Though woodpigeon are among the airgun shooter?s wiliest quarry species, the winter months provide an excellent opportunity to make a dent in numbers of this major agricultural pest. This winter, heavy rainfall and consequent extensive flooding dealt another blow to struggling farmers who had only just emerged from one of the wettest summers in memory. With countless acres destroyed through saturation, flocks of pigeon descending on freshly drilled seed or any crops that managed to survive the deluge are not a welcome sight.
Woodies can be decoyed to within range of the airgun at any time of year, but targeting them at the winter roost is usually more reliable. When harsh weather sets in, vast flocks of pigeon will gather to spend the night in sheltered areas of woodland.
Some of my best bags have been made by targeting roosts close to fields that have been hammered by pigeon. Of course, the primary reason for shooting woodpigeon is for crop protection but, even when bags are modest, the airgunner is also rewarded with some welcome meat for the pot. As satisfying as it is to use airguns to control crows and magpies around pheasant release pens and to pick off rats around farm buildings, I never turn up my nose at a shooting trip that promises to put rich, succulent pigeon breasts on the menu.
Pick your position carefully
Choosing the right spot to base a roost shoot is vital, because airgunners fire a single lead pellet rather than a wide pattern of shot. This limits you to static targets ? flying birds are an absolute no-no. Instead, you must hide so you can ambush unsuspecting woodpigeon after they have settled among the branches.
Woodies tend to prefer woodland that offers them protection from the elements. Birds will shun exposed areas when the treetops are being buffeted by an icy blast, so it is worth investigating woods on the lee side of hills or those nestled in sheltered valleys. Pigeon will home in on patches of woodland with plenty of dense cover to keep out the draughts. Plantations of closely spaced evergreens provide excellent shelter, as do stands of hardwood trees that are smothered in thick patches of ivy. Look to the ground for feathers and droppings to help narrow your search.
Typically, the places where woodies like to roost can be just as good at keeping out airgun pellets as they are at blocking a sneaky breeze. Woodpigeon love to bed down where tightly packed pines or tangled patches of impenetrable blackthorn create nature?s answer to thermal insulation. The trouble is, however many birds flight to these cosy roosting grounds, there is little chance of threading a pellet through the mesh of fine twigs.
The best places to lurk in ambush are those where there is plenty of ivy or dense cover to shelter roosting birds (and to hide a hopeful airgun shooter) and where there are also taller trees, such as mature oak and ash, reaching above the snug understorey. In these places, the woodies will usually land in the loftier branches from where they can survey the scene below, before they drop down to roost. Pick them off when they are silhouetted against the wintry sky, before they flutter down into the cosy thicket beneath.
I aim to set up an hour or two before dusk, so as not to spook too many early arrivals from the woods when I arrive. However quietly you attempt to sneak through the woods, there is always the chance of a clumsy footfall cracking down onto a brittle branch or crunching among dry leaf litter. The impact of this disturbance should be negligible as long as you don?t leave it too late to get into position.
Once I find a promising place, I look for a spot that offers a clear view of, and clear shots into, the trees that I expect incoming pigeon to land in. I rarely build a hide when shooting pigeon at the roost because it is often necessary to shift position properly to cover the trees to which they are flighting. It?s far easier to creep from one natural hiding place to another than trying to pull down hide poles and netting and then carting them a few metres to set up somewhere else.
If you dress in drab colours, an ivy-clad tree trunk is likely to be all you need to keep hidden ? it will also provide a useful rest when shots present themselves. I always keep my face covered, either with a head net or snood, because pigeon will often spook at the sight of a pink blob staring up at them from the murky gloom of a twilit wood.
I also advise using the side of your boot to shunt the leaf litter away from the patch where you are standing. By pushing dry leaves and fine twigs away to reveal the soft, damp soil beneath, you will be able to adjust your footing accordingly, without causing a commotion as you shift your weight to steady yourself for a shot. Standing is usually the best option. However, if you are fortunate enough to find a place where you can take unobstructed shots while seated, it?s a steadier position to shoot from.
When pigeon start to drift over, I try to get the gun into my shoulder before they get too close. This movement often catches the eye of flighty pigeon and you have to do it very slowly to avoid detection after they have pitched.
With pigeon in range, it is a question of picking the one that offers the easiest shot to the kill zone. A close one offering a headshot should be your first choice. If the head is obscured, don?t be tempted to just go for the big target offered by the chest area. The crop will probably be stuffed with grain and berries, and the upper part of the breast is made up of thick bone and muscle that can act as a shield. The lower part of the breast presents a clearer route to the heart and lung area, especially if the bird is at a slight angle to you ? in which case, a shot placed just in front of the white feathers at the curve of the wing should find the engine room, as will a shot from behind and between the shoulders if taken at a relatively flat angle.
Use ?X-ray vision?
It?s difficult to lay down hard and fast rules when it comes to pellet placement because so much depends on the angle of the shot and the way the bird is presented to you. The secret is to think in X-ray ? this gets easier once you have prepared a few birds for the table and have a reasonable understanding of where the vital organs are situated.
Don?t break cover if you drop a bird and it?s cleanly despatched, but mark it carefully for retrieval. The muted muzzle report of an airgun fitted with a moderator causes scant disturbance. There are times when birds linger and you get the chance of a second shot from the same group, and even if they depart, it?s likely that others will soon drop in.