Mat Manning enjoys an early autumn day in the woods, where the pests are going nuts for beech mast
The arrival of autumn is an exciting time for hunters. Apart from the fact that the countryside looks absolutely beautiful, the abundance of natural food often brings on a frenzy of activity among quarry species as they fatten themselves up and stash surplus grub away in readiness for the winter months.
One of my shoots provides fine dining for all kinds of pests at this time of year. Apart from a glut of nuts and seeds from oak, beech and hazel trees, there’s also the added appeal of a non-stop supply of food from the pheasant feeders. Vermin including grey squirrels, corvids and rats have been enjoying the feast, so I thought I’d pay a visit in an effort to help the gamekeeper get on top of what is potentially a very expensive problem.
Wild animals, pest species included, tend to use tracks that follow linear features in the landscape, and the outer boundaries of pheasant release pens often become busy wildlife corridors. Gamekeepers know this, and that’s why you’ll frequently see traps set along the outer edge in readiness for unwelcome visitors including grey squirrels, rats, stoats and weasels – obviously, these pests are also drawn by the temptation of what’s kept inside the pen, so the fence line quickly becomes an important part of their regular rounds.
Of course, artful critters like grey squirrels soon become savvy to the traps, and frequent visits with the air rifle are an effective way of cracking down on pests that make it past the gamekeeper’s defences. Bearing this in mind, I made straight for the pens, expecting to find one or two squirrels helping themselves to the pheasant’s rations.
“Scanning the ground beneath the hazels, a scattering of smashed shells suggested that the squirrels had been busy”
Surprisingly, I didn’t see a single bushy-tail, but I did spook a wily old jay that was helping itself to the grain. Handsome as they are in their resplendent pink and blue plumage, jays share the magpie’s fondness for nest theft, and frequently prey on the eggs and chicks of game birds and songbirds, so I was sorry not to get a chance to bring this one to book.
Trekking on, I drifted down to the edge of a large release pen which is bordered by a stand of tall beech trees that tower over an understorey of hazel bushes. Scanning the ground beneath the hazels, a scattering of smashed shells suggested that the squirrels had been busy. Although the floor was littered with empty cases, the bushes were absolutely bare – the squirrels had clearly had their fill.
Just as I was about to move on, a faint pattering sound caught my ear. The noise sounded like the slow tinkle of rain droplets falling through the leaves but, with the weather set fair, and going by past experience of hunting in autumn, I knew the noise didn’t herald the arrival of a sudden shower – not a shower of the wet kind anyway; something was raining down from the treetops: a cascade of discarded beech husks.