With long days to savour, Will Garfit invites you to join him in a pigeon hide to experience the thrilling combination of testing sport and pest control
On a fine afternoon in June, Will Garfit shares the simple joys of pigeon shooting with an outing to a local farmer’s pea field.
For more on pigeon shooting, take a look at our list of the 12 pieces of pigeon shooting kit that you should keep in your car, or our expert guide to pigeon shooting.
Pigeon shooting, in shirt sleeves, in the summer is a chance to get out with the gun in the otherwise doldrum period between game seasons. There are always opportunities for clay shooting, either on charity shoots, simulated game days or just a visit to a shooting ground with a friend to keep your eye in. These can all be fun and good practice but do not compare with the excitement of shooting live quarry – and no live quarry, in my experience, compares with the challenge of shooting woodpigeons. This is a truly wild bird that demands many skills to make a bag. The heart of the hunter is fully exercised by reconnaissance, fieldcraft and a shooting experience to test the best. This bird can fly higher than any pheasant, as fast as any grouse, or it can be deceptively slow one moment and yet jink like a snipe the next. No bird can produce such a variety of interesting shots and challenges all in one day.
As an agricultural pest, the woodpigeon can cause damage, or even devastation, to crops throughout the year and therefore is permitted on the General Licence to be shot throughout the year.
A local farmer phoned to ask for help on his peas and so it was an opportunity to plan a day’s shooting. When I say day, in midsummer it is usually an afternoon and evening as pigeons do not usually flight out to feed until between 3pm and 8pm. Therefore, timing is a crucial part of reconnaissance. It is important not only to be on the right field, on the right day but at the right time of day.
So let us make an outing together on a fine afternoon in June. Quite apart from the shooting, the world is buzzing with natural beauty as the woods and hedgerows are dressed in every shade of green, decorated with wild flowers and with the sound of young birds on the wing. There are sights and sounds to bring joy to all our senses.
On the previous evening we will drive around the area checking on the field the farmer mentioned. In this case, it is his particular field of peas but a usual scenario is a tour of likely farms on which you have permission to shoot to check on fields where vulnerable crops are grown. Often on these crops the farmer may have deployed gas guns and all sorts of deterrents to frighten off the pigeons but after a week or two they get used to the booms and just lift as a flock only to then settle down again on a quieter part of the field. These are the areas that the sharp-eyed pigeon shooter will note for a future foray.
Back on the pea field, half an hour of watching will indicate a number of helpful clues for next day. We will note the flight line or lines, which will tell us direction the birds are arriving onto the field from, their preferred area of the field to feed, the number of birds on the field and the flow rate of birds arriving. This is all important to help plan our outing next day. I love the anticipation and assessing the options, rather like a military operation. In summer, you will rarely see large flocks arriving but they’ll come in ones and twos or small groups. Winter flocks arrive in large numbers and even if they decoy only one or two birds can be shot as the rest of the flock will be alarmed and educated, making them ever more wary in the future.
There are not thousands on the field of peas but possibly 200 to 300, enough to do damage certainly and hopefully produce some sport tomorrow. If we get it right and shoot straight we could reduce this number effectively and enjoy a few shots.
We meet at midday to load up the car with the kit needed. It is always amazing how much there is, including camouflaged nets, hide poles, seats, a dozen or so dead birds, either fresh from a previous outing or from the freezer. Dead birds are always the best decoys but plastic artificials can work to get things started, however, sharp-eyed pigeons may not be fooled.
We will probably use a whirly, a battery-operated rotary device that imitates movement and can be effective at attracting birds, particularly on standing crops where decoys do not show well if half hidden. Birds arriving are looking for movement to draw them to where their mates are feeding. To be optimistic, we take a few sacks to bag up dead birds at the end of the day, cartridges and our favourite guns, a bag with bits and bobs needed (including ear muffs, sunglasses, a folding saw, secateurs) and we must not forget food and drink for sustenance. If you have a dog, it is important to take water and bowl.
