I’ve never much liked the idea of shooting over a bait point. Naturally, there are good reasons to do so if time is scarce and squirrels are doing a great deal of damage to young trees, but I generally avoid it because for me, it’s not really hunting. Happily, at this time of year the bait points are all around us as the lack of readily available food forces squirrels onto the ground, Charlie Portlock explains.
It’s here that they forage what they can from the few seasonal crops of nuts that have escaped detection but more frequently from their protein rich caches beneath the earth. Although around 80% of these are remembered and used later, it’s thought that up to 20% of these stores are fakes, designed to throw off potential thieves. This amount increases when they think they’re being watched. Clever.
In the end though it all comes back to mast (nuts) as squirrels will actively seek out the areas of your woodland where the most mast is to be found.
The Mast Year
A “mast year” is a year of abundance for nut producing trees. It’s thought that long lived trees like oak will preserve most of their energy until the optimum climatic conditions exists for the pollination of their female flowers. This means that they can produce a large seed crop every three or four years leading to a higher chance that some of the seeds will survive to propagate more trees. Releasing smaller amounts in the ‘off’ year has the added benefit of reducing predator populations preceding a bumper year and thus increases the likelihood of seed survival.An understanding of mast production can help hunters to determine exactly where and when we should be placing ourselves throughout the seasons if we want to encounter squirrels.
Squirrels, like all other animals, must consume a certain amount of calories per day if they’re to be healthy, sexually competitive and able to avoid predation and mast is the primary source of these calories. It pays to keep a close eye on your woodlands and if you know that this year was a great year for nuts then they’re less likely to be raiding the pheasant feeders and may well be spending more time on the woodland floor in the areas near their dreys.
In the field
At this time of year I’m looking for open areas close to the mature standard trees in which squirrels like to make their homes. Between December and February you’ll often encounter sexually mature animals chasing each other around the trunks of these trees either in some display of dominance or courtship which is fascinating to watch. Grey squirrels aren’t territorial in the traditional sense and they won’t defend and hold distinct territories but they do bite and display aggression to those who attempt to compete with their access to a particular food source or female.
Greys spend around 60% of their lives on the woodland floor (compared to about 13% for reds) and at this time of year this is the best place to find them. One of my favourite hunting grounds is a four acre patch of naturally regenerated woodland bordering a mature beech plantation (not heavily productive this year but there are hundreds of trees). There’s a water source, four large oaks and it borders an arable field so has plenty of light which greys seem to look for when sighting their nests. It’s also the site of a series of old lime kilns and the deeply undulating ground is a belt of squirrel activity, providing a link between their dreys in the big standard oaks and the sometimes dense beech mast of the bordering plantation. Look for similar features and won’t go far wrong.
It’s all about nuts
It’s not always possible to predict where and when greys will be most active (unless we use a camera trap and keep detailed records) but by paying attention to mast we can make our lives easier, our shooting more productive and perhaps deepen our understanding of the way that woodland ecosystems work. Look for the nuts and the greys will never be far away.
Look for the nuts and the greys will never be far away.
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