Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Big Cat amongst the Pigeons

Summer is upon us in full force.  How can I be so sure? 

Is it the returning swallows nesting in the eaves of the old house; the tomato plants putting on inches of growth everyday; or the news of the latest local authority to impose a hose-pipe ban?  No, nothing so obscure; it’s the fact that Shooting Gazette has dusted off its stock edition of “why it’s great to find shooting abroad, when there is nothing to occupy the shooting man during the summer months.”  So; it must be June!

It happens every year; a whole edition devoted to the delights of wing shooting in Argentina, boar shooting in Croatia or for the really well heeled, why not try for some plains game, some Spanish perdix at Catalan finca and a spot of bone fishing – a sort of McHedgefund.  All great sport in their own right I’m sure, but I for one am too bloody poor to be jetting off anywhere at the moment, never mind contemplating Lion, Kudu, Argentinean doves or Tarpon.  Besides I don’t have to, I have the most demanding, frustrating, rewarding and skilful sport available, just a few miles down the road from where I live, for a fraction of the cost.  A sport that will match any available abroad. 

I’m talking about the pursuit of the humble Woodpigeon.

If you have never sat in a pigeon hide, then you have missed out on one of the great shooting sports.  I’m crazy about woodpigeons.  Woodpigeons are the most fantastic, resourceful, beautiful bird.  A bird that can breed pretty much all of the year round and successfully adapt to an ever-changing agricultural environment.  A bird that is estimated at 3 million breeding pairs in the UK and in showing increases in population density all over the UK, apart from Scotland (British Trust for Ornithology data).  Woodpigeons are exceptional quarry, having particularly keen eyesight and the ability to detect movement at distances far outweighing the human eye.  In fact, I love Woodpigeons so much; I think they should be our national bird!

I think that it’s a shame that we have been demeaned in to having to say that we shoot Woodpigeon solely for the purposes of crop protection, after other methods have been tried and failed.  For this is the wording of the general license under which terms we can legally shoot;  and any other retort is likely to get you into very hot water.  Any dyed in the wool pigeon shooter knows that this is the biggest crock going.  If every pigeon shooter shot everyday for the next year, I doubt we would make much of a dent in their population; such is their efficiency in breeding and adaptability.  Studies also show that pigeon predation on crops such as oil-seed rape has pretty negligible effect on crop yield; however it can be very traumatic for the farmer to see his rape fields “blue” with pigeon when the crop is small.   So whilst we trundle out the accepted form of words to stay within the terms of the general license, we all know why we shoot pigeon; because it is exceptional sport!

There really is nothing quite like decoyed pigeon for providing testing and varied shooting.  You can get pretty much every type of shot you would ever hope to see over the course of a day in the hide.  Driven, crossing, high birds, birds that come like grouse; the variety is endless.   There is nothing to match that state of heightened awareness that comes from scanning the horizon though the net in search of that speck that just may turn to the flash of the wing bars on the magnet.  A flash of a shadow over the decoys, or a pigeon setting its wings in that beautiful V pattern, are all guaranteed to get the pulse racing.

And why do the wood pigeons come to the hide?  Because you have sufficient ability to construct a hide that is truly hidden, a decoy pattern that looks realistic and an ability to stay still even though adrenaline is pumping and nerves are jangling.  Pigeons don’t come within shooting range because someone has driven them towards you, they come because they are deceived by your skill; and that is a great feeling!  In order to get pigeons close enough to the hide to shoot them, you have to understand what makes your quarry tick; the old “think like a pigeon” adage so beloved of Col. Coates.  There never was a truer word said.

So it was heartening to see amongst the exotics in the latest edition of SG, was the promise of an article about pigeon shooting on a budget, written by Roger Catchpole.  Well Roger, nice try, but I’m afraid you somewhat miss the point.  Roger, who is writing from the perspective of someone new to pigeon shooting (whether he is or not, is a different matter).  If your idea of shooting on a budget is to employ the services of pigeon guide, whom is presumably paid for by the magazine, well you are out of touch with most shooters.  I enjoyed top sport for the price of a box of cartridges” he crows smugly.  Well, the top sport is absolutely right, but as for the cost; pigeon shooting is far from being a cheap sport and it will certainly cost you more than a box of cartridges, even at today’s inflated prices.  What pampered Roger fails to realise is that pigeon shooting is now more popular than ever before, which put greater pressure not only on the pigeons, but also on access to permission.  Many pigeon shooters I know have to pay, not inconsiderable sums every year, for their permission.   

Cartridges are not cheap.  Even if you shoot the cheapest 28g 7.5 clay loads, which will do the job perfectly well as long as you are mindful of your distances, you are still paying £35+ per slab.  That equates to 14p per shot.  If you start using 32g 5’s expect to be looking at 25 to 30p per shot.  When the pigeons are coming in properly, 250 cartridges doesn’t last very long!  Sixty quid in cartridges may not be a lot to our friends at SG, but if you are out pigeon shooting for crop protection  a couple of times a week, you can soon get through one hell of a lot of cartridges and a hell of a lot of cash.

Then there is the kit.  Pigeon shooting in many respects has become like fishing – more things in the shop to catch a fisherman than fish.  But, even the most parsimonious pigeon shooters need a basic kit, including some form of net and poles, as well as decoys, and more than ever nowadays, a magnet and a flapper.  All of which adds up.  Kit wears out fairly quickly, as it can have a hard life in the field.  Then there is the cost of fuel.  Reconnaissance is the key to successful pigeon shooting.  This means covering a fair few miles in preparation for the actual shoot day.  I’m certainly not travelling as much looking for pigeons as I did a couple of years ago.  So I’m afraid, unless you have a benevolent publishing house footing the bill, like everything else, it’s expensive to have fun.

