The arable farmers in Fife wage an endless battle against the woodpigeon that gorge on the fruits of their labours, so a reliable pigeon shooter is a trusty ally. BASC development officer Kenny Willmitt has been a regular foe of the Fife woodies since he was old enough to handle a shotgun and he has built many lasting friendships with local farmers thanks to his ability to lessen the burden of the determined pests.
Kenny took Shooting Times out on a pigeon foray in June. It may not be the traditional month of the year for shooting pigeon, but with the right skill and application, Kenny was confident that he could still do the farmer a service. Clover and grass seed were the most likely food sources in the fields, meagre rations compared with the boon times of the harvest or the spring drillings. But the farmer also grows a healthy crop of barley, so any impact on the pigeon population is gratefully received.
The farmer had asked Kenny to keep an eye on a field of recently planted neeps. As we approached the turnips, Kennys reconnaissance revealed woodpigeon in a nearby field of set-aside. He stopped the vehicle to scout the area again with his binoculars.
Theres a doo, he said, as a single pigeon lifted from the rough ground. Lets hope he has friends. We drove closer to the field, startling more and more birds from the long grass until the pale grey sky was teeming with the pests. This might just work, added Kenny, As long as we can make them come back.
Kenny wasted no time in pegging out a hide next to the tallest hawthorn bush that would give natural cover. Five acres of barley swayed behind the hedge, showing the direction of the strong gusts of wind that skimmed across its surface. If you were to come back here in August when the barley has been cut, this place would be alive with pigeon on the stubbles, said Kenny, laying out the first of his plastic pigeon shells on the grass, as though they were feeding into the wind. At this time of year the birds have to make do with whatever they can find, so they can be trickier to predict and to target.
Research by the British Trust for Ornithology indicates that UK woodpigeon numbers have grown dramatically over the past few decades, due in part to their ability to breed the whole year round. Kenny, however, is reluctant to accept that the local Fife population has followed the same trend.
I used to shoot these fields 20 years ago, he said, positioning a trio of decoys on fence posts, whose tops bore white streaks to prove that real pigeon had sat there before. My friends and I would go out every Friday and Saturday and we would always return with good bags. It isnt so easy nowadays. Whether it is because farming techniques and crop rotations have changed, I dont know. Certainly, these modern seed drills are more efficient, planting the seed much lower in the ground and scattering less loose seed as they turn. Perhaps that has a bearing.
The perfect conditions
The plan was to use the plastic decoys to bag a couple of woodies, then use the dead birds as decoys and fit the plastic ones to the magnet to attract more. These are about the best conditions you could hope for when pigeon shooting, said Kenny. Not only is it overcast with good cloud cover, so there is no avoiding shine on the decoys or your gun barrels, but there is also a steady breeze. This helps make the birds more predictable, if thats ever possible. With this wind, I know that theyll try to fly, land and take-off into the wind. I know which hedges they are more likely to use as a sheltered flightline, too. If you position yourself correctly, you can ambush them as they pass along the belt of shelter from the wind.
It is this quarrys ability to surprise and to keep the shooter second- Guessing that has kept Kenny returning time and again throughout the past 20 years. Though pigeon are considered to be a pest, they can often prove to be one of the most difficult and sporting birds to shoot, said Kenny. Unlike driven pheasants, for example, they can arrive from any angle and at different speeds. A pigeon floating into decoys can in an instant turn its tail into the wind, disappearing into the distance in the blink of an eye. Pigeon shooting is the best type of shooting I have ever done.
But the shooter seemed anxious as he crouched behind the camouflage netting of the hide. I could have done with a slightly higher hawthorn bush, he said. The hide is a bit low as a result I much prefer to shoot standing up so that I avoid having to move too much when mounting the gun. Movement in the hide should be kept to a minimum, especially as birds approach.
Kenny does all his shooting with his Beretta 687 EL, with 2¾in chambers. As a long-standing member of the Tay Valley Wildfowlers, the gun has seen its fair share of cold mud. Its probably a bit of a grand gun for fowling,
Kenny conceded. But its the one I feel most comfortable with. Recently, I traded it in for a 3½in-chambered Silver Pigeon for shooting steel shot, but I couldnt get on with the gun at all. It simply didnt feel right. I was fortunate that the friend I sold my old gun to was prepared to sell it back.
