Pest Control Special
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- Last updated: 25/08/2022
All of us probably started our sporting life shooting some form of vermin, usually with an inherited airgun or an old .410 shotgun. It’s a great way to learn techniques, field craft and what methods and kit works and what does not.
Vermin control can be largely rabbits, rats or squirrels and still ranks as one of the most affordable and accessible forms of shooting still available in the UK today. However, choosing the right kit and using it correctly can still be a baffling prospect, due to the ever-increasing array of calibres and kit on offer!
My advice is to really look at what species you have on offer to you, then assess the terrain and distances that are normal for you to shoot at, so you can buy your kit accordingly, assuming you have the relevant licenses.
Rabbits do not require any hightech equipment to shoot and often the best sport is had when using an airgun, as the ranges are short. Good marksmanship and fieldcraft is required to achieve headshots at less than 30 yards. I have had some of my best rabbiting trips when using a classic springer as that one pellet definitely focuses the mind, helping you to ensure that you do not fluff the shot.
Calibre choice is key, as each one has its own merits. All the 12 ft/lbs .177, .20 and .22 calibres retain good velocity levels out to 30 yards, but the .25 has a 20-25 yard limit in my view.
Beyond 30 yards, the faster, flatter shooting .177 wins on trajectory compared to the slower, bigger .22, with the .20 close behind. At 45 yards, maximum for a 12 ft/ lbs airgun, the .22 trajectory falls away fast, with a 30 yard zero the .177 is only -1.3” low, whilst a .22 pellet at the same energy figure is -2.8” low. At 50 yards it is double the drop of the faster .177, -4.4” compared to -2.2”. The .20 slips in rather nicely with a drop of only -2.7” at 45 yards, so not that far behind the .22. At 12 ft/lbs, the .177 probably has the edge, as it is not until you start shooting the .20 at FAC velocities that there then becomes a much clearer advantage.
Moving on from airguns, the mainstay for rabbit shooting has the be the good old .22 rimfire, especially when using subsonic ammunition and a good sound moderator. I don’t really use .22 HV ammo as it’s too noisy and not necessary where I shoot, although the RWS HV ammo has always been very consistent and accurate in my rifles. Let us not forget the .17 HMR or .22WMR, the former is far more popular and certainly has great merits in its flat shooting capabilities.
As for rifle choice, I would certainly recommend a good bolt action rifle, such as a CZ 452, 455 or the newer 457. Ruger’s American model offers good value for money, as do the new Bergara BMR steel or carbon fibre rifles. The Tikka T1X is also a superb all-rounder in any calibre. For a touch of class, Anschutz still offers reliable and accurate, premium quality rimfires that last for ages and can take a lot of abuse. Although, there is no denying the appeal of a semi-automatic rimfire, such as the good old Ruger 10/22, Remington 597 or Bergara BXR. They all allow a super-fast second shot, and when out lamping, this can be a distinct advantage. Finally, the Browning T-Bolt straight-pull is a good rabbit rifle, as it is both lightweight and extremely accurate, plus the 10-shot helical magazine provides good capacity.
Because of the low velocity of a subsonic .22 rimfire bullet, it has a very curved trajectory. This means that when you zero your scope at 30 yards, you actually have two zero points as the bullet raises and drops above the line of sight.
Therefore, a top tip is by zeroing at 50 yards, you actually have less compensation for your aiming mark, as the bullet stays within a 1.0” ‘window’ or rabbit head and neck kill area size from 10 yards to 60 yards. You are also zeroed at 50 yards and also at 20 yards, so close rabbits need no aiming change. This is really handy if you are out lamping when range estimation is hard at the best of times.
The rat is universally loathed by home, farm and landowners alike. Their large numbers and liking to inhabit farm yards means the shooter will almost be guaranteed a worthwhile pest control session. Tactics and equipment can be varied, with stalking, ambushing, baiting and lamping all a possibility.
The brown rat, as with squirrels, can be tough little critters to dispatch instantly. Tactics in the summer months usually sees the rats within the fields and hedgerows, plus in the culverts and ditches. Here, you can stalk as you would a rabbit, which can actually be quite exciting and difficult equally, but once one is shot, you usually have a long wait to see another.
As the food or foliage drops and makes way for winter, the rats are more active around barns etc, largely due to the stores of grain and livestock foodstuffs stored there. Here you need to look for runs, holes, burrows, teeth marks on wood and a real giveaway - droppings.
Armed with this information, you can decide where to position. Being elevated also helps as shots are less likely to give away your position, but recheck your rifle’s trajectory when shooting at a steep angle, shots will go high, especially with 12 ft/lbs airguns.
