In the summer, when the days are as hot as your barrels, pigeon shooting comes into its own. Since pigeons are capable of devastating agricultural crops farmers will often welcome responsible guns, so how do you get started? One of Britain’s leading authorities, JOHN BATLEY, provides a beginner’s guide.
Imagine this; the editor phones and casually asks for a complete novice’s guide to woodpigeon decoying in only 1,500 words…… After some very careful thought I can do no better than offer the final two sentences of a book that I wrote on the subject a few years ago. ‘I am a strong believer in fieldcraft.
Go out and practise it, enjoy the sport and its many rewards, and remember the most important rule: do your reconnaissance and look for pigeons in the air not on the ground.’
There you have it, fieldcraft and reconnaissance: the be all and end all of pigeon shooting. However, it’s not quite as easy as that, you need a starting point, so let’s start with the bird itself.
The woodpigeon, Columba palumbus, has been native to Great Britain for centuries, its cousin in mainland Europe is migratory but we have the only sedentary population of the species that exists. We probably have as many as 15-20 million birds in the UK.
The population is healthy, the bird breeds at least twice, and in good warm summers three times, a year and they lay two eggs at a time. It has been guesstimated that we shoot around a third of this increasing population and more than 200,000 people shoot woodpigeon in the UK every year.
The woodpigeon is easy to recognise; a delicate grey overall with white wing bars and, in the adults, a white neck band. The underside of the body is a rich mixture of colours from pink to mauve.
A bright yellow eye, a wingspan of just over two feet and an extraordinary capacity for aerobatics which can leave the decoyer with two empty cartridges and nothing in the bag more often than you would believe.
Our bird weighs around 20 ounces and is capable of flying more than 50 miles an hour in level flight.
By the way, if the bird you are aiming at has no white wing bars don’t even attempt to shoot it, it is most likely a stock dove and protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Now you know how to recognise the bird you need to find it and go about shooting it. Wood pigeons are a flock bird, they eat almost non-stop to keep up with their rapid metabolism and they spend many of their waking hours on the ground with their fellows eating the poor farmer out of house and home.
This is where you come in.
You are driving home on a summer’s afternoon (one the best times of day to go decoying), when you pass a recently harvested field of oilseed rape; as if at a signal the field bursts into life. One moment there is a stubble field, the next the air is full of grey and white birds twisting and turning as they lift off the field as one. Pigeons. How can you get some?
The answer lies in fieldcraft, to be precise in flightlines.
Woodpigeons arrive, and leave, their chosen field on flightlines and to decoy successfully you need to know what a flightline is and how to find it. A flightline is quite simply a ‘road in the air’ which the birds use to get from home to food and back again.
The woodpigeon sleeps, and breeds, in woods, he feeds in fields and he has chosen routes on which he flies to travel between the two. Drive to a field on which you have spotted pigeon feeding, sit in your car on the edge of the field with a pair of binoculars for half an hour or more and watch. If the birds are using the field you will see traffic, birds coming into and going out of the field.
Pigeons like to fly and they usually fly, and decoy, better in a wind; the prevailing wind in this country is from the South West. Study the wind, look for staging posts along the line that they use, single trees in the field, hedge lines, streams, farm tracks etc. The lines are really just like roads, they have cross roads, corners, junctions, lay-bys and so on. Once you have established the line that the birds are using you merely have to build your hide under that line and go decoying.
The logic behind this piece of fieldcraft is easy. If you don’t do your reconnaissance and merely build your hide on the field where you have seen the birds feeding you will scare them away when you approach to construct your hide, and you have no way of knowing if they arrived to feed haphazardly in that spot or that they chose to be there.
If, however, you have watched the field and you build your hide under their flightline into that same field, you know, even if you scare them away when you start shooting, that when they return to feed (because you have attracted them with your decoy layout), they will all fly along the flightline.
The next step is to build yourself a hide under the line and start decoying. Hides come in various guises; natural, bale and net. Today the technology in hide making belongs to the net and pole manufacturer.
Buy yourself 20 x 4-5 feet of light coloured camouflage netting and half a dozen telescopic, purpose made hide poles and you have enough to build a hide anywhere which will serve you throughout the changing colours and seasons of the year. Build your hide so that you have background cover, enough room to sit comfortably, see out of the hide without showing your face to the incoming pigeon, stand and swing the gun and leave room for the dog.
Hides can also be built from natural materials, but don’t ever cut down any of the farmer’s fences if you want to return.
Now for the decoy pattern; I could give you several thousand words on the theories but, the editor has allowed me but a few. So, just take my word for it and set out a basic ‘U’ shaped pattern, watch the pigeons on their approach to your pattern and go from there. Pigeons like to feed with their friends, you therefore need a few (a dozen will to do to start with), decoys to get the ball rolling.
A ‘U’ shaped pattern will give the most encouragement to the birds to land and, with the wind behind you, give you the easiest shooting.
There are many artificial decoys in the shops, they should not shine in either the sun or the rain, and the lightest are usually the best as they are the easiest to carry long distances. Set the front of the pattern 25 yards from the hide, leave 2-3 yards between each decoy and extend the arms of the ‘U’ at least 15-20 yards from the front of the pattern and finally make the open end of the ‘U’ at least 15 yards wide.
Once you have been successful with the ‘U’ you can experiment with other shapes.
A basic rule of all patterns is that, if the birds don’t come into land and jink away from your decoys; you and not the pigeons have got something wrong.
Shooting, guns and cartridges: The gun (to start with), 12-bore, double barrelled (28″ barrels are good), choked improved and ½ firing 1 ounce (28 grams), of No 6 shot will drop pigeons stone dead at between 25-35 yards all day long. A 20-bore with the equivalent load (13/16 ounce (23 grams), will do the same.
Before I give you any tips on shooting please remember this: Read the BASC Woodpigeon shooting Code of Practice and never, never have more than one gun unslipped, or in use, in a hide at any time.
The pigeon shot takes some practice but instinct is usually better than maintained lead. You know that the decoys are placed within the range at which your gun patterns best, wait for the bird to come into the decoy pattern, mount the gun and swing through the bird in the same movement and squeeze the trigger. Don’t move until you are going to shoot or you will scare the bird away before he comes within your chosen range.
Practice will make perfect. Forget about averages, if you are happy with your shooting then that is a good average, if you are not then that is a bad average and you should return to the shooting school.
There are a host of other areas which we could touch on in this article, dogs, dispatching birds, gaining permission to shoot, camouflage clothing, ‘pigeon magnets’, roost shooting, plucking and preparing birds for the table, in depth study of the bird and its habits, advanced decoying, crop protection or sport and so on but there should be enough here to get you started.