High on the Cotswolds, late winter can be bleak. But when a foretaste of spring is in the air, when the sky is a vaulting arc of cloudless blue and the sun lights up the still bare tracery of trees and hedges, this typically English countryside enjoys a secluded, matchless charm. Even the vast acres of rape have a certain attraction — particularly for the pigeon.

Pigeon shooting over decoys, one of the finest fieldsports on offer in the UK, can also be one of the most frustrating. I was a guest of the Cotswold Sporting Agency (part of the Cotswold Shooting Company), based in Cirencester and owned by Peter Tupper. There were five Guns taking part in the day’s crop protection and we placed ourselves under the direction of the pigeon professional, known to all as Pigeon Pete. Pete is a man dedicated not only to working in conjunction with Peter Tupper’s clients, but also to assisting local farmers with crop protection.

Poor prospects for pest control

The prospects were not encouraging. The sun shone with a genuine hint of warmth after weeks of snowy, wet weather, and there was not a breath of wind to stir the birds. There were birds around, but they were content to sit in the woodlands, digesting an early morning feed, and were dozing in the unaccustomed sunshine. We drove in convoy to the centre of some 500 acres of rape. The other Guns, Ross Campbell-Hill and his son Hugo, Peter’s son Bertie Tupper and Wayne Smith, were despatched to their set-up hides. Pigeon Pete, Peter Tupper, cameraman Paul Quagliana and I drove round the headlands of several fields to a distant patch of rape, one of the few sites that had not yet been completely shredded by pigeon.

As our mud-splattered and gear-filled Land Rover slalomed round the edges of the fields, I was able to take in the damage to the crops. In places the rape had been completely destroyed and, wherever one looked, leaves were torn and shredded. Pigeon Pete told me that in the wintermonths, even when he had no clients willing to endure the cold and ill weather, he still had to patrol the fields at the behest of farmers desperate to preserve their crops. There was never much problem finding Guns eager to shoot in the spring and summer months, but the winter holds few attractions for the less hardy.

Pete swiftly erected a camoufl age netting hide against the side of a small, open copse surrounded by a tumbledown dry-stone wall. The stones were covered
in moss, and Pete made sure a green sheet was placed at the back of the hide as additional camouflage from the rear. A score of decoys were set out and a pigeon magnet was installed using a brace of previously shot birds. Peter Tupper had also brought along the latest magnet, made by Seeland, which has the advantage that one can adjust the speed of the arms by remote control from the hide and, in addition, if no pigeon are in the air, the battery can be saved by the click of a switch. The machine can be turned on again when pigeon start appearing. However, I decided to stick with Pigeon Pete’s simpler version rather than have to concentrate on remote control operation.

Pete’s views on magnets are interesting. “They’re good,” he said, “but I think they’ve had their day. Pigeon are now used to them and are just as likely to be scared off as they are to be attracted. In fact, I think there’s too much technology creeping into the sport and really successful shooters are reverting back to the old ways that involve fieldcraft.” It is an interesting perspective.

Waiting for the flocks to arrive

So, with the picture complete and good wishes offered, the two Peters departed. They left Paul and me to discover what the pigeon had in store for us. My yellow Labrador, Jodie, crouched in the hide and I loaded my old hammergun, using 1oz of No 6 by Lyalvale. Some readers may recall that a few years ago I decided to put the gun, a Cogswell & Harrison 12-bore, made in 1878 and given to me by the late Gough Thomas, Shooting Times’s gun editor, through proof. The barrels are Damascus and the action sound, but I was still very nervous. Would the gun pass the Birmingham Proof House test? In fact, it came through with flying colours and is now in regular use with 28g loads.

The sun shone, a blackbird sang, the pigeon twirled on the magnet arms and a snail crept up a thorn. There was not a sound. All was peaceful, far too peaceful. Then, abruptly, catching me unawares, a pigeon swooped across the decoys and turned to present an easy shot. I missed! And I won’t beat about the bush — I fluffed the next six shots. All right, the birds were dropping in from all angles, but there was no excuse, simply poor shooting. I handed the gun to Paul who almost immediately killed an overhead bird.

At this point Pigeon Pete arrived back to retrieve Paul, and I settled down to concentrate. A sudden flurry of birds from a distant wood, curling and diving at the decoys, gave me a bird on the deck at last. Then, as confidence oozed back I shot a further three pigeon without a miss, much to the delight of Jodie who was able to enjoy some retrieving action. Occasionally, I could hear distance shots from the other Guns who were obviously enjoying some sport. But as the afternoon drifted on and the sun sank behind the copse, cold clamped down on the countryside, a few pigeon, jackdaws and rooks headed high for the roosting woods and the decoys’ lure became redundant.

When all the equipment had been gathered up and stowed, we discovered that the total bag for the Guns was 16 birds. That is the way with pigeon shooting. We had all enjoyed some sport, some of us had shot better than others and there would always be another day when the bag might reach a treble figure. Such days are few and far between, but when they do occur the sport is equal to the best that gameshooting or, dare I say it, wildfowling can offer.

For further information contact the Cotswold Sporting Agency, tel 01285 657527.