If you are a bit impatient, then baiting can really help speed things up. Bait an area along the runs or at dead zones where a safe shot is guaranteed. Do this about an hour before you begin shooting, at a certain time, so the rats get used to it being there. Do not place at the rat’s burrow entrance or holes disappearing into bales, otherwise, there is a risk of a wounded rat. I use old scraps from home, but dog food or peanut butter smeared on rafters or the floor can hold a rat in one position. Also, sweetcorn from a tin that has been opened for a week works really well.
The equipment used to tackle rats can be very varied, which is probably why I like rat shooting, as it means you can mix it up a bit with all manner of bullets, pellets, lasers, night vision equipment or lamps.
Air rifles are really good rat tools, especially when shooting around a farm yard, as there are all sorts of hazards, such as glass, plastic roofs, machinery and livestock. A standard 12 ft/lbs air rifle can be both silent and very effective if used at close range from a fixed position. A PCP repeater with a detachable magazine makes sense and allows a speedy second or third shot, which is quite often necessary on rats. Me, I like the simplicity of a singleshot spring or gas ram, my favourite being any Weihrauch HW35 or HW80, as well as the lovely old Venom Arms models. Mustn’t forget the Air Arms Prosport or TX200HC either. Calibres can be anything from .177 to .25, but you have to be careful that the faster, smaller calibre does not over-penetrate and damage anything behind your quarry. That’s why I love the HW80 in .25 calibre or my FAC-rated Theoben Eliminator in .25. Classically a rat calibre, the big, lumbering, 19-grain Rhino pellet has a curved trajectory for sure, but at the ranges rats are shot, it’s not too much of a problem. Proportionally, a .25 pellet to a rat’s anatomy is large and the trauma of the shot is very effective, although I still go for a head shot when I can.
Subsonic .22 LR rounds at 1050 fps mean extra care must be taken with ricochets and ‘collateral damage’when shooting rats. However, the extra energy is worth it because scurrying rats or sitters can be dropped instantly without the fear of them disappearing down a hole or between a straw bale. Sometimes I will use CCI CB long rounds because their 29-grain bullet at 705 fps | 32 ft/lbs energy cycle through a bolt action fine and reduce the risk of over-penetration. Rifle choice is the same as for rabbits but lamps and NV or thermal add-ons are very handy.
Due to the short ranges and the need for fast target acquisition, I like low-powered scopes with mags from 1.1 – 5x tops, this gives you a wide field of view to spot, track and shoot a rat, yet still have enough peripheral vision to check the backdrop and spot other rats. The old Simmons 1.5-5x20 is great, as is the Leupold 1-5x20, I also like Hawke’s Vantage or Nikko Stirling’s Diamond scopes, which are very hard to beat. As are the many Hawke red dot sights that are available on higher than normal mounts, as they help to keep a ‘heads up’ stance for quick shooting, if necessary.
An illuminated reticle can also be very handy in the gloom of a barn or shed, but if using a lamp, then it’s not really an issue. Lamps with a variable beam width are handy, so you can scan a large area of cover and then wind things down for a more concentrated beam. I love the Night Master Trident with its two coloured and single infrared beam options. It is so great as a lamp or covert IR illuminator, all in one.
Stepping up to night vision and thermal (this goes for rabbits too) gives you a clear advantage, as after the initial shot, so long as you do not move, rats become a bit disorientated to where the shot has come from and often come out sooner than if lamped in the dark.
Digital NV sights are ideal, such as Pulsar’s Digex C50 weapon sight and Infiray’s Rico. Add-ons are also good, such as Pulsar’s Forward F455S model that attaches to your existing scope. Thermal monoculars, such as the Pulsar Axion or Infiray FH25R, are excellent for detecting rats that are hiding, plus rabbits and squirrels for that matter!
I really look forward to my days out squirrel shooting, as I can mix and match the gun to the specific style of squirrelling that is necessary. I favour a rifle for a spot of precise squirrel ambushing, but I do still use a .410 shotgun when dray or tree shooting. We all know how tough these little critters can be and a single projectile to the vitals must be clinically administered. Squirrels in trees or on top of farm buildings are only shot if there is a safe backdrop and this is why I use air rifles, both normal 12 ft/lbs energy and FAC-rated ones at 25 ft/lbs, as their limited range allows shots to be taken where other forms of firearms are unsuitable.
When it comes to rimfires, ammunition choice is crucial for safety as well as lethality. As previously mentioned, I like to use reduced velocity rimfire cartridges like the CCI CB. They give you 20 ft/ lbs more than a 12 ft/lbs air rifle, making them more effective and the risk of ricochets is reduced when compared to a standard .22 rimfire round, making them safer to use.
