If you have been reading my Twitter feed you will have perhaps noticed that the squirrels are winning and wondered what on earth I am talking about? The battle has been a long one, I need to go right back to the beginning.
When we moved here, there were no squirrels. Sure, I saw a few in the Park, but there were none in the garden. I put out bird feeders straight away, and for a couple of years it stayed like that. Birds eating bird seed, happy observers. Then a squirrel arrived, and destroyed my plastic feeders. Undeterred, I bought metal feeders, which it also found to its liking. So if you can't beat it, I thought, perhaps provide an alternate food supply? I purchased and erected a dedicated squirrel feeder with squirrel food in it, right on the fence where it likes to sit. It gave this a brief go, soon working out how to access it, but on the whole it preferred the peanuts and bird seed.
I bought a pole. I put the feeders at the top of the pole, and installed a cone designed to prevent the squirrel from climbing up the pole. It negotiated this with ease! One jump from the top of the fence straight onto the pole, above the cone baffle, and then upwards to the addictive peanuts. I moved the pole further away from the fence, the squirrel jumped from the roof of the conservatory....
I relocated the peanut feeder to the Monkey Puzzle tree. Genius, why hadn't I thought of this before?! For a while, it worked. I got to chuckle at the sight of a squirrel tentatively worming its way along a spiky branch before turning back, defeated. They mastered it within two weeks, and now trip gaily along the branches as if they were mere planks of wood.
For a while I stopped feeding the birds. I noted, with some satisfaction, that the garden no longer hosted a squirrel. I also noted that the number and diversity of birds plummeted. After a few months, I tentatively refilled the feeders. Within a day there were TWO squirrels, gorging themselves on my peanuts. In the summer months, I chased them off whenever I saw them. Initially all it took was for me to waggle the door handle and they were off, but gradually their fear has all but disappeared. Now I actually have to open the door and step onto the terrace, at which point the squirrel will climb down the pole in a leisurely fashion and saunter off down the garden. Insousiance fits the bill. I trained the children to chase them off, but these new and noisy squirrel deterrents were only effective for a short while. They grew bored, the squirrels became bolder still.
I started collecting stones from the garden and storing them in a pile on the terrace. When I saw a squirrel, I would leap forth onto the terrace, grab a stone, and fuzz it caribbean style at the squirrel sauntering down the garden. I used up all my stones, and became used to the sight of my peanut feeder swinging madly from side to side with a squirrel hanging off it.
It was one day when I looked out and couldn't even see my peanut feeder for the writhing mass of grey fur that I cracked. I began thinking dark thoughts. Lethal thoughts. Could I really do it though? I am an animal lover, certain dogs excepted. Could I kill a cute, fluffy, doe-eyed squirrel? I didn't know, but I determined to have a bloody good go.
This takes us to about two weeks ago. I borrowed a friend's air rifle. I won't name him in case the local Squirrel Defense League go after him as well as me, but he showed me how it loaded, handed me a tin of ammo, and off I went. Before I even fired a shot, I did some reaseach - I have been taking this very seriously. I first made sure that it was legal, and then read up on which bit of a squirrels anatomy is the most sensitive to airgun pellets. My brother-in-law, who has real guns, gave me a lesson in gun safety, and advised placing peanuts on the ground so that if I missed the pellet would embed in the grass and not a neighbour. I worked out how and where I would store it all away from the kids, and then played Call of Duty 4 constantly for about a week to hone my reactive skills. Happy that I could blow cyber-opponents away without flinching, I moved onto the real thing, and drew a target which I pinned on the lawn and fired out of the window at. Bullseye. I was ready.
I waited, sensitively, until the children were at school and nursery on Monday, and then, with a heavy heart, got to business. Sure enough, when I got back from the school run, there was the squirrel on the feeder. I opened the door - it didn't even look up - loaded the rifle, and took aim. I fired from about twenty feet, fully expecting the squirrel to drop off the feeder and onto the lawn below. It was somewhat surprising therefore to see the squirrel jump about four feet horizontally off the feeder, and bolt down the garden, up the big tree, and over the fence. Had the gun worked? I loaded another pellet and fired at top of the feeder. The pellet pinged off the metal lid and off into outer space. Hmmm. Had I perhaps missed?
The squirrel, or another, was soon back. This time the door was already open, and I was sat backwards on a chair, with my photography bean-bag as support for the rifle lying atop another chair. Fully steadied, I waited for clean shot, and fired again. The squirrel moved like greased lightening, I have never seen an animal move so fast. It scorched down the garden and over the fence. What the? I loaded another pellet and fired at the fence from about fifteen feet. I observed a neat round hole appear.
I had to wait much longer for a squirrel to come back this time. In fact this is when the Coal Tit came in. When eventually I did see the squirrel back in its customary position upside down on the peanut feeder, chowing down, there was no mucking about. I strode into the conservatory, picked up the gun, and the squirrel bolted. Quick learners. The same thing happened the next time as well. They had learned, in a matter of hours, that there was a new type of danger other than a man yelling from his terrace and flinging a stone down the garden in a rage.
I saw the squirrel again yesterday morning. This time I approached from the side of the house, peeking round a corner and firing from cover in true sniper style. It shot off down the garden like a grey cruise missile and disappeared. Dagnabit!!!
Time for a change of tactics. I hung a blanket over the windows in the french doors, and moved the peanuts to directly in front. Fifteen feet away at most. Opening the door a crack, I made sure that the barrel could fit in the crack pointing straight at them, and put the beanbag on the floor for support. I retreated indoors with my binoculars, and observed from the upstairs window. An hour passed, and then there it was, creeping up the garden. I say creeping, really it was a swagger. It went straight for the peanuts. I ran downstairs, loaded the gun, and commando-crawled across the floor of the conservatory. Yes, it was still there! I laid the gun on the beanbag, and poked the barred through the crack. Still there. I lined up the sights, and fired right at the middle of the squirrel. Kapow!! The squirrel took off like an Ariane rocket down the garden and jumped over the fence.
Dejected, I took down the blanket, closed the door, broke down and stowed the rifle, and came in here to write this. The squirrels in Wanstead are clearly invincible. I have hit one or more of them at least ten times at approaching point-blank range, and the pellets appear to just bouce off. Do they have some kind of force-field? Or, as a correspondent has suggested, are they in fact made of titanium, with a furry outer layer? Don't forget, the pellets go through wood. Why won't they go though a squirrel? And even if, as now seems likely, the squirrels have some kind of unearthly protection going on, surely it must at least cause a bruise, or a mild stinging sensation perhaps? The speed at which they move suggests that they definitely feel it. I just don't understand it. I've been tempted to fire the gun at my foot just to check, but I know what would happen. I would get a neat circular hole in my foot with blood coming out of it. But then again, I'm not a peanut-fuelled invincible titanium furball.