With a difficult game season having drawn to a close, the traditional February woodpigeon roost shooting started in earnest on Saturday evenings throughout the month. Some of the keener Guns, keepers and beaters alike, spread themselves across the shoots’ woods in order to keep the pigeon on the move as they came in to roost, and put some in the bag.

Roost shooting can provide particularly fast and exciting sport, which would test your shooting to the limits. Your kills-to-cartridge ratio will certainly be less than when decoying, especially on those very windy evenings we are sometimes fortunate to shoot. I normally start roost shooting in November, and naturally do so on land where there are no game shoots. Strong winds will have blown off most of the autumn leaves by then, allowing us to see the pigeon coming in. Of course, this is not possible during the spring and summer months where there is strong leaf cover.

Where to find them

As with decoying, reconnaissance is well worthwhile. It’s important to remember that when it comes to roost shooting, pigeon have their favourite forests, woods, copses and spinneys. The colder weather will draw them to the more sheltered woods and those containing pine trees.

They will often make for the denser trees where there is more cover and shelter in the cold winter nights. In strong winds pigeon will roost lower in the trees where there is less movement.

Pigeon favour certain areas due to the proximity of food and at this time of year, if there has been a lot of rain, they will often head to the parts of the country with better-drained soil.

Another factor is safety. Many of the larger woods are owned by organisations such as the National Parks or Wildlife Trusts where there is no shooting and pigeon will often gather to roost in their thousands. For example, I have some shooting in the National Trust’s Clumber Park, in north Nottinghamshire. Many pigeon use these huge pine forests and the area has lighter soils, where peas (one of the birds’ favourites) are extensively grown, so they have all they need.

A lot of my shooting is now done in Lincolnshire and I am fortunate to have about 16 woods in which to shoot roosting pigeon. About four of these woods have been pigeon favourites for years and hold many thousand each evening. I only shoot them once a week which, like gameshooting, is more than enough to allow them to settle in between.

Timing is key

Decoying in early February can be very difficult, so to make up the bag I often finish on the decoys between 2.30pm and 3pm and move to a roosting wood to set up between 3.15pm and 3.45pm.

This worked perfectly the other day when I got 42 on a difficult day over some huge fields of rape and added another 28 difficult high pigeon in a small wood only seven miles away. In the meantime, Mike, my shooting pal, shot 20 in a wood just a mile away, which helped to keep the birds moving.

Choosing a windy night is key to success. Without the wind, the pigeon come in very high and in large groups, making shooting difficult. The wind gets the birds on the wing, keeps them lower and also splits them into smaller groups or singles.

If we have the right wind (preferably a south-westerly) woodpigeon usually approach the wood on the downwind side, and it is there that I search for the most popular roosting trees.

When roughly in the right vicinity I look out for where the first few pigeon are coming in and adjust my position accordingly. You can never get this exactly right, but you will certainly improve your chances by being well placed. When I’m satisfied that I’m in the right location, I look for an area with more cover or get a tree to my back with the wind from behind.

The first few pigeon into the wood are often high. These act like scouts. When they land it is a sign to the others that it is safe to come in, and other birds will follow shortly. When you fire, it can empty the wood, but the birds will usually return after circling several times.

This is where your experience and fieldcraft will get you more shooting. Key things to remember are to wear the right camouflage clothing, pick up your empties as you go to save trying to find them in the dark later, keep very still with your gun at the ready and be selective, shooting only birds in your killing range.

Shooting in groups

Though shooting with Mike covering another wood certainly helps, personally I am not so keen on shooting with several guns in a large wood as I find people are often tempted to shoot the first high pigeon well out of range, disturbing all those behind that would have provided possible shooting for all if they had been allowed to come in — or, at the very least, drop a little lower.

Keeping their distance

I don’t have the dogs too close, so if I am taking two out with me, I place them about 8m to the side and the same distance either side of me. They then find their own cover and use it all evening while keeping a sharp eye out for incoming birds. After a retrieve, the command “Kennel” sends them back to the same spot. I pick each bird as it falls, commanding one or the other dog to retrieve (or two at a time if two or more birds are down). They have done a lot of shooting with me but it never ceases to amaze me how deep they will go into the woods, often into thick undergrowth, to find and retrieve the shot pigeon. It is rare that they will come back empty handed.

Even when they draw a blank I praise them, for they always give me 100 per cent, loving their job and doing their best.

In such cases I sometimes go to look myself, only to find the bird stuck up a tree or in a bush. I must get the dogs some ladders: I’m sure they would use them.