With .410 shotguns, I like the fully suppressed Stealth or Hushpower models and I use either the Eley Extra Long Subsonic 18-gram loads or Lyalvale Express 18-gram Magnasonic cartridges. However, the new Eley Target with its payload of No 7.5 shot works very well at close ranges, as does the universally good, Hull High Pheasant Magnum loading with 18-grams of No 6s.
I also like to use a .17 HMR if I know that the ranges may be extended a bit and the flatter trajectory of the HMR over a standard .22 rimfire is beneficial. Here, any of the 17-grain V-Max or TNT loads are fine at the average 2550 fps level, but I do like the 15.5-grain lead-free option with the NTX loadings in both the Hornady and Winchester ammunition - it’s fast, light and effective, plus eco-friendly.
Tactically, squirrel shooting techniques vary depending on the location, as I either hunt drays, ambush the woodland floor where the squirrels forage or wait around farm buildings where squirrels use the dry roofs and concrete walls as runways to their next meal.
Drays are pretty obvious to the naked eye and are easily spotted in tree tops, especially during the winter months with the leaves off the branches. I tend to make a note of all the drays I can find in a wood and use this as a reference come the summer months, where visibility is obscured.
Traditionally, a good prod with a dray pole leads to a scattering of squirrels along the branches, which can then be taken with shotguns. However, I more often than not find a dry spot facing the dray, usually with my back against a tree and certainly downwind. Make sure you haven’t sat yourself on the squirrel’s favourite run to his dray, otherwise both of you might get a very close encounter! I learned the hard way while squatting down against an oak tree behind a small fallen branch, as a squirrel literally hopped onto the branch inches from my face and both of us let out an unnatural sound. I decided to call it a day.
Technique wise, if no drays are visible then a wood or woodland edge is still a good spot, as a marauding squirrel will not be that far away. In these situations, you can try calling in squirrels. There are many squirrel calls on the market that mimic that characteristic rapid chatter that squirrels make when they are inquisitive and not sure of an object. I prefer to mimic the call by pressing my tongue against my closed mouth and then sucking hard whilst I lower my jaw to cause a rhythmic tone. In this way, you are not moving your hands to get a call into your mouth and both hands can be on the rifle in readiness. Call for about 10 seconds, stop, add a few shorter chatters, then stop and wait for either a reply, which quickens the pulse somewhat or for a squirrel to hop into view.
With regards to rifle type, like rabbit shooting, a bolt-action, straight-pull or semi-automatic will do. In truth, there is little difference, especially at the ranges you shoot squirrels. I prefer bolt-actions as you can use reduced loads that will not function in repeating rifles.
Regardless of the rifle type I use, I always strive to achieve a clean headshot rather than a body shot, as squirrels are tough and it ensures a humane kill. If you make a heart shot on a squirrel that is located on a trunk or barn, it will instinctively grip tightly to stop itself from falling and often you end up trying to retrieve a dead squirrel from a lofty perch, which is not ideal.
Squirrels often use the farm buildings as aerial runways and this is an ideal time to break out the airgun, as standard power air rifles are great. Any of the four calibres are suitable (.177, .20, .22 or .25) and I have used all four. As previously mentioned, the .177 calibre offers a flatter trajectory but at short ranges, this is not necessarily an advantage. In fact, the small pellets can over-penetrate a headshot squirrel and still break a window if not careful.
A good tip is to use attractants, such as peeled fruit, golden syrup with hazel nuts or nuts from a garden centre. All of them can be irresistible to squirrels. They are useful and help to bring squirrels into a safe shooting zone or to attract them away from areas you do not want them. I have also successfully used an aniseed spray that Roe deer are quite partial as well. Just spray a tree limb or tree stump where a squirrel might sit.
Just a few techniques and ideas on kit and ammo etc. To be honest, it’s an endless subject, but these methods seem to work for me. Realistically, I would suggest starting with a good airgun and practising at home on targets set at different ranges before setting forth into the field to hone your skills.
CH Westons - Airgun Pellets - www.airgunexpress.co.uk
RUAG - Bergara and Anschutz - www.ruag.com/en
Donaldson’s Gunsmiths - Rimfire
Ammunition - www.donaldson-guns.co.uk
John Rothery - Pellets – www.bisley-uk.com
Hawke - Vantage Scopes – www.uk.hawkeoptics.com
Highland Outdoors - Nikko Stirling Scopes - www.highlandoutdoors.co.uk
Night Master - Trident and NM1 Lamps - www.nightmaster.co.uk
Thomas Jacks - Pulsar NV and Thermal - www.thomasjacks.co.uk
Justcartridges - 410 Cartridges - www.justcartridges.com
BushWear - Attractants - www.bushwear.co.uk