To the unsuspecting pigeon, the field of set-aside was now clear of human danger and it was not long before the first hungry birds returned from the nearby woods for a feeding foray. Four of them sidled towards the decoy pattern, causing Kenny to close his gun and rise up on his haunches in nticipation. The first three birds thought better of it, diverting across the field towards a stone water tower, but the backmarker was more inquisitive. It flashed right towards the decoys and Kenny rose smartly from cover, bowling the bird over with his second barrel.
Phew, he puffed, marking where the pigeon had fallen. It saw me as I got up and jinked at the first shot, but I got it with the second. We need to get another one, because I reckon that with the magnet all four of those would have come in.
However, it was a jackdaw that approached the hide next, whether with a view to joining the decoys or simply by misfortune as it followed the path of the hedge. Either way, it did not continue its journey. Again, the second barrel, smiled Kenny. I must be rusty. But these bangs might help stir things up.
His words proved prophetic. Soon several pairs of woodies were crossing the field. But they did not seem interested in visiting our quadrant. I dont think they like our decoys, said Kenny. There are times when they can be counterproductive, especially on sunny days. If you know when and where birds are going to be feeding or you know the flightlines, then it may be worth having no decoys at all and using the dead birds as you shoot them. I think the movement of the magnet would help us though.
He cut short the last word as a lone pigeon came skirting along the back of the hedge. Kenny had to wait before it appeared on the other side of the hawthorn bush, before his barrels twitched in the birds direction, sending it spinning into the field of barley, once more with the second barrel. The way Im shooting, I may as well put an empty in the first barrel, he said ruefully. Itll not be Kenny the Doo, whent hey read this. Itll be Kenny Second Barrel.
A talented picker-up
In the thick barley, the shooter relied on his black Labrador, Tin, to find the fallen bird and it was not long before the eager dog returned with its mouth full of pigeon. Kenny had also brought his 14-year-old cocker, Sweep, but he would prove to be more of an enthusiastic helper, being stone deaf and short on concentration. I fear that this will be his last season, said Kenny, helping the old boy back into the truck.
Tin, a sleek, handsome Lab, was more than capable of finding the fallen birds on his own. Kenny took the dog from a friend who was struggling to make progress with Tins lack of confidence. Just like humans, some youngsters need more time and more encouragement, commented Kenny. I saw Tin as a new challenge, but also an opportunity, because I needed a new dog as a companion for Sweep. He is still shy of strangers, but once he gets to know you and relaxes, hes an excellent retriever.
With the second pigeon in the bag, Kenny could now fit up the pigeon magnet, which he soon had birling round in front of the hide. The difference in fortune was almost instantaneous. The next pair of pigeon to appear on the other side of the field flanked in our direction. They swooped into the decoy pattern to present Kenny with an opportunity of a left-and-right. But only one lay on the grass after two shots.
Its the initial movement thats the problem. Just a foot more netting and they wouldnt see me. Ideally you want the pigeon focussed in on the decoys, so they dont clock the hide until it is far too late, said Kenny.
Staying relaxed and patient is also key when trying to do the best job possible for the farmer, according to Kenny. Let the birds come as close as you can, within reason, he said. You can allow the first few birds to land in next to decoys. I try to shoot one of the tail-enders coming in and then I shoot a bird taking off. That way, you should have two birds well within range.
Only minutes later he had a chance to put his theory into practice. Five pigeon flitted round the water tower, then decided to check out the gang of friendly-looking feeders in front of the hawthorn bush. As a quintet, they flapped their way in our direction, staying in tight formation. Kennys breathing deepened as he hugged in tight to the fabric of the netting, ensuring that his barrels would not become snagged in the material.
The two lead pigeon gracefully touched down on the grass in front of the magnet, but still Kenny kept hidden behind his cover. Only when the final bird came into range did he pop into view. A hail of lead sped at the first target, before his trusty second barrel caught up with one of the lead pigeon as it took off from the ground. Only three of the five flew back towards the water tower.
Would you believe it, a kill with my first barrel! exclaimed Kenny.