Peter Theobald offers tips and advice on how to best shoot pigeons in the frosty months.
There is a common misconception among decoyers that pigeons love the green leaves of oilseed rape, with some shooters even suggesting the birds get hooked on the stuff at certain times of the year.
If this were true, then surely they would eat the self-sown plants in the stubbles, and attack the newly planted seed as soon as it emerges from the ground.
The fact is pigeons only eat rape leaves when absolutely all the alternatives have been exhausted.
All stubbles, drillings, acorns and natural berries, need to be extinct before pigeons resort to rape.
Having said that, rape is essential for the survival of pigeon numbers for up to four months during the leanest time of the year, and is the main reason why populations continue to soar.
Apart from disease, shooting and winter’s kill are the only limiting factors to future increases, and this is purely down to the availability of rape on such a widespread scale.
It’s unheard of these days to come across starving pigeons in the winter, whereas in the 60s it was commonly thought that more perished through lack of food than ever were shot.
In a year where acorns and beechmast are scarce, December is the month when pigeons hit the rape full time, and you might think that now is the time for some consistent bags – after all everybody has at least one field of the stuff where birds can be found on most days.
The reality is that pigeons quickly learn where every rape field in the parish is located, and move to an alternative at the slightest excuse, sometimes not giving the hopeful decoyer a single shot.
Admittedly, there are parts of the country where shooting pressure is light, and decoyers enjoy reasonable bags right through the winter, but here in the south east pigeons do not get much opportunity to fill their crops in peace.
From anxious farmers, who relentlessly chase the birds off their crops with bangers and rockets, to the shooter who turns out every weekend for the chance of a few shots, it’s little wonder that pigeons roam the countryside in large flocks for security reasons.
Observation and Reconnaissance
It sounds depressing I know, but I’m not trying to discourage decoyers from having a go – merely suggesting they must lower their expectations and raise their level of fieldcraft – as there’s no doubt that keen observation allied to sound reconnaissance will still bring results.
You must simply stack the odds in your favour as much you can and don’t rely on potluck with regards to weather and location of fields.
In my experience the best bags are made when the birds have just become locked into the crop – but before they learn where an alternative can be found.
It makes sense, therefore, to make your first sortie a determined effort.
This will entail picking a day when the wind blows (definitely not a still frosty day) and, hopefully, finding a field that’s fairly isolated.
You’ll find it horribly difficult if you’re trying to find a spot within a sea of maybe 300 acres with other fields just a short flight away.
Fields where seed germination is poor, or ones that have been planted late are obvious ones to keep an eye on as it’s surprising how many fields you can rule out as potential targets purely because they have grown too tall and lush.
Pigeons will always choose crops where they do not have to wade about up to their necks in wet leaves.
Once you have selected your field, and the weather looks favourable, it’s important to find a spot where flighting pigeons can see your layout clearly when they’re coming in on green crops.
Follow my leader
I would usually advocate setting up directly under the flightline, but on rape it can sometimes be more profitable to be just off the line by, say, 100 yards.
The reason for this is that in the winter pigeons will often form a flightline by sight rather than habit. I’m sure we’ve all watched birds streaming out of a wood in a follow my leader pattern, only to see it change to another field as soon as the line was broken.
Provided you have managed to push feeding birds far enough away from your chosen field, I will try to decoy returning pigeons in such a way as to not disrupt the line.
This can often be achieved by setting up to one side, and with a little discipline, not firing any shots directly down the line.
I like big patterns on rape, anything up to 50 decoys, plus flappers and often two rotaries, as I want to recreate what arriving pigeons expect to see, and that is plenty of birds on the ground, with movement coming and going.
Don’t be afraid to pack any shot birds, mounted on cradles if necessary, really close together amongst the pattern, always taking care to not fill in the vital ‘killing zone’.
As winter advances, and pigeons become used to moving on to new fields at the slightest disturbance, you will find your success rate dropping even further.
A bag of 50 birds is to be celebrated, and this only achieved maybe once every four outings.
But persevere, farmers are never more likely to allow newcomers onto their land as they are now, and regular appearances could lead to better opportunities in the spring and summer.
It’s also worth considering putting rope bangers out on fields you are not covering on any given day, just to try and disrupt the daily patterns of rape weary pigeons.
I am not usually a fan of trying to force pigeons to feed on the field I have chosen by employing bangers, but just occasionally it will keep them moving and give you hope that eventually, they will return to your field.