Driving around the country, anyone will have noticed that huge areas of oilseed rape are now being grown by our farmers. With prices going up and yields increasing, we are unlikely to see a reduction any time soon. I wondered if ? and how ? this was affecting the way we shoot pigeon on this crop.
The general opinion among my fellow shooters seems to be that it will get harder to shoot big bags, because the birds are more widely distributed and always have another field to fly to wherever you set up.
There have been days this winter when I?ve set up in a spot that was hammered the previous day, but after a few shots the birds have moved to pastures new.
According to DEFRA, in 2011 there were more than 700,000 hectares of oilseed rape in the UK. This is almost double the amount grown just 10 years ago. In the same period, according to British Trust for Ornithology and RSPB figures, pigeon numbers have also increased by roughly 20 per cent to somewhere between five million and six million birds.
There are obviously more pigeon to deal with, but have we seen more pigeon this winter? Opinion seems to suggest we haven?t; indeed, various correspondents in the shooting press have questioned where all the pigeon have gone.
But in my neck of the woods, pigeon are here in the same numbers ? we just don?t notice them as much because the mild weather and the abundance of alternative food means they have not flocked up as they would in a hard year. Wherever I go, I see small groups of birds feeding on acorns, beechmast, ivy berries, hawthorn berries and even gleanings and weed seeds. In a hard winter all of this food would be gone or frozen in by December, so we would see big flocks of birds on the rape.
But pigeon avoid those rape varieties ? there are more than 100 different ones available ? that grow fast and taste very bitter. And because many rape crops were already well over a foot high in January, pigeon couldn?t land in it. All these things make it difficult to shoot a decent bag.
But let?s look at the positives. According to the National Farmers Union, annual pigeon damage may cost East Anglian farmers up to £53m, with 77 per cent of growers suffering losses. In the same survey, 70 per cent of growers said they thought that shooting was the best method of control. So growers still need the services of reliable and efficient Guns to shoot pigeon.
Prices for shot pigeon are holding up at present. But cartridge costs continue to rise, so shooting pigeon is rarely cost-effective. Some growers make a contribution by way of cartridges, but the majority do not. We have to accept this if we want to continue to enjoy access to the land and the pleasure shooting gives us.
The combination of large areas of winter rape, mild weather and an abundance of alternative food means pigeon mortality will be low, which is good for shooters but not for farmers. With the current crop having grown so well, pigeon will focus more on small areas where the crop is thin ? this gives us a greater chance of knocking up a decent bag and helping to keep the grower happy.
So, as the pigeon is affected by growing patterns, we can keep up by using better equipment and kit as well as maintaining a positive attitude to the task ahead. Very soon we will be into spring drilling when all those pigeon will be ready for a change of diet; let?s make sure we are ready too.