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Why small decoy days are worth it

I started roughshooting when I was two-and-a-half years old, when, after much pestering, my father took me on my first duck flight. He carried me on his back with his trusty Labrador Bess to heel. When we got there, he sat me down on some sedges. I was totally riveted, and even though I couldn?t see what he was shooting at, we managed to bag a shoveler duck and I was hooked for life. This led to many happy shooting adventures with my father here in Shropshire.

I learned so much in those early years. If I was lucky enough for a pigeon to land in a tree close by, dad would slip a .410 conversion sleeve into his 12-bore and give me a shot. The seed was sown and the bug has never left me. Eventually I started knocking on farmers? doors for permission, and I?ve built up a good friendship and reputation with many local farmers and landowners. I am now a member of two pheasant shooting syndicates, which I?ve gained via my pigeon shooting and pest control. I?m also a part-time keeper and manage a deer park. When I?m not doing that, I am out pigeon shooting and inland wildfowling, all while holding down a full-time job.

This year saw one of the driest springs and summers we?ve had in Shropshire, which is one of the driest counties anyway. The harvest is now in, but unusually there are stubble fields everywhere, as the ground is too hard to plough, meaning the pigeon are spoilt for choice. There is no wind, so they are not moving, and there is no sign of the big flocks we normally see at this time of year, moving down from the North. Due to the warm climate and abundance of food, they have stayed put.

Locally, the birds have been keeping close to the freshwater rivers especially. The wildfowl have gone quiet, too. At the beginning of September there were a good few Canada geese around. They have gone now ? spread out in smaller groups
again ? and the greylags haven?t shown up at all, as the dry weather has burned all the grass and stubble, which is not good for these grazing birds. Nearly all our flightponds have dried up and the lakes and rivers are low.

Pigeon shooting has changed considerably in the last 35 years due to the milder climate and abundance of crops. I remember the late 1970s and early 80s, when snow would bring thousands to the few rape fields in Shropshire. We used painted milk bottles, cut-up Wellington boots and plastic guttering for decoys, and all would pull the birds in effectively.

Decoying is not as easy as it was and, as a result, it has become a high-tech race. All the modern gear still has a place in my arsenal, but it?s important to start off with a simple layout. If you start by using all your gear and it?s not working, you have no options left. I have a lot of big days, but small days can be just as much fun, and a bad day?s pigeon shooting is better than a good day?s work!

Driving through my local patch recently, I spotted a small number of pigeon feeding under an oak tree on some bean stubble. I decided to try decoying there, but as I only had two hours to spare, I travelled light. So, armed with about half a dozen decoys, gun, ammo and a cold drink, I set off, knowing that there was a ditch nearby, and so no need for a hide.

I arrived at the field in time to walk off about 20 pigeon feeding under the oak, and positioned my decoys about 25 to 30 yards from the oak in a reasonably tight pattern to make them more visible. I then positioned myself in the ditch, with a few minor adjustments to the shrubbery, and loaded my trusty Beretta semi-auto with my favourite pigeon cartridge (Lyalvale English Sporter 7½) and waited.

After about 20 minutes, the first bird came in lazily up the hedge and pitched in to the right of my decoys. Bang! Lovely ? the first bird down. The shot disturbed one or two more birds in the distance, so I quickly loaded up as another came in on the same line. I folded it just before it pitched into the oak. When another bird came in from behind over my right shoulder, I missed with the first but got it with the second.

I stopped to retrieve all the dead birds and put them in flyproof home-made sacks in the shade, as it was too warm to leave them out. The other reason for collecting the birds was that, because there are only small numbers of pigeon this year, they have seen a lot of shooting and will shy away from a large pattern of decoys. For the next hour or so, the birds came in mostly singles from all directions, which is typical behaviour for local birds on still, warm days. The more challenging birds just flicked over the hedge; others came lazily across the field five or six feet off the ground. None of them were too testing.

I continued to clear the decoy pattern every time a dead bird landed near or in the pattern during the quiet spells, which gradually got longer. I got one chance of a right-and-left. The first bird flipped over the hedge behind straight into the decoys and landed on the ground just outside the pattern, closely followed by another. I took the second bird first and the lander as he took off ? very satisfying ? then the flow of birds stopped as quickly as it had started. The final bag was 14 and it took only 10 minutes to pack up and get home to a nice Sunday roast and my very tolerant other half.

Ten years ago I wouldn?t have got the gun out for such a small number, but it was so worthwhile. So look around ? you never know what?s under the next tree!