The master of the pigeon shooting art, Archie Coats, shows how it is done.
Pigeon shooting is available year round, and offers excellent sport.
The grey grouse are the sporting man’s secret.
Plentiful, inexpensive and challenging they demand a knowledge of proper fieldcraft and a gimlet eye.
PIGEON SHOOTING WITH ARCHIE COATS
According to sporting artist Will Garfit, a disciple of “the Major”, the great pigeon-shooter’s principles still apply. He remembers pigeon shooting with Archie Coats. Illustrations by the writer
In my teenage years (during the Sixties) I used to share a subscription to Farmers Weekly, not that my family farmed but for a boy interested in all country activities it was a good read. From time to time there were articles illustrated by grainy, black-and-white photographs of a man in Hampshire who was a professional pigeon-shooter. This inspirational man was Archie Coats, the Major, and he captivated my imagination with stories of days decoying and shooting bags beyond my wildest dreams when, for me, stalking pigeon around the house with my single-barrelled .410 might yield a modest few birds for a pie.
In my early twenties I found a way to meet my hero and he kindly took me under his wing recognising my youthful enthusiasm and embryonic passion for the woodpigeon and the sport that this wild and wily bird could produce. Both Archie and his dear wife Prue regularly invited me to their home at Towerhill in Dummer, then a rural sleepy village in the heart of Hampshire. For a day’s pigeon shooting with Archie Coats, we would set off in his battered, short-wheelbase Land Rover, cramped in the cab while in the back was a tangle of nets, sacks, poles, guns and dogs. Every day out pigeon shooting with Archie Coats was an adventure with tales of pigeon slain – prompted by passing a particular field, hedgerow or tree – unfolding like Arthurian legends.
As a former Scots Guards officer, pigeon shooting with Archie Coats would involve military tactics for each situation and day’s shooting; the grey-feathered hordes were engaged only after careful reconnaissance, reading of flight-lines and strategic placing of hides and decoys to fool this ever-wary bird to approach within range of his old Webley 700 boxlock. This shotgun had the outer surface of the barrels polished silver with use, chequering worn smooth and a crack in the stock was made evident by the two cut-off ends of a 6in nail he had used to mend it. It was not the prettiest shotgun in the world but it worked – very, very effectively.
Archie was a superb shot and while I was pigeon shooting with Archie Coats, rarely did a pigeon that had been snared in to the decoy pattern escape. Whether at pigeon or game there were two secrets to his brilliant shooting: his concentration was ever sharp and his footwork ever nimble. To lesser mortals a miss is a shot fired without so much as a feather out of place to show for it; to Archie a miss was a missed opportunity for a safe shot – a lesson for us all.
PIGEON SHOOTING WITH ARCHIE COATS: “THINK LIKE A PIGEON”
Pigeon shooting with Archie Coats taught me so much about pigeon decoying. “Think like a pigeon” was his great mantra. Always observe, question and learn to optimise the situation for every day is a different challenge. A true sportsman has an immense respect for his quarry whether it be feather, fur or fin. That respect is what fuels the passion of the true hunter, as real in our hearts today as in the hearts of those Stone Age men who so sensitively depicted their quarry on the walls of the caves in which they lived.
Not every day was a success even for Archie; there were occasions known as “Major disasters”. However, optimism is another great characteristic of a hunter and Archie would seldom admit defeat. It was not he who had misread the situation; no, it was the pigeon that had got it wrong!
One day in later life, when he was on crutches and reliant on help from others, dear Prue drove him to the chosen spot in a hedgerow, built his hide, set out his decoys, helped him on to his heavy seat surrounded by dog, gun and lunch bag. She then drove home but would return at the end of the day to pick-up, pack up and gather him up. This was long before mobile phones and no sooner had the blue haze of exhaust fumes dissipated on the breeze as the Landy rumbled off the field than Archie realised that his cartridge bag was still on board. What was blue in the air then was not seen but heard and it became a pigeon-shooter’s hell as he sat all day watching birds float in to his decoys with gun in hand but not a shot to be fired.
Archie Coats was the father of pigeon decoying and his book Pigeon Shooting, published in 1963, was a classic. The principles expounded are the same today as ever and success depends not just on finding pigeon but being in the right place on right field, at the right time of day – and then shooting straight. It all sounds easy but any one factor can reduce a potential red-letter, hundred day to a modest few.
