It can be said that winter in the city is more enjoyable than in the country, really? Perhaps museums see a few new faces, pubs and coffee shops are busier than usual, but for London’s few open spaces- the parks- business is slow. Granted it is more acceptable to wander around the countryside with a shotgun than it is on Hampstead Heath, out in the sticks the opportunity to get some fresh air generally holds more appeal.
Although there are many things you can get away with in the countryside, some activities that sound like a jaunty country pursuit that your average flat-capped, grass-chewing farmer might do on their day off, just cannot be done anywhere else but the city. I am of course referring to the pastime favoured by many an urban junkie; squirrel fishing.
At first it sounds like a rather dark activity that would have the RSPCA knocking on your door, brandishing baseball bats in the hope of giving you a good kicking. But in reality it is no worse than playing with a kitten and a ball of string. No hooks are involved and it turns the rather mundane activity of feeding squirrels into the best fun you’ve had with your clothes on. Few people live to tell the tale of doing face-to-face battle with a wild creature (depending on its size of course), although I am not sure that park squirrels are the most ‘wild’ of animals, but they are certainly the wildest animals around here.
The disturbing truth is, I have been living here for 4 years and this was my first experience of squirrel fishing…shocking. This was something I could never do in Sussex, getting close enough to even pop of a few rounds at a country dwelling squirrel is hard enough let alone trying to fish for one of the furry little critters.
Those of you who do wish to point a finger and say “that’s so cruel,” or “I can’t believe you did that, it’s so wrong”, please, hear me out. We are in the depths of a cold winter, rather than Battersea park’s squirrel population having to burrow through the beds in order to find a tasty morsel, they get an easy meal (and a somewhat bewildering experience) from the avid squirrel fisher and his/her bag of monkey nuts. You walk away with the feeling of having a good tug from a squirrel and some cheap entertainment and squirrel goes away with a full tummy thinking thats the hardest it has ever had to work for a handful of nuts. Everyone’s a winner!
The tacklebox for squirrel fishing is a relatively small one. All that is required is a bag of monkey nuts and a ball of string. For true stealth it is better to use some sturdy fishing line to avoid instant detection by the quarry, but that is advanced squirrel fishing neo-geekery. Lets just stick to the basics. The reason for using monkey nuts is twofold; firstly, squirrels are big fans of them. Secondly, the shape of the nut, the dip in the middle, is perfect for tying a piece of string to.
Dried fruit is also a tried and tested bait and offers our furry little friend a variation in diet, but it also means having to thread the string through the fruit every time you need to rebait.
Despite the frigid temparature, the day seemed fine for a stroll in the park and my first experience of this wonderful sport. Myself and two friends (who had been intent on a game of tennis, but curiosity got the better of them) went into the shop to equip ourselves with the necessary tackle used in this bizarre form of fishing.
As we walked through the winding paths of the park and put out some free offerings to see if we could tempt some squirrels close enough for a cast, we had a little casting practice, turns out the most effective method is to swing the nut windmill style as if it was some medieval bola and once you have the desired speed; release. Or you can just flick it, as cool as the first feels, it does have the potential to scare off any curious squirrels.
As we came upon our first squirrel, a fat, chunky rodent who had obviously been well fed so far this winter, I dipped my hand into my coat pocket to throw out a little ground bait. As soon as my fingers began to rustle the package the squirrel ran straight towards me…clever. I had to do little more than drop my baited string to the floor and he was all over it like a fat kid on a cup cake. I had to put in this little video of one of the first encounters:-
At first he simply picked it up the nut and examined it in his paws, I was half expecting him to shake it next to his ear to check there was something inside. Realising it was a good’un, he turned to try and make off with his find; things were about to get exciting! Feeling the string tighten, the squirrel began to wrestle for sole ownership of this tasty morsel. It was both hilarious and made me feel slightly remorseful about eating them in the past. According to squirrel fishing’s limited code of skill, the aim is to see how high you can lift the squirrel off the ground while it refuses to give up on the nut. I managed to just get his feet off the ground before he realised that something peculiar was going on and question why this particular monkey nut had the ability to lift him off the ground. He released his death-grip and retreated to take stock of the situation. He then moved in again and we battled for a good 30 seconds before he decided to give up and I gave him payment for his efforts, off he went, happy as larry, to a quiet spot to gnaw through his winnings (I realise I have just referred to this squirrel as male, he was…you cant miss a squirrel’s balls, their enormous).
As we fished on, and there were plenty of squirrels hovering around in the bushes which had heard the familiar rustling of plastic bags, we began to notice that no two squirrels were the same, they all had different tactics; some would roll around on the ground, others would fight wildly a couple of feet up a tree and some (who were obviously old hands at this game) would just chew straight through the string, stick up two fingers and smugly wander off.
Generally, the larger older squirrels had more balls than most and would boldly take a swipe at your nuts (they didn’t get that size for being shy), the smaller younger squirrels were a lot more cautious and at the first sign of resistance, high tailed it up the nearest tree. After a while they just get bored and cant be bothered with the effort, at which point it is seen as a sign of good sportsmanship to offer up some bait as a token gesture. This way you know your fishing hole won’t be dry next time you decide to cast your line.
By far the most enjoyable thing I have done in London (other than going to the natural history museum when I was a dinosaur obsessed five-year old), squirrel fishing is a sport which can not only feed some hard up animals and provide some serious entertainment, it gives you the chance to survey the enemy at close quarters and observe his tactics. Clever creatures they certainly are, the Gerald Durell within will bounce to the surface and provoke one of those awe-inspiring scenes so often narrated by David Attenborough.
So, next time you are in a London park, take along some string and a bag of nuts for a little harmless fun. A word of warning; I don’t know what the park keepers view is on squirrel fishing, but it’s probably not encouraged! I would also like to add that no squirrels were harmed in the production of this entry...