With a roar like ocean breakers on shingle, the unseen fingers of a southerly gale tore at the leafless canopy of towering beech trees. I had long planned to flight pigeon into this stand of ancient hardwoods and had carefully chosen an evening when a spring storm would muffle any shots fired at woodpigeon flying in to roost.
Standing, scanning the bare canopy above, I felt a gentle nudge against my leg and, glancing down, met the steady gaze of Brodie, my Labrador bitch. I spoke to her, but before my words could reach those black velvet ears, they were whipped away on the storm, so, bending, I gently stroked the crown of her ebony head to offer reassurance.
With my jacket collar pulled high against the gale, I tucked the 20-bore into the crook of my arm and leaned close against the gnarled trunk of a silver-barked giant to avoid detection by incoming pigeon. In spite of being nearly two centuries old and having a girth of several feet, the mighty tree swayed
drunkenly and creaked like a square-rigger in full sail.
Shooting through the storm
Suddenly, and without warning, a dozen pigeon with wings set dropped into the bare branches above me, their outlines silhouetted against the gathering gloom. Swiftly mounting the little 20-bore, I led the first of the drifting grey shapes with the guns muzzles and fired, sending a bird spinning and clattering into the tangled maelstrom of rhododendron below. Bending back and swinging furiously, I attempted to connect with a second fleeing pigeon, but with the full force of the gale beneath its wings, the storm-tossed flock was snatched away with unimaginable speed as 24g of No 6 shot rattled uselessly through empty branches.
Brodie sat quivering with anticipation, for she had seen the tumbling ball of grey feathers fall earthward and awaited the signal to make the retrieve. With the wave of a hand I cast her out to pick the bird, and as she vanished into the jungle of ground-covering rhododendron I realised that against such a roaring tempest whistled commands would be utterly futile. There was little time to worry about this, however, as a second group of pigeon circled briefly before dropping in to roost.
Two snapped shots produced a right-and-left, and some quick reloading accounted for a single bird following in behind. With the gathering dusk, pigeon were plummeting into the imagined sanctuary of the beech wood, providing fast and furious sport.
Piling up the pigeon
Brodie was working solo, relying on her nose alone to find downed birds among the shady interwoven branches of the rhodie bushes. As a result, the heap of pigeon at my feet was growing steadily, matched by the pile of empty yellow cartridge cases, and I began to wonder which would hold out longer daylight or ammunition?
A shot to my right folded an incoming bird with the full force of the wind behind it. Though dead, the feathered missile continued on towards me at great speed. Only luck and quick footwork on my part prevented a head-on collision as it careened off the trunk of my sheltering beech before bouncing 20ft across the woodland floor, scattering loose feathers as it did so. Having witnessed my narrow escape, Brodie deposited her latest retrieve into the cupped palm of my upturned hand and set out down the woodland ride to gather up the rather dishevelled pigeon.
A raucous caw-caw from above caused me to swing back into action as a large and abnormally unwary carrion crow sideslipped on outstretched wings before momentarily alighting in the very tree against which I stood. At the shot, this scourge of the spring lambing crumpled, landing dead almost at my feet, the pattern of the little guns right barrel ensuring that he and his dagger beak would plunder eggs no more.
Brodie glanced at the dead crow and then at me in expectation, but I placed a heavy boot on the birds broken black body and said firmly: Leave it. Though the crow was far beyond inflicting harm on any dog, I didnt want her to develop the habit of picking corvids, as I remembered only too well the stories told to me in childhood by old keepers of dogs blinded by the stabbing beak of a wounded crow.
As the last of the daylight drained from a leaden sky, a stinging rain slanted in against the stand of beeches and I realised that this long-awaited pigeon flight was over. With the gun unloaded, I carefully placed 22 blue-grey woodpigeon inside the folds of my weathered gamebag. The shattered body of the crow was placed inside the bags netting front for later disposal.
As I stooped to collect the scattering of empty cartridge cases that lay upon the ground, the intensity of the storm and a cold, hard rain convinced me that the place for myself and Brodie now was at home before a fire of crackling birch logs, where heavy velvet curtains would be drawn against the night and man and dog could dream of pigeon flights to come.