It all sounds a lot of kit. I have, on occasions, started with nothing but gun and cartridges – improvising a hedgerow hide and shooting a few birds flying over to set out as decoys – but this is a challenge and not necessary if properly prepared. Even if you have a checklist, believe me, there will be days when something is forgotten – we have all done it.
We arrive and a few birds clatter out of the group of willows on the upwind side of the field. That is encouraging as it is the area we saw pigeons feeding on the previous evening and those willows were a focus as sitty trees for birds arriving to gather while they assess the patch of peas they will choose to attack today.
We soon make a hide, having assessed the best position in the hedge from which we can cover the willows and the decoys. We select a gap between two willows where we will be able to see the birds approach. It is difficult if one makes a hide under trees as often the oncoming pigeon disappears behind the foliage before it makes a shot. In summer, it is wise to check that there is no wasps’ nest nearby.
Decoys are set up on wire cradles to lift them above the crop and make them more visible to pigeons flying past. We arrange them in a random group, three or four yards apart and facing the wind. The whirly is positioned to our left as the wind, though mainly from behind, is quartering over our left shoulders when in the hide, which will tend to bring the oncoming pigeons in from our right.
Now we are in the hide with you on my right as more birds should arrive from that side making a shot for you. We are ready with great anticipation. Actually, anticipation is such a great part of any sporting day and started as soon as the farmer phoned. Whatever happens, even if the day does not match expectations, the excitement of anticipation can always bring pleasure.
“Is your gun loaded? Look, there is a lone bird approaching the tree on your side.” Up. Bang! “Yes, a lovely shot. Well done, you caught it just before it disappeared behind the tree. Good shot.”
The sound of the shot disturbed a group that was sitting back in the wood and birds are coming this way but look jittery. However, one is peeling off having seen the decoys and dives in to join them. That is a wonderful moment when a pigeon is fooled and commits to the decoys, rather as when a trout rises to a fly.
“Don’t shoot until it is well in range and wait until its flight allows you to read the line and judge the speed and it presents the moment of killability.”
That might not be good English but it best describes the timing of the shot. Bang! Bang! “You were just behind with the first shot but your second barrel caught up and made a very satisfying shot.”
TIME TO ENJOY THE VIEW
Then there is a lull and time to savour the joys of being out on a fine summer day and appreciate the view of the distant hills. A flash of gold as a yellowhammer flies past. A tortoiseshell butterfly alights on a bramble flower where it is caught by a ray of sun and shines like a jewel. Nature never stands still. There is always a special sight or sound to bring an added pleasure to the day.
“Here come two birds from the left. Whoops, the first bird saw you move and in a flash was away downwind. The woodpigeon is sharp eyed and when you see one approaching it is vital to keep absolutely still as you are ducked down behind the front of the hide. Movement will give you away and a pigeon’s lightning reactions make for a very long, difficult, going-away shot. As a bird approaches, keep down and move slowly in anticipation of where you expect the angle of the shot. When it presents the chance, you complete the mount of your gun and make a spontaneous shot, reacting to its movement as it presents the moment for action. Not a hurried shot but one with a short, sharp, positive swing.
Another pigeon approaches and you keep still with gun half mounted over the top of the hide. Then up-mount-shoot and the dead bird collapses amongst the decoys, leaving just a puff of silver grey feathers on the wind. That was perfect timing and the bird was shot without ever having seen you.
The good afternoon’s sport continues with a steady flight of birds, not hectic but producing steady shooting, some misses inevitably but some satisfying, good shots. There have been a few overhead high ones coming to the trees and others at all angles over the decoys. The variety of shots has been exciting and is the essence of pigeon shooting.
It is time to pack up. We will pick up all we can by hand before working your dog on wider outliers. Be careful not to let your dog hunt far along the hedge as we do not want to disturb any pheasants or partridges sitting on eggs. With all the kit back in the car and 52 pigeons bagged up, it is time to reflect on the pleasure of the afternoon. Any day starts with anticipation, which evolves as the event and finally becomes a happy memory; no one can take that away. What fun it has been to enjoy the time together sharing a pigeon hide on a special summer’s day.