A slow spring gave us one more crack at the grey squirrels. It was a last-minute arrangement: a few calls to see who else was available, and off to the usual meeting-place, which starts as a gateway to a drive that looks as if nobody ever goes there.
There are in fact two gates, each double-locked, a long track, and then some wooden buildings. We drive through in convoy, park by the smallest building which serves as our clubhouse, and go in out of the wind to discuss tactics. The wind would not help our shooting on the outskirts, but once in the woods and down the dip we would be more sheltered, and squirrels, not being stupid, would be keeping out of the wind as well. It was no more than a stiff breeze, but enough to make a cold day bitter if you were in the teeth of it.
Only four of us could make it: two shooting, one poling, and one general help, which last was me. Also one whippet, an essential member of the team and an ace squirrel decoy. He’s a smart little dog, never out of temper, never looking for trouble, always searching for game. You can work him with any group of dogs and he just gets on with it, but this day he was solo. His keen eyes can spot a squirrel far up a tree, he can catch a shot squirrel as it falls out, and make sure it is dead, he’ll retrieve it too, but his best trick is something he taught himself. If a squirrel spies a human, it will go round the other side of the tree, but if it sees a dog, it will try to keep the tree between itself and the dog.
The whippet will run ahead, find a squirrel, and work it around the tree so that it is on the same side as the guns, and safe to shoot. We get no end of squirrels as a result of this clever dog. If a tree is sloping, or offers some grip, he will try to climb it, which is marginally less helpful, but you have to admire his spirit.
He doesn’t get all that far, and obviously there is no shooting with a whippet on the tree, but his presence often flusters the squirrel into jumping out.
Stanislaus is very good at shooting squirrels that are airborne between branches; in fact he is an exceptional shot anyway, one suspects from using rather different firearms in very different conditions, but Stanislaus never says.
Normally by now the leaf is on the tree so that dreys are difficult to spot, but the cold has held everything back, and Wayne can drive his poles with surgical precision into the base of each drey. That’s all there is surgical about it, as squirrels leave in all directions, and debris falls impartially on anyone near enough. Very unpleasant debris it is too, and you’ll be scratching all day if you haven’t had the prudence to fill your collar with a scarf, as well as wearing a hat. Having made sure each squirrel is dead, I put the slain in a sack. Those suitable for cooking have a ready market, and those that are not make good ferret food.
We work our way methodically along the rides, and if we miss a drey, it is not for want of trying. Soon my sack is heavy enough to leave at the start of the broadest track, and start filling another, which is better than we had expected.
The whippet never seems to tire; he used to collect the odd bite from a squirrel that had not yet expired when he picked it up, but nowadays nothing gets the chance.
He sniffs briefly at the discarded sack, and then runs on ahead, squirrel-spotting with eyes as sharp as anyone’s.
It’s a long morning’s work, but immensely satisfying, and the woods will benefit from our cull, as will birds not yet hatched from eggs not yet laid.
We pick up the other sack and gather at the hut again, to sort out the catch into those fit for eating and those to go to the ferrets, enjoy the coffee in our flasks, and then debate who will drop in to Old Tom’s to tell him about our day. We decide we all will, and on the way we’ll pass the bakery and pick up something for a late lunch that we can bring with us: he’ll enjoy that.