At the feet of the master: the writer watches in awe. Photograph by Charles Sainsbury-Plaice
By Elizabeth Walton of The Field
Monday, 23 June 2008
There are few exceptional pigeon shots around. Elizabeth Walton spends a day with the best of them.
The wood pigeon is the secret weapon of our most acclaimed game-shots. The bird keeps them on their mettle, its flight imitating everything they will see when standing in the line. On a windy February afternoon, Will Garfit is shooting with his customary power and finesse from a hide built into a Prunus hedge in the gentle chalk hills ironically dubbed the East Anglian highlands. “Some of them have come like driven grouse on this wind,” he reports. “Wonderful shooting.”
An enthusiastic amateur, Garfit has perhaps 50 days’ decoying a year, usually from February until the end of October, and averages more than a hundred birds per day.
The art of decoying is to steer the pigeon to the square yard where you want them, and with his decoys and his fieldcraft, Garfit can match the birds’ duplicity. “Come on boys, come on…” he murmurs, then salutes them with a right-and-left when they reach the killing ground, a very small circle some 25yd out. “That’s how it should be done,” he says, quietly satisfied. He has held the pigeon in high regard since boyhood, recalling: “Pigeon were difficult to stalk with a .410. You learn a great respect for the bird. And if you don’t have respect for your quarry, you miss so much pleasure.”
In real life, Garfit is an artist. His passion for the countryside informs his studies of landscapes, rivers and wildlife to the same degree that it buttresses his consummate skill with gun and rod. At Cambridge Art School, along with Syd Barrett and Dave Gilmour, he was a guitarist with an early incarnation of Pink Floyd. When the critical moment loomed, he plumped for “a lifetime of painting, not five years playing the guitar”. It’s a decision the
pigeon must rue, although Garfit does not. “Fresh air does it for me,” he chuckles. “And what I love about pigeon-shooting is that it’s a sport you make for yourself. It depends on your own fieldcraft to be on the right field on the right day, and at the right time of the day. That said, there are so many unknowns. Four days ago these birds just would not decoy. And today, they’ve decoyed beautifully.”
Pigeon numbers are increasing according to the British Trust for Ornithology, but this gives no one carte blanche to shoot them without a landowner’s consent. Peter Schwerdt, crack shot and pigeon junkie (he bagged his first aged eight), offers some advice. “Permission? It’s like chatting up a girl, you have to be crab-like about it and go in sideways. Knocking on the farmer’s door probably works if you can say, ‘I shoot your neighbour’s land. There’s a lot of pigeon on your rape and I wondered if I could shoot it? Do ring Mr So-and-So to check me out.’ If you go barging in all Jack the Lad saying, ‘I fancy a bit of pigeon-shooting…’ you’ll get a flea in your ear. It’s a bit like going up to a girl and saying, ‘Fancy a shag?’”
Pigeon guide Jim Albone had benefited from obtaining the right permission. “He is a good guide with a lot of experience and has a lot of ground that is good pigeon country,” according to Garfit. Careful reconnaissance is vital. “Phil Beasley and his son Will, who does most of the guiding now, are very good with reconnaissance and at optimising whatever situation they find on the land they cover and producing the optimum sport,” Garfit says.
Major Archie Coats, doyen of pigeon-shooters and Garfit’s mentor and friend, adopted the maxim, “Think like a pigeon.” Garfit has shot this area for years; he perceives it as Columba palumbus does. Pigeon roost in woodland and feed on nearby arable land, so any hide must be sited under a flight line in a field where they will feed. The species is greedy and gregarious, and the decoys represent a seductive invitation to join the party. Garfit’s decoys are dead birds placed head to wind and kept upright with a short stick. The pattern is developed as conditions change, and it is roughly in a horseshoe to funnel the birds within range.
If and when they are needed, he may use magnets, flappers or floaters. “But if the pigeon are decoying well to dead birds, the way they come in allows more opportunities of rights-and-lefts. In thick cover – standing corn, say, or rape – they cannot see the decoys as well and movement will attract them. If you then use a whirly, you will get more single shots, but there comes a point where they come in and say, ‘Hang on, it’s not our mates coming in – rather they’re going out.’ You will get a shot at the first bird, but if you do not shoot it, it will disappear taking the others with it. On stubble or a drilled field, the decoys are clearly visible to the pigeons. Bells and whistles are not required.”
Experience tells Garfit that the pigeon using his hedge as a flight line will be flying to or from a lower field, one that he cannot shoot. “My decoys will catch them out: they think maybe their chums are feeding here today, and not on the lower field. On a windy day like today they can’t place the shots as well: they don’t quite know where I am. Equally, they can take such incredibly spontaneous evasive action – one flick of the wing and the bird has turned back on the wind and is away. They probably turn faster than any bird there is. ”
His hide is simple: scrim with a camouflage of nylon leaves in a neutral winter colour and some netting to look through. “Something natural” is always added; today, a fallen branch. If he were facing the sun he would be more camouflaged, although keeping still is always more important than invisibility.
Modern life imposes restrictions on most pigeon-shooters, including Schwerdt, who says: “I can make more money doing property deals in London than I can looking for pigeon.” A professional pigeon guide can be the solution. “Richard Lovell is probably the best in terms of his patience in spotting; I shoot 30 days a year with him.” If Schwerdt is promised a fabulous day, does he cut and run? “It depends. I was doing a £44 million deal this year when I got that call from Mr Lovell.” In the offing were 250,000 pigeon. “Five guns shot 1,814. And I never went.” Lovell operates with crack shots only, explaining: “When I see pigeons damaging the crops, I want them dead, not scared. So I ring up a syndicate of some of the best pigeon-shots in the country, who have shot with me for years. Peter is the most enthusiastic and pulls off spectacular long shots.”
Virtuoso game-shot Jonathan Kennedy was pigeon-mad as a child and begged Jim’ll Fix It to send him shooting with Archie Coats. He did become “a Coats disciple” (no thanks to Jim) and says: “The days when you come back with two or three make the days when you shoot 100 amazing. So much can go wrong when you’re trying to outwit a wild bird, but pigeon-shooting gives you familiarity with your gun, and with shooting all types of targets. It teaches you to take a chance. It is the most fantastic sport.”
Garfit is possibly the only person to have shot with all the record holders down the years. “I learnt so much from them,” he says. “Digweed was the easiest person to shoot with. He said: ‘You take everything out to 50yd, I’ll take the rest.’” Bizarrely, Garfit is shooting from a secretary’s chair. “It swivels,” he explains, “and the movement is the equivalent of footwork. I generally sit down to shoot pigeon; it’s more comfortable and very often the angle of the shot is better.”
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