Spring (oilseed) rape is generally grown by default after the failing of an autumn sown-crop. It was once a common crop, but over the past few years it has been less popular among arable farmers due to its low yield.

Spring rape has always provided a huge draw for woodpigeon, and due to its scarcity in recent years, anybody lucky enough to have a farm with spring rape would be in for a few bonanza weeks, shooting big bags. Spring rape provides a sweeter feed than winter rape and an easy crop-full in good weather.

As you will be aware, this has not been a good farming year. I can’t remember the last time I saw crops across the board that were as sparse as they are — the number of failed crops must be heartbreaking. Wet weather and a bumper year for slugs and woodpigeon are just some of the reasons.

My role as a pigeon shooter has never been as important to the farmer as it has over the past six months. Pigeon shooting is my passion and, thinking selfishly, the farming situation has increased the opportunities on many farms, with spring rape being the main crop used to try to get some return on failed winter rape.

Reconnaissance

Do not treat spring rape like winter rape, because woodpigeon behave differently on the two crops. You will not see huge flocks; the birds will travel in ones and twos to their chosen field, and once they have arrived they will not go far to digest the crop. Activity on spring rape will change as the crop grows — when it is a couple of inches tall and showing its first leaves is when you will see the first interest, but the most activity will be seen when the crop is halfway through its growing life. Its popularity with woodpigeon declines as the crop matures and finally flowers.

A lot of this year’s spring rape was drilled late — mainly due to low soil temperatures — so it has taken a long time to get going, but once it does it grows quickly. As soon as there is a carpet of green, you can expect to see birds starting to pay an interest. Compared with last year, I have never seen so much spring rape in my area — blocks of more than 300 acres and patched up winter rape. This time last year I was achieving some great bags, but due to the lack of spring rape around this year, I’m predicting smaller bags — its growth is about two to three weeks behind.

You should aim to start looking for birds from about 11am onwards, though again the weather is a major factor — the warmer the weather, the later the birds will get started and thus the later they will feed. At this time of year, there is a lot of food around, so fields of spring rape may be the bird’s last destination of the day. Even if it’s late, it’s always worth a visit on your way home.

I tend to find that once the birds discover a food source, you can set your watch by their arrival. They will not travel far, so you should aim to beat them to their chosen field — timing is crucial. If you are unable to spend time on reconnaissance, walk the fields. If pigeon have been feeding, you will find the bottoms of hedgerows and trees laden with their excrement. Warm days with a light breeze will always provide the most activity.

Decoying

Birds will come and go for most of the afternoon. With this in mind, arriving pigeon will not be looking out for 50 plastic decoys lying static in a field; they will be expecting to see small pockets of feeding birds moving around hedgerows, and almost bouncing around their chosen field. This is what you need to represent when setting out your decoys.

I only use dead birds, starting small and gradually building the picture as the day goes on. I start with a single flapper, and as the number of dead birds I put out increases, I will introduce a second if I feel the need. I like using bird cradles on spring rape, as they enable you to raise a dead bird slightly higher than the crop, which improves your visibility — just don’t overdo it. I hang the wings down on about half of the birds in the cradles — with a light breeze, this helps to add some natural movement to your picture, showing off the wing bars and giving the impression of birds moving around the crop.

Around the location of my hide, I use 9ft bamboo canes with a bird cradle pushed into the top. I normally use no more than three of these lofted dead birds, as they help in creating a realistic picture, representing birds hanging around to digest a crop-full in the hedgerows. I use a magnet if I feel one is required, as they can work well on spring rape as the crop gets higher.

Shooting

Unfortunately, this year’s spring rape is a long way behind where it was this time last year, so on a recent outing I had to think outside the box to enjoy an afternoon’s sport. On this particular estate, most of the spring rape is planted to try to patch up winter rape.

So far, the pigeon have shown little interest in the young spring rape coming through, apart from one field. However, this is no normal field — it was originally planted as a crop of winter rape, but it failed. The farm manager tried to plant spring rape, but the wet weather ruined any chance of its succeeding, and now, looking at the field from a distance you would think it was a field of set-aside, with patches of spring rape, black grass, wheat, barley, clover, chickweed and charlock.

The majority of the birds I observed early in the day were enjoying the young late buds on the trees surrounding the field, and they would start to feed on the fi eld at about 4.30pm. I could see that I wasn’t going to have a bumper day, but crop protection for the surrounding spring rape is the key here.

The following day, I set up at 3pm, giving myself plenty of time to prepare for any early arrivals, of which there were a couple. Then, the birds started to arrive at the field 45 minutes later than expected, at 5.15pm. The weather was also different from what I had experienced during my reconnaissance the previous day — slightly overcast with a strong northerly wind.

I set up with the wind off my back, a hedgerow behind me and good shooting angles. The small line of pigeon coming to the field would quarter the wind following a telephone line, and then turn left and quarter towards my chosen spot.

I started with three dead birds in cradles and one flapper. I then gradually built the picture over the session and introduced a magnet, which worked well. The final bag comprised 36 woodpigeon and a jackdaw, which represented a good couple of hours’ sport in a challenging wind.