In the first Saturday in February, my son James and I had been invited to an organised pigeon roost shoot by our good friends Shane Robinson and Shaun Henley. Both are true-grit local Somerset shooting boys.
?Welcome to our windy woods,? said Shaun as we bumped along the rides and fire breaks in his 4×4. ?Woods? It?s more of a forest!? I replied as we drove through 800 acres of south Somerset hardwood. We were on a scouting mission for roosting woodies. Conditions were perfect ? dry and windy.
Our reconnaissance took us through a sea of trees towards the southern side of the pine-fringed wood. There in front of us, down a slight incline, lay two huge, pigeonless rape fields. Under the pine canopy, the bramble leaves were covered in white pigeon droppings, which might have been recent or could have been there for a month or more without the rain to wash them away. This pigeon- dropping theory is unreliable and, in any case, no pigeon would ever roost here in the teeth of this wind. Woodcraft is a mixture of experience and basic detective work.
Scouting the terrain
Onward again, and we were now headed for the eastern edge, constantly searching for a good concentration of ivy-clad trees. As we continued, it transpired that the wood is a perfect diamond shape, consisting almost entirely of fully mature hardwoods, mainly beech and ash. I?m always searching for something distinctive ? something like the tallest tree in the woods ? but nothing stood out here: they were all the same height and, sadly, there was no ivy.
Most surprising to me was the total lack of rotten fallen trees, which often make an ideal window to shoot through. Determined to find that perfect ambush, we continued on to the western front, which proved to be the least windy area. A good bunch of pigeon were spotted struggling against the wind. ?What do you make of that exposed ash tree by that grassy area, Jim?? I asked my son, ?If we could get some decoys up there, we?d be in with a chance.? As always, we had much work to do. ?Well, look on the bright side,? he replied. ?It?s not as if we?ve got to build an 11½ metre-high scaffold tower like you did in your last pigeon-shooting film!?
We were at a great disadvantage, as James and I had never seen this wood before. It had taken more than an hour to complete our recce. Shaun kindly dumped all my equipment near the chosen tree before driving off to meet the arriving Guns. ?You?ll be the only one using decoys, Chris, good luck!?
The other Guns were due to meet soon. They were all local, the youngest being an especially keen 11-year-old boy, Chris Birchall-Mann, who was said to be pretty handy with his 20-bore. Great to see young blood in the shooting world.
We set to work putting out our decoys (see panel, below). After a while, a gust of wind rocked the wood, and my flying decoys came alive. The distant pops of guns began as the other Guns got into position. Then there was a much closer bang ? I peered in that direction. There! A real screamer of a bird, 45 yards up, curving and jinking through the swaying branches. I fired and, to my surprise, it crashed down 90 yards away. A few birds curved around for a closer look at my tree and for a time I had no idea which one to shoot at. At 4pm, a flurry of birds came my way and I loaded as fast as I could. James actually shot a pigeon, which landed right at my feet. I shot two in a row, then missed and missed again. (Honestly, I?m not trigger-happy.) By 4.20pm the flight had stopped. Around my boots the ground was red, empty-cartridge red. Lots of them. There were 10 birds down and nearly five shots per bird, an absolutely appalling ratio, you might say ? but you weren?t there, and overall we managed a fi nal bag of 100 birds.
Carrying a handful of pigeon, James came down to see what all the noise was about and Rhys, his black Labrador, started fetching my birds. Jim and I waited another hour but never saw another bird except one suicidal pigeon at an enormous height, which spotted my flying decoys, shut its wings in brilliant style and dived right for my tree. By far the easiest shot of the day ? and I missed it!
Was it worth it setting up the decoys in that ash tree? I say yes. You get out of your sport what you?re prepared to put into it. If it hadn?t been for James?s help, I might have said otherwise, because setting up the secret weapon is not easy on your own, on a windy day, when you?re in a hurry. My tally of pigeon wasn?t the best bag of the day; somebody else beat me by one bird. You see, if only I had a wing mirror hat!