Don’t wait for the pigeons to hit those winter rape fields in earnest, get out there now and make your early recon count, says Peter Theobald.
By the time you read this, pigeons will be hitting the various rape fields to the exclusion of almost everything else. In a year when acorns are almost non-existent, and the autumn drillings were completed in perfect conditions, pigeons were starting to take an interest in rape as early as the beginning of October.
In most cases, they were clearing up the last remnants of grain and not actually touching the newly emerging plants, but this did not stop anxious farmers contacting me, or even putting out gas guns. One farmer I know puts his scarers out on the same day as he finishes drilling, arguing that the pigeons never get into the habit of getting a feed off any of his rape fields.
This tactic can work on small fields, but the danger is that birds will eventually work out that the bangs do not present any harm to them, and get used to them. This situation creates a real problem on large fields, where pigeons simply descend on another, quieter section. I have often said in these pages, that you simply will not prevent pigeons getting in for a feed by employing gas guns. They are such opportunistic birds, they will always manage to go home to roost with a crop-full of someone’s rape.
So, how do farmers minimise the damage? Short of employing someone to go round the rape fields from dawn til dusk, scaring the pigeons on to another farmer’s fields, the solution should be staring you in the face. They allow people like you and I to shoot them. This obviously involves a bit of co-operation on the part of the farmer, like phoning you the day before he intends to employ a gas gun, rather than the day after. Like, maybe leaving that stubble field a few more days before ploughing it, to allow you to take a large bag from it. It is often difficult to convince a farmer that it is far easier to shoot big numbers of pigeons on the autumn stubbles than it is on the winter rape fields. All they see is huge flocks devouring their rape, and cannot understand why we cannot make inroads. My shooting partner Paul and I achieve 70 per cent of our yearly totals during the three-month harvest period, birds that will be virtually un-decoyable once they hit the rape in earnest.
The fact remains, we have got to do our best to protect the farmer’s crops and hopefully put a few birds in the bag as well. As always, superior fieldcraft and reconnaissance will achieve the best results, as there is no doubt you need everything in your favour if you are going to shoot a bag. By December, I will have a mental picture of every rape field on my patch. I will know which fields are likely to be hit hardest and also how advanced the crop is in growth. Any ‘patchy’ fields will be given priority on my recce trips, particularly when they occur on a favourite field. As soon as I start to see any activity, I will contact the farmer to tell him I am monitoring the situation. They are usually happy to then leave it to me to deal with, provided they don’t drive past the field a week later, and see a thousand pigeons contentedly munching their way across the field.
‘TIS THE SEASON
From my records, all my big bags on rape have come early in the season, before they have been chased from pillar to post by gas guns and decoyers. It is therefore essential your early sorties are carried out when conditions are favorable. This means a dry day, a decent wind, and pigeons that are settled on a field for at least a few days. Hopefully, the birds will not decamp to another field as soon as the shooting starts, as they surely will later in the year. But if you think they might, then you must cover that alternative, either with a fellow decoyer, or flags and bangers. You will not get a better chance of a bag than the first time they hit the field, so make it count.
There are a number of small adjustments that we make when we shoot the winter rape fields, but they can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure. We have all seen the ‘follow my leader’ flight patterns of birds feeding on rape, and learned from bitter experience that as soon as the line is severed, usually by you, in the act of setting up, the birds immediately take another line, often in the opposite direction! We take great care in pushing resting or feeding birds as far back on the flightline as we can, if they are close enough to hear you start shooting, chances are, they will head elsewhere. To help with this, we usually set up just off the line and make sure any subsequent shots are not fired directly down the approaching flightline, even if this results in tricky setups where the wind is directly in our faces. Difficult shooting trumps no shooting at all, every time.
THE BIGGER THE BETTER
We favour big patterns with plenty of movement, often employing three whirlies and up to four flappers, with the decoys set fairly close together. Basically, presenting the picture incoming birds expect to see. Also, we will not compromise on the best location within a field to set up. It is sometimes tempting to set up in a position that is easy to drive to, but is either wrong for the wind or where birds actually want to feed. To this end, we take a quad bike, which will not damage the soil, and drive to whichever part of the field we feel will give us the best chance of success.
From here, it is just a question of sticking at it and not giving up. Bags are hard-earned, but just as much satisfaction can be gained from killing 30 birds in impossible conditions than killing 300 when the birds are suicidal. Also, don’t forget the Brownie points to be earned when you turn up on a freezing January day, when all other decoyers have given up in disgust. We pick up more new shooting in the winter, when we kill relatively few pigeons, than we do in the summer, when we shoot thousands. With a bit of perseverance, that could be you! Good luck!