You might think you know how to shoot the grey grouse, but have your tactics evolved over time? Rupert Godfrey finds out what makes the best modern pigeon Shot
How has pigeon shooting changed over time, and how can you maximise your chances? Rupert Godfrey take a look at what makes a modern pigeon Shot.
12 pieces of pigeon shooting kit to keep in the wagon this season. Jonathan Young reveals the best kit to keep on hand for when the pigeons are flocking.
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.
WHAT MAKES A MODERN PIGEON SHOT?
Woodpigeon shooting is rightly regarded as one of the most sporting challenges a keen Shot can take on. Pigeon are known as the grey grouse, and though they rarely offer the unique challenge of a speeding downwind grouse, they make up for that in their much greater aerobatic ability to change course, direction and speed with the merest flick of a wing.
I’ve been shooting pigeon seriously for nearly 30 years and still have the keenest sense of anticipation every day that I go out. With pigeon, you never quite know what’s going to happen: you can expect to shoot 200 and only shoot 20, or vice versa. So how have things changed over the years, and how can you maximise your chances?
I’m assuming that the necessary action has been taken to ensure that you are complying with the terms of the general licence, just in case you are challenged. I’m also assuming that you have done the reconnaissance necessary, not just to establish that there are pigeon there, but where the flightlines are and where the best place for a hide is, depending on the wind direction. Luckily, where there’s food on the ground and pigeon feeding, you can be fairly sure they will be there the next day.
This isn’t always true, and a strong ‘beast from the east’ wind seems to make them a bit more unreliable: my worst failure of recent times was when, having invited a good friend for what I hoped would be at least a 100-bird day, we managed eight between us. Three days later, on a south-westerly wind, I shot 170 on the same plot.
One must also be aware of where any public footpaths are, and not to assume that the general public will stick to them; since the first lockdown many urban walkers have taken to the countryside, oblivious to the need to keep to footpaths – even if they knew where they were.
With changing weather patterns, and generally much milder winters here down south, the pigeon’s diet has changed. In the 1990s, most of my winter shooting was done on rape, which was the only food generally available to the local pigeon population, unless there was a bountiful crop of acorns or beechmast.
There was also still quite a bit of kale grown to feed cattle, and as game cover. It’s rarely seen nowadays, and I often wonder what the pigeon would do if there was a winter like the one experienced in 1962-63, with snow cover for several months. Starve in their thousands, probably, unless there was some maize still standing.
Certainly the pigeon here in Wiltshire have never had it so good, with hundreds of acres of maize grown as partridge cover, providing them with a rich diet through what used to be the lean winter months. Pigeon shot in January used to be hardly worth plucking; now they are often plump and well barded with strips of fat.
Because the nutritional value of maize is so high, and a cropful speedily taken, eating habits have changed, too. When on a diet of rape, pigeon needed to feed hard for most of the day; now they can fill up in minutes, so may only come to decoy late in the day. I rarely shoot bare hedgelines now, except near at least a few trees, as flighting birds will often have a perch before feeding. I find a few lofted decoys will often work a treat, too. They are better near the top of a small tree, rather than lost in the lower branches of a tall one.
Recently, I shot on a newly drilled field getting hammered by pigeon, next to a small strip of mixed woodland. I set up my decoys at 9.15am, and the first 10 birds I shot from my hide on the edge of the wood were behind me, simply flighting into or over the trees. So I went and stood in the wood, where there was a convenient gap in the canopy, and had the most marvellous flight for four hours. I had left the decoys out on the drilling, and it was only at 1.15pm that the first pigeon showed an interest in the pattern. I moved back to my hide at 1.30pm, and then had a hectic hour at decoying birds, ready to feed. It was a truly memorable day, with 381 birds picked, providing every shot in the book.
Another change anyone out in the countryside will see now is the explosion of raptor numbers. Luckily, pigeon don’t seem overly concerned about kites and buzzards, but peregrines can spook them and ruin a day. Last summer I shot a stubble field near to where both a pair of Montagu’s harriers and a pair of peregrines had recently reared broods, and I had never seen such strange pigeon behaviour: they would only feed right on the edge of the field, where the hedge offered them some protection. They flipped over the hedge, put the brakes on and landed. My bale hide in the middle of the field was redundant; they just wouldn’t venture out that far.
More recently, I went to shoot a field of winter rape, which had been undersown with buckwheat, which the pigeon were mad for. There were thousands there, and I was optimistic of a bag of at least 250. It was spookily quiet when I arrived, though there had been a few birds in the trees nearer the farm entrance. There were several kites and buzzards around, but I wasn’t overly concerned. But somehow it just didn’t feel right.