But the thing that pricked my ire most about this article wasn’t the crass disregard for what most ordinary would people find expensive, it was the fact that Roger hadn’t been bothered to take time learning about this aspect of our sport; he just employed the services of a pigeon guide and away you go.  Instant expert, just add pigeon guide!  This really is missing the point.  Pulling the trigger on a pigeon is the culmination of a myriad of other tasks that have been undertaken prior to setting up, and amongst these knowledge is key.  Don’t get me wrong, guides are great.  They have so much more local knowledge than you can ever hope to have, and they can get you amongst the action quickly and effectively.  But is that the point, when it comes to pigeons?  In my opinion, shooting pigeon isn’t about instant gratification, it’s about that great day you have once in a while when everything comes together, that makes up for all the hard work and the days when everything looks right but the pigeons haven’t read the manual and are off doing other stuff.  It’s about being able to enjoy the quiet periods between shooting on a slow day.  It’s about being able to observe the countryside from inside a hide, seeing things that normally you wouldn’t, travelling at a faster pace of life.  The leveret playing in the sun in front of the hide, blissfully unaware that you are there, is worth as much as a full bag.  Shooting Woodpigeon is as much about the preparation, as it is about the shooting.  So when Roger says “for many sportsmen pigeon shooting is preparation for the main event” yet again he misses the point.  This is the main event my man.  If it came down to it and it was a straight choice for me between driven pheasant and decoyed Woodpigeons, Woodpigeons would win every time.

So if you don’t want to employ the services of a pigeon guide every time you venture out.  What goes into a successful quest for pigeons?

Knowledge of feeding patterns is crucial.  It no use setting up on rape, if all the pigeons in the area are feeding on peas.  What tempts the pigeons’ palate changes throughout the year, in accordance with what’s available in a particular area. Fresh drillings, particularly of maize, beans or peas are always a favourite and as such are relatively easy to decoy over, providing the crop density in your area of permission is not too high.  As my mate Geoff always say “Rape is a belly filler” – pigeons will persist on rape when no other food stuffs are available, but there isn’t much nutritional value in it and it can be very difficult to decoy over.   That important to remember, as the amount of hectares given over to rape looks set to increase in the future.

You have to spend time observing what pigeons actually look like when they are on the ground feeding.  In that way you can set you pattern of decoys (preferably dead birds) in a naturalistic fashion.

You need to know a little bit about the physics of how birds fly.  All birds take off and land into the wind, so if you have a windy day, you can make an educated guess as to the direction of birds when they are coming into the pattern.

You need to know how weather conditions affect feeding patterns, not just in the air, also on the ground.  Pigeons hate getting their feet muddy, so on a damp day you may be better off setting up on stubbles rather than drillings..... Barometric pressure, light intensity and prevailing wind all have an effect on the feeding habits of Woodpigeons.

In addition to this, you also need a general idea of Woodpigeon behaviour.  Feeding takes up a disproportionately large amount of a pigeon’s day.  They tend to feed very early, particularly when the days are long, moving at first light from sleeping areas to feeding areas, along flight lines.  You need to know where the flight lines are in your permission.  You can only do this by observation over a long period of time.  Another favourite of Archie Coates was “it’s not the pigeons on the ground, it’s the pigeon in the air.”  If you can position yourself under a flight line, all the better.  Movement in the pattern, not in the hide” was also another adage that should be well heeded.

What I’m saying is that there is a lot more to shooting Woodpigeon than pulling the trigger.  An interest in shooting Woodies not only dramatically improves your ability to shoot, it fosters a keen interest in quiet observation, teaches you how to be truly still, and put the onus on you to understand the behaviour of your quarry, without which you are going to have a pretty boring time in the hide.  All of which can be summed up in a simple phrase; field craft.  Something we seem to have lost in recent years.  All of which also means that this is a great place to really get kids going when it comes to shooting.  The attainment of these field skills far outweighs the shooting, and sets them up for life with a natural love and resepect of the countryside.

My children have been sitting in pigeon hides with me since they were about six.  That’s about seven years of observation.  Neither have done much actual pigeon shooting yet, although Connor is getting to be a dab hand on the clays with my wife’s 20 bore, but they can both construct a hide and pattern that is every bit as good as mine.  That fills me with a great sense of achievement and pride.  So often these days, kids if they are lucky enough, go straight from the beating line to a full driven day.  In my mind, that is somewhat missing the point!  To be brutal, I leant to kill things when I was young by stalking them with a pretty shoddy air rifle.  You had to get bloody close to know that the shot was going to be effective.  It was the best teaching I ever had.  It taught you how to move silently and think like your quarry (even if they were only house sparrows).  When I see some of the braying fools standing on their pegs with a gun in hand, I wish they had been given a crappy air rifle rather than a Purdey.

So for my kids, as both are showing lots of interest in shooting, driven days can wait for a while yet, in favour of a far more testing quarry, where I hope that they will learn some of the things that I have in my continuing love affair with Columba palumbus; respect for what you shoot, a love of the outdoors and of your own company and a sense of humility in pitting your wits against this most worth of opponents and sometimes winning.