Quiet, accurate and relatively low-powered, airguns lend themselves brilliantly to the control of pests around farm buildings. Their modest power and near-silent operation mean they can be employed to pick off vermin in confined conditions where the use of any other gun would be unthinkable.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been thinning out an infestation of feral pigeon on a local mixed farm. These birds were nesting in buildings used to house livestock and store machinery and, in addition to munching their way through costly animal feed, were fouling water troughs, farm vehicles and hand tools with a constant splattering of droppings from on high.
The multicoloured pigeon that are often encountered around farm units, warehouse buildings, town centres and car parks are descended from the true rock dove, but the variation in their appearance is considerable. Ferals most commonly have grey-and-black plumage like that of the rock dove — usually with a green-and-purple sheen around the neck — but generations of cross-breeding with escaped pets and disorientated racing pigeon have resulted in countless variations, from jet black and pure white to light blue and mottled brown.
Rocky ledges in remote places are the favoured habitat of the rock dove, and feral pigeon are adept at exploiting the man-made equivalent — barns provide them with such places where joists and rafters criss-cross the roofspace. In addition to providing shelter and safe nesting, farm buildings usually offer ferals the added bonus of a constant supply of food. These birds are indiscriminate scavengers, and surprisingly large flocks can scratch a living from scraps gleaned from the farmyard floor.
The feral pigeon’s ability to breed throughout much of the year means populations can quickly spiral if left unchecked. Overpopulation tends to result in poor health, and flocks of ferals have a reputation for spreading disease. These birds festoon their surroundings with droppings and are often referred to as “flying rats”. When targeting rabbits and woodpigeon, I take great pleasure from turning the contents of my gamebag into a tasty meal, but I have never been tempted to eat a feral pigeon.
Winning landowners’ trust
Like many airgun shooters, I cut my teeth shooting ferals around farm buildings as a boy. By demonstrating a safe attitude towards my shooting when picking off farmyard pests, I managed to win the trust of several landowners, who then granted me permission to shoot woodpigeon and other pests in their pheasant coverts. That apprenticeship was served more than a quarter of a century ago, but I still try to show willing when called upon to deal with an infestation of feral pigeon.
A bit of farmyard shooting can actually provide surprisingly interesting sport, and the extra attention to safety that’s needed when shooting near livestock, buildings and machinery instils good habits that still apply when shooting over open ground. Furthermore, the farmyard provides welcome shelter that can save a shooting trip when the weather turns bad. I often retreat to farm buildings to shelter from downpours or bitterly cold winds, and this summer, the cool shade of the barns has offered comfortable shooting on days when blazing sunshine has made exposed ground less appealing.
Feral pigeon control is one of the less demanding shooting scenarios likely to be encountered by the airgunner. Lacking the instinctive guile and cunning of their wild cousins, these birds quickly become accustomed to the comings and goings of farm workers, the clatter of gates, the rumble of machinery and the constant shuffl ing and calling of farm animals. Consequently, it doesn’t take a great deal of stealth to creep within range, and full camouflage is certainly not required. Wellington boots will help to keep the sludgy surprises of the farmyard floor from seeping through to your socks, but you can definitely leave the head net at home.
Safety is the prime consideration when shooting around a farmyard, where respect should be paid to workers, livestock, machinery and buildings. It’s worth meeting up with the owner or manager to walk the holding and discuss a plan of action before you turn up with your gun. Consider where pigeon are likely to be encountered and think carefully about how you can ensure that shots are safe. It’s also a good idea to find out when farm workers are present and, more importantly, when they are not — early-morning or late-evening sessions may enable you to shoot when there is nobody else around. All the workers on one of my permissions enjoy extended lunch breaks at weekends, providing me with a useful window of opportunity.
Ensure a clean kill
Pretty much any accurate airgun that produces power close to the 12ft/lb legal limit should be up to the task of controlling feral pigeon. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been using both a hightech electronic Daystate and my trusty Weihrauch HW95 break-barrel springer, and both have fared well.
Bearing in mind that most shots are likely to be taken at less than 25m (and many at less than 20m), there’s no need to splash out on super-powerful optics. However, though this sort of shooting doesn’t demand the same degree of marksmanship as sniping rabbits at 45m, you and your kit should be up to the task of consistently delivering shots to the head or the heart and lung area to ensure clean kills at close to mid-range. A telescopic sight provides the required degree of accuracy and will also enable you to check a pigeon’s legs for the all-important ring that identifies a bird as a lost racing pigeon and not a feral. Ringed birds should not be shot.
On some holdings, it’s best to adopt a roving approach, lurking from building to building and shooting the pigeon as you encounter them. If you identify a particularly productive area, it can pay to dig in and ambush birds as they flight in, especially if they are returning to the building to roost at the end of the day. There’s no need to set up a camouflage screen, as hiding places tend to come ready-made on the farm — it’s usually just a case of finding a shady corner or settling in among the hay bales or behind a tractor and waiting for the birds to return.
When taking shots, check that the backstop is safe, and then check again before you touch off the trigger. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of solid backstops on the farm — concrete walls and steel joists make for effective pelletcatchers, stopping them in their tracks without fear of ricochet when hit squarely.
Nonetheless, you’re likely to encounter birds that are best left for another day. Don’t be tempted by the easy shot at a bird huddled beneath a fragile roof — it’s not worth jeopardising your shooting permission and your reputation by risking damage to a building just for the sake of one more feral pigeon.