I set up and waited… and waited. I shot a pigeon after 25 minutes, and then nothing. Except for a goshawk flying across the field. It later transpired that a falconer had been flying his goshawk there for some weeks, and the pigeon had simply gone into huge flocks for self-preservation. After 2½ hours, with the bag swollen to an enormous three, I saw the result of this, as, in the distance, a truly massive flock was coming towards me.
I knew I wouldn’t be shooting at this flock, so I got my phone out and filmed it (viewable on YouTube at bit.ly/pigeonflock). It’s difficult to estimate how many birds there were in that one flock, but I would guess at least 15,000. Ten minutes later, I saw another flock of roughly the same size. I ended up with six in the bag. One of those flocks must have been on the field when I’d briefly seen it the day before, but I should have remembered my own dictum that it’s traffic on flightlines that makes a bag, rather than sheer quantity of birds.
I could have shot at any number of birds in this flock, but all I would have achieved is to educate 99.9% of them as to the potential dangers from a pigeon ‘whirly’ and a pattern of decoys. It’s frustrating to have big flocks come to the pattern and not to be able to shoot at them, but it’s common sense.
A lot of new pigeon shooters haven’t thought of this, and it’s undoubtedly why the whirly, or pigeon magnet, is not nearly as effective as when it first came out. Some days it’s counter-productive, and I just turn it off. There are so many flappers and swoopers and different ‘new’ decoy ideas that it’s worth trying different approaches on a day when they just don’t want to decoy. I’ve got less good at shooting decoying birds, as I simply don’t get so much practice at them these days. I shoot more birds flighting into trees than coming into the pattern.
Though I’ve used the same nets for years, I rarely feel the need to augment them with foliage. I shoot sitting down, so the hide can be much lower in front than if one stands before shooting. Standing up also gives the pigeon time to see you moving before you take your shot; I usually get my first shot off before the chosen bird is aware of any danger. I also look over the hide front, rather than through the netting, and thus rarely miss seeing approaching birds. I’ve watched plenty of other shooters be unaware of the birds circling, or even landing, in their pattern. I wear a full face mask, though, which means there’s no flash of skin to alert the oncoming birds. These are cheap and readily available, and I do recommend their use. As long as you keep still until raising the gun, the pigeon shouldn’t see you.
My other more recent change has been to use less choke. I used to use side-by-sides with fixed (but fairly open) chokes, but rarely shot at much over 30 yards away, as they just didn’t seem to be effective beyond that range. For the past 10 years, I’ve used over-and-unders with multichokes, and used to use modified in both barrels. This allowed me to shoot at up to 55 yards with confidence, but if the birds were really decoying well it could make mincemeat of them, and the game dealer wasn’t amused. The tight chokes were also very unforgiving close in.
Now I use improved cylinder in both barrels – which is good up to 40 yards – and I kill an extra 10 birds per hundred shots as a result. I still take a second gun with the modified chokes with me, in case the majority of the shots I’m taking are over 35 yards away. For example, on the day I described earlier, when I went and stood in the wood, I used modified, as none of the birds I shot at were below 30 yards, and the majority probably 40 to 50 yards away, so more choke was a necessity. When I went back to the hide for the last hour, I returned to the more open-choked gun.
Whatever your favoured gun/cartridge/choke combination is, there is a definite knack to maximising your chances at pigeon. Watching others shooting, it’s amazing how often they don’t get off two shots when there is the opportunity. Just as when you are shooting driven grouse in front of the butt, it’s vital to get two shots off – ‘pop, pop’ as Sir Joe Nickerson used to say – as quickly as possible. Again, as with grouse, you learn to be aware of which bird you’re going to shoot second, after you’ve killed the first (although, after all these years, I’m still too often guilty of trying to kill the second before I’ve killed the first).
The pigeon is a wonderful bird, and its future is assured by the rich and varied diet it eats within these shores. Shooting pressure over the past 30 years has not dented its numbers; indeed, it’s probably become more wary and thus more difficult to shoot in quantity.
I will leave you with a few simple rules for the modern pigeon Shot: reconnaissance is still vital; learn to be flexible with your decoys and pattern; don’t be afraid to experiment if the pigeon aren’t playing, and don’t over-rely on a whirly; wear a mask, especially on a sunny day; keep as still as possible before shooting; try different chokes and cartridges until you find the optimum mix for your style of shooting… And try to think like a pigeon.