling for the night, and the piglets have gone into a huddle in a straw-filled corner. Apart from the occasional contented grunt or soft rustling, all is quiet. A lone bulb hangs low from the rafters of this ancient, flint barn. At its opposite end, just twenty yards away, the feed milling machine lies silent in the cold glare at the lamp. Beside it stands a wide, stone-walled bay. It's piled with barley - and rat droppings. And there's the first. Keeping close to the wall, a dark shape comes sidling out of the darkened corner, heading for the bay.

Through the scope you can see it scuttling a few feet, then stopping to case the joint, its bright eyes and twitching whiskers reaching out for signs of danger. Center the cross-hairs just below the ear and a little in front. Quick now, before it makes the shelter of the milling machine, take it at the next pause. There. It stops, and up comes its snout, testing the air as you touch the trigger. The shot snatches it with a loud plop, flinging it against the crumbling flint wall.

The back legs twitch a couple of times, but it's all over. Moments later, a movement from on top of the wall beside the bay catches your eye. There's another one, sitting on the edge of the shadows in the corner, hunched up and watching, its scaly tail drooping over the side of the wall. Through the scope you see not one, but two rats, one partly hidden by the other, and it looks like the front one is staring straight at you. Disconcerting though it is, it's just coincidence. There's no way the big old critter could detect you. Center the crosshairs between its eyes and squeeze before it shuffles away. With a reflex leap it jumps into the bay and sprawls amid the barley. At the same time there's a terrified shriek as the other rat races along the wall and dives for one of the emergency exits.

Don't break cover, though. Ten minutes later, another rat comes out, this time from the same corner as the first one. Seeing the first corpse, it stops and goes to investigate. It seems to be sniffing it most intently. Through the scope you observe just how repulsive rats really are - this one is lapping the blood of its fallen comrade - much more nourishing than barley. Keep a steady bead and make sure it catches the next shuttle to the great sewer in the sky. A friend in Wales has an excellent way of shooting rats. He puts out a slab of rock on the edge of a stream along which the rats go about their nightly business. He baits the rock.

One night he. goes with a lamp and throws a soft beam on to the rock. A rat jumps on to the rock, grabs a piece of food, and jumps off again into the overhanging grass. The next one is much slower and pays the price. Five minutes later another appears. It's a good sport for two people on a winter's evening, and bags of a couple of dozen or more are common. It trains you to shoot quickly. You can set up the same type of baited trap in deserted buildings, rubbish tips and other rat havens.


[ Source: Martin's Airgunning Homepage ]





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