For me as an artist the woodpigeon offers more than a sporting challenge – its beauty adds another dimension. If it were not such a common species this might be better appreciated. The subtlety of tone and colour of its peachy-pink breast are hues that emanate from the soft mauve upper chest as softly as a delicate watercolour wash. The head is of a blue-grey with complementary yellow eye and oblong black pupil. The back is a neutral grey merging to become almost silver on the rump. The black tips of wings and tail create an almost heraldic image contrasting with the white wing bars and neck ring.
However, we must remember that this bird is the devastator of agricultural crops and the greatest avian threat to farming. Pigeon-shooting has been proved to be the most effective method of control. Gas-guns, flags, rope-bangers or scaring patrols will move a flock from field to field but the pigeon-shooter is the ultimate deterrent. Dead pigeon do not eat crops.
PIGEON SHOOTING WITH ARCHIE COATS: MODERN DAY
Archie was a professional pigeon-shooter from the Fifties until he died in 1989. It is interesting to consider some of the ways in which pigeon-shooting has changed since his day. Firstly, the number of enthusiasts enjoying the sport has increased enormously. Archie opened the door to many, not just instructing the beginner via his book but by his annual appearance on the Eley IMI stand at the CLA Game Fair. By answering the questions of enthralled gatherings of pigeon-shooters he subliminally sold many cartridges. With his charm and charisma he was a great communicator and anyone who was there for even a minute will never forget that time in the presence of “the master”, even if they weren’t actually pigeon shooting with Archie Coats.
The result is that 30 or 40 years later there is rarely a field on any farm or estate where pigeon are feeding that will not sooner or later be visited by a pigeon-shooter. The effect of this is that in many areas pigeon have become much more wary and decoy shy and will often turn away just before coming into range.
Secondly, agriculture has changed since I was pigeon shooting with Archie Coats, not so much the crops on which pigeon feed – cereals, rape and other brassicas and legumes – but the methods by which they are grown. Block farming of the same crop in adjoining fields has allowed large farms to focus resources and machinery in one area. These often vast acres of monoculture make it difficult for the pigeon-shooter to draw birds to one field and when disturbed the pigeon just seek a peaceful restaurant serving the same food next door.
Another factor is that modern tillage equipment is so efficient. Spring and autumn drilling used to produce a sporting bonanza after the old red Massey drills bounced across a field leaving a scattering of seed on the surface when I was pigeon shooting with Archie Coats. Today’s pneumatic precision drills leave nothing but a few grains where the tractor turns on the headland. These are soon cleared by a few local pigeon and a build-up of numbers is rare though beans or peas can be the exception.
Finally, the extensive range of equipment available online or in every gun shop is light, collapsible and easy to carry. Interestingly, Archie’s pigeon-shooting book did not have a chapter on equipment. He just had the basics of hide poles made from heavy steel rods by a blacksmith, army camouflage netting, a five-gallon drum as a seat, a few dead birds from the previous day as decoys, gun, cartridges and his dog sitting on spare sacks. Today the pigeon-shooter has any number of toys to keep him if not the pigeon amused. These include whirlies, electronic flappers and peckers, bouncers and every sort of plastic and rubber static decoy as well as nets of every colour and texture and light aluminium telescopic hide poles.
PIGEON SHOOTING WITH ARCHIE COATS: MODERN GISMOS
Of all modern gismos the one that has really enabled a greater number of enthusiasts of whatever level of experience or skill to shoot more pigeon is the rotary or whirly with revolving arms supporting birds with outstretched wings. This was first marketed by Phil Beasley as the Pigeon Magnet. It has lured more pigeon to within shot than any other device by mimicking birds flying over the decoys and attracting pigeon from farther away than static decoys alone would do. Archie would probably turn in his grave but partly by regretting he hadn’t thought of it himself. When I was pigeon shooting with Archie Coats, the pigeon decoyed well to static decoys and were not so spooky but he did develop a manual version of the whirly. This was to throw a pigeon from the hide so that it spun in the air and landed among the decoys, which attracted distant passing birds.
However, let us not be fooled by all the whizzy equipment available as the old principles taught by Archie are still the vital ingredients for success. Good reconnaissance is the key to consistently good bags; gadgetry can be bought but experience has to be earned and every day in the field brings a new lesson.
The special thing that has not changed in any way is the delicious quality of pigeon on the plate. A roast young pigeon with rowan jelly is a worthy match for any gamebird. For pigeon recipes see Prue Coats’ books Prue’s Country Kitchen and The Poachers’s Cookbook.
The watercolour illustrations are from Will Garfit’s book Will’s Pigeon Shooting and available as limited edition prints from www.williamgarfit.co.uk.