Shots echoed from around all the home coverts on a bright February afternoon at the Glemham estate, in Suffolk. Headkeeper Pat Gilbert had completed his
gameshooting programme the previous week and now it was the time for his beaters to have the opportunity to take part in the estate’s annual roost shoots. This year, with the encouragement of the National Farmers Union East Anglia Region, an increased number of Guns manned the woods across the county for February roostshooting, boosting a tradition that dates back decades.

“I do six weeks of pigeon shooting here at Glemham,” Pat told me. “All the regular beaters come along and they all know their places — they go there at about two o’clock and stay until dusk. We have up to 20 Guns covering all the woods.”

The opportunity to shoot pigeon is greatly looked forward to by the beaters as one of the perks of the job. “It’s a thankyou from the estate for all that they do for the shoot,” said Pat. “We have a barbecue and clay shoot in the summer, the pigeon shooting after the season and this year I’m arranging a hare shoot.”

There is also, of course, the annual beaters’ shoot, which this year was held on 1 February and which was a stunning success. “We shot 239, but we had 30 Guns out in three teams of 10. Every corner was covered. I thought it was going to be a nightmare, but everyone was well behaved and we had a cracking day with a meal afterwards.”

Covering all the bases

Now, with everyone fired up by their success at the pheasants, it was time to get out into the woods after pigeon. “These pigeon shoots are a really good day,” said Pat. “It’s much better when you’ve got all the woods covered, otherwise they’ll find somewhere to rest where you haven’t got a Gun, and that’s no good at all. What you must do is shoot those pigeon coming head to wind, because you can kill them then. You won’t do that if they’ve got the wind under their tails,” he added.

Usually the shooters go directly to their favourite spots, but at the first pigeon shoot on 6 February, Pat asked everyone to gather in the beaters’ car park at the back of Glemham Hall, where I had a chance to meet some of the Guns. Towering over everyone else were Andy Foreman and Fred Davidson, both prison officers from Hollesley Bay prison, who had been escorting the charges earlier in the day. “Beating fits in well with our shift work,” Andy told me, adding that he greatly enjoys the opportunity to spend an afternoon pigeon shooting in the woods. Joining them was David Price, also formerly a prison officer but now on the security staff at nearby Sizewell nuclear power station.

The youngest member of the team was 11-year-old Sam Thompson. Carrying the 20-bore recently bought for him by his father and which he is now using with great skill, Sam proudly joined the team. Pat is very keen to encourage his interest in shooting and told me that he planned to take Sam out the following day to shoot some rabbits.

Gunfire from all quarters

With everyone briefed, it was off to the woods where the pigeon were already circling. I followed John Childs and his son James to Roundyard wood, on the eastern fringe of Glemham park, and no sooner had we got out of the vehicles than I could hear the shots coming from the other quarters of the estate. Pigeon were already on the move.

John and I pulled on our camouflage head nets. “Camouflage is a must with pigeon,” said John. “They have incredible eyes, and if you hang a decoy in a tree it’s surprising from how far away they will see it.” A retired fabrication engineer who formerly worked on the offshore gas rigs in the North Sea, John has been a regular beater at Glemham for seven years. “My grandfather was a keeper at Walberswick, in Suffolk, and I started shooting pigeon there with him when I was 11 or 12 years old. Grandfather used to go rabbiting in the days before myxomatosis, but after the disease struck, all we had left was pigeon shooting. We must have gone 10 or 15 years before we saw another rabbit.”

In those days, pigeon fed mostly on overwintered stubbles. Now they feast during the winter on oilseed rape, an important crop on the estate, and pigeon numbers appear to have been growing steadily over the past few years. Certainly there was no shortage of birds on the move as we settled down between the high oaks and sweet chestnuts, watching the sky through the understorey of sycamore trees. The first two unsuspecting birds that drifted in over John received a neatly placed charge of No 6 and tumbled to the woodland floor, but thereafter things became more tricky as the birds clearly woke up to the danger that faced them from every corner of the estate.

Occasionally, a single bird arrowed down and sat in the topmost branches of an oak tree some 80 yards from where we stood. This in due course attracted other pigeon to settle there, but as soon as a stray bird came over John, his shot sent the collection of sitting birds clattering out of the tree and off in search of safer quarters.

Shots in the mist

There is no doubt that roostshooting is most successful when every available crap of cover is manned. In some years I have stood as dusk has settled, with shots ringing out from every spinney, wood and copse for miles around, while the pigeon become ever more desperate to secure a safe roost. At last light they dive into every conceivable tree or bush and offer the most excellent sport, while at the same time providing the opportunity for a competent Shot to make a good bag of birds.

Suitable weather is another of the keys to good roostshooting. Wind keeps the birds low across the treetops and unfortunately the early afternoon of the 6 February in east Suffolk was a bright, quiet one. At around 3.45pm, though, the sun disappeared as a cold mist rolled in from the coast, driven by a chilly north-easterly breeze. Pigeon swirled in the mist above the tops of the Roundyard oaks and as the shots rang out across the estate, the afternoon’s bag grew steadily to more than 200.

I left the wood and headed back to my Land Rover as the light drained out of the winter sky. Across the park I could see Glemham Hall, surrounded by gnarled and ancient trees, their black fingers reaching into the mist where small groups of pigeon still darted from one wood to the next in search of a secure roosting spot for the night. Some would find safety, others would not, but either way the whole process would be repeated every Saturday afternoon until early March.