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Woodies on the web

My correspondence with William Mulholland, founder of the Internet forum Pigeon Watch, started when I contacted him via his username, Teal. We decided to meet up so that I could learn more about the website and, sharing a common interest, it seemed logical to combine this meeting with a day?s pigeon shooting. With only a few birds on his own permissions, William suggested we join his friend, professional pigeon guide Will Beasley, who, like me, is a long-time member of Pigeon Watch.

We met up in a pigeon hide on a rape field in Oxfordshire, and before we proceeded with the day?s shooting, I asked William what inspired him to start the website in the first place.

He told me that, as a youngster, pigeon shooting represented the most accessible and most exciting form of shooting to him, and he would eagerly read articles and books by the great pigeon Shots.

William said: ?I was at school in Belfast, and though pigeon shooting was my hobby, I didn?t know many people I could talk about it with. I wanted to connect with like-minded people, and to learn the art of successful pigeon shooting.

?I uploaded the first few pages on to the website in the summer of 2000, when I was aged 14. Though the site looks a lot different now, the principles are
the same ? it?s a place where visitors can read decoying tips, get advice about gaining permission, and send in their reports of days in the field.?

Laying a good decoy pattern

It is essential to have a pattern that can be seen from a distance when shooting over large rape fields, or there is a risk that the birds will drop into other parts of the field. We decided to use a broad horseshoe pattern with around 40 decoys. For maximum visibility, we deployed two pigeon magnets, one at the end of each arm of the horseshoe. In addition to this, Will lofted half a dozen full-bodied pigeon decoys into the trees behind our hide, as these provide a focal point which pigeon can see from great distance. If youhave them, cradles, which lift dead birds above the rape, can also really help.

The shooting started off fairly briskly, and the majority of the birds which came to the decoys were in small flocks of up to 30 ? typical for this time of year. With William, photographer Nick Ridley and me inside, there was lots of movement within the hide. