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Crop protection with Mat Manning

A rapid response is essential when the ravening hordes descend on a drilling, but even if you miss your chance at a bumper bag, you can still do your bit for crop protection

“You should have been here yesterday.” It’s an all-too-familiar phrase which, for anyone with a fondness for shooting and fishing, never loses its sting no matter how often you hear it.

The yesterday in question was the day a farmer friend had called me to say a field of recently drilled peas was carpeted with pigeons and crows. Unfortunately for me, I was bogged down with work and couldn’t move with the speed which is usually required to exploit the brief but often very fruitful opportunities that can present themselves to decoyers at this time of year.

Arriving the day after my friend’s tip-off, things looked rather different from the scene he had described. Most of the birds that had been ignoring his bangers for the past couple of days had decided to up sticks and move on to pastures green, or in this case brown.

Unfavourable weather through the early part of the year had delayed many farmers in my part of Somerset from getting their spring drills in. Conditions had now improved significantly, and it appeared that every tractor driver in the county was out making the most of it. The result was abundant feeding opportunities for avian pests, and the field I was looking over had clearly lost much of its appeal as a result.

All was not lost, however. Although a lot of birds had clearly migrated to a neighbouring farm where I do not have permission to shoot, there were still a few flitting around over my friend’s field. It didn’t look like being the bumper bag I was hoping for, but I was confident of getting a few shots while helping to keep the stragglers off his crop.

Mat builds his hide, making sure it blends into the hedge behind

It was a blustery day and the few birds that were on the move seemed to be following a line on the lee side of an overgrown hedge, the middle stretch of which looked good for a hide site. Poles were hastily erected, camouflage nets draped and cuttings of ivy used to help the screen to blend in with its natural backdrop. Positioned on the crest of a hill, I was expecting to get a bit of a battering from the wind, but the hedge gave me some welcome shelter.

As someone who likes to eat what he shoots, my intention had been to make a freezer-filling bag of pigeons. But the change in circumstances had shifted my expectations and, going by my findings while scanning the fields through my binos, crows, rooks and jackdaws were likely to feature more than the woodies that I had hoped for.

Ever the optimist, I set up a loose pattern of full-body Enforcer pigeon decoys in front of the hide. To keep my options open, and to make an impression on the seemingly more abundant pests, I also put out a group of crow shells away to the left and a little further out. I always like to have movement in my decoy pattern and the sprung pegs on the shells had them nodding enticingly in the breeze.

Mat sets out his pigeon decoys

One thing I couldn’t miss while positioning my plastic flock was the smattering of droppings and feathers, and even a few remaining exposed peas, out on the field. It was like looking at abandoned bottles and glasses left in the aftermath of a raucous party — a party that I appeared to have missed.

The first chance came surprisingly quickly after I had settled into the hide. A lone pigeon came bundling in from in front, refused to commit to the decoys but was within range when it decided to veer off. I threw my Rizzini up without deliberation and brought it down with the first barrel.

It was an encouraging start, and things continued on a positive track as a slow but steady stream of crows, rooks and jackdaws followed over the next hour. They were tricky birds, almost all of them flaring away on the wind as soon as I popped up from behind the net, but I managed to hit a few and accounted for a dozen or so before things went quiet.

Mat chose a hide site close to a flightline where he would have the wind off his back and the cover of an overgrown hedge


False dawn

That first pigeon appeared to be something of a false dawn and no others had materialised. It was obvious that corvids were going to dominate so, after breaking cover to tidy up the shot birds, I put a crow on to a bouncer and a rook on a Flightline FF6 Combo flapper. By slowing the motion right down, corvids can be made to look very enticing on the FF6. The remaining birds were set up to bolster the pattern of shells before
I returned to my hide.

Getting that all-important movement from the bouncer and flapper into the decoy arrangement always boosts my confidence, and it seemed to do the same for the birds. Sport was never hectic but, with the added encouragement of the occasional blast from my crow caller, the corvids kept trickling in.

Three hours in and the flow of incoming birds began to splutter, along with my form. With crows and rooks reluctant to fully commit, and more often than not whisking away on the wind every time I peeped over the net, I struggled to get on them during a succession of 10 or so pitiful shots.

A slump in form is always frustrating, and even more so when you have a witness. Photographer Phil Barker is a good friend and a pretty good shot, so he didn’t hold back on the verbal abuse while I cussed my way through a dire spell that only served to benefit the cartridge industry.

Just as Phil was running out of comforting remarks, I managed to connect with a pigeon. I was delighted to have another for the pot and even happier to have broken, or at least punctuated, my shameful string of misses. Back in my stride, I added a few more corvids to the tally before activity dried up once again. I took this as my cue to head out for another tidy up.

Mat takes aim as a rare opportunity to add a pigeon to the bag presents itself

Arranging rooks and jackdaws to look as lifelike as possible among the decoys, I glanced across to the neighbouring farm to see an almighty congregation of birds on the freshly worked ground. From a distance, the giant flock appeared to comprise mostly gulls but careful inspection revealed lots of assorted corvids and a few pigeons. No wonder things had gone quiet for me — the birds were banqueting just over the boundary.

A slow afternoon passed with nothing more than the odd shot until a brief flurry of activity as birds started to flight just as evening began to set in. Pigeons were still absent, but crows, rooks and jackdaws were on the move and were now taking a much keener interest in the decoys.

I am not sure whether the birds on the neighbouring ground had been disturbed by something or if the fading light had simply convinced them that it was time to move on, but the sudden increase in activity was gratefully received and helped to bolster my bag before I decided to call time. There was arguably another half-hour or so of shooting to be had, but I had a lot of kit to pack away and lug across the field and didn’t fancy doing it in the dark.

As expected, the day didn’t turn out to be the pigeon bonanza that I had originally hoped for, but the end result was better than I had anticipated when I first arrived. Yes, I should have been there yesterday but, aside from that irritating patch of poor form, it had been a satisfying day. The 30-odd corvids that I managed to bring to book certainly confirmed that the birds were still around in sufficient numbers to cause substantial crop damage.

I had succeeded in keeping them off my friend’s ground and, as a final consolation, it didn’t take me long to prepare my haul of two woodpigeons for the table when I got home.

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