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Building a bag from nothing

Finding pigeon to shoot at this time of year can sometimes be a major challenge. In early June, with no peas or spring rape at your disposal, options can be severely limited. It can be difficult to find a location that is attracting enough birds to make setting up worthwhile. I found myself in this position last week. Though I have been at this game for more years than I care to remember, I was getting desperate and decided to ring another pigeon shooter not far away and see how he was tackling the problem.

Andrew Kay lives just over the Lincolnshire border near Retford in Nottinghamshire, where he has an enviable reputation as a serious pigeon shooter. I first met him more than 30 years ago when he was gamedealing and I would take birds in to him from time to time. When he suggested joining forces for a day?s outing, I jumped at the chance.

Andrew arrived at 10am as agreed. His Land Rover, all kitted out with racks and shelves, is used solely for pigeon shooting. As we set off we talked about the need to think outside the box in regard to what pigeon might be feeding on. We started off with a quick look at a pea field, but Andrew had his eye on a field of set-aside that he thought might just produce a modest bag. Now, set-aside can be anything from ploughed soil to stubble. In this case, it was a field of weeds and thistles ? or so we thought. On closer inspection it turned out to be a mix of volunteer barley, weed seeds, clover and chickweed ? a veritable feast for pigeon.

In the 25°C heat only an odd bird was to be seen lazily floating from some trees
to a power line across the next field. Andrew said he has the same problem as me when it comes to finding a decent decoying location at this time of year. ?You have to draw on all your experience and fieldcraft to try to spot a situation developing,? he said. Scouting in summer is difficult, because trees in leaf and crops at full height make birds hard to see. But if you spy a few on power lines that usually means there is a feeding spot nearby, as was the case here.

We drove across the field and picked a spot under some trees at one side. This would provide shade from the sun while allowing us to see birds coming diagonally across the field. With a slight breeze from our left, the scene looked ideal.

Andrew soon had the hide built using nets and natural cover, while I started putting decoys out. Andrew always uses a dozen dead birds to start with and I put them up on cradles among the weeds to make them as visible as possible. We also used a flapper and two floaters to add a bit of movement. Although Andrew has a rotary, he only uses it as a last resort, because he prefers to keep the pattern looking as natural as possible.

A lifetime?s experience

Once everything was set we settled down to await our first customer. I asked Andrew a bit about his shooting history and how at the age of 55 he is able to shoot pigeon as often as he does. He explained that he started decoying pigeon on his father?s farm at the age of 15. He shot his first 100-plus bag at 17. From then on, shooting became a passion.

?I realised early on that sport is great, but I needed to earn a living,? he said. ?I first began at a local estate agent, working in their agricultural department, which brought me into contact with shooting people, as well as suppliers and consumers.?

In 1979, he set up Andrew Kay Shooting Supplies and Game Dealer, operating from the farm. He sold guns and country clothing as well as buying game from local estates and shoots.

?One day, while mixing some cattle feed for my dad, I thought I could also mix a complete dog food. Soon Alpha Feeds was born, and over the next 20 years we developed more than 100 feeds for dogs, horses, rabbits and ferrets. All this time I kept up my pigeon shooting,? he said.

?In 2004, I decided to sell part of the business to spend more time with my family and do more shooting,? he added. ?Crop protection has to be taken seriously if you are to build a reputation with landowners,? continued Andrew. ?I am very fortunate that by working hard and building a rapport, I now have access to over 100,000 acres and shoot between 12,000 and 16,000 pigeon every year. To date I have accounted for more than 400,000 birds ? at least half of my cartridges are provided by landowners who recognise the effort I put in.?

As we talked, pigeon trickled in, drawn to our pattern with a few flaps on the flapper. Andrew has this on a manual button, because he finds that being able to use it at the optimum moment is far more effective.

Pigeon traffic was slow but by mid-afternoon was picking up and a bag was gradually building. Andrew?s 20-month-old black Labrador, Remus, was kept busy
retrieving birds from the thick cover and undergrowth, emphasising how invaluable a good dog can be in these situations. By 4pm things had died off and we were hot and tired, so we called it a day. As we packed up and loaded everything into the truck I wondered if I would have done anything differently had I been on my own. I would probably have put my rotary out at some point, but as Andrew said, why use it if it?s not needed? Using it all the time alerts the pigeon to danger.

Watching him set up and adjust the pattern when he felt the birds were not responding reminded me of the importance of constantly assessing the situation. If the birds are ignoring your pattern or flaring away it means you have something wrong. Clearly, Andrew had got it right, because from an unpromising situation we achieved a respectable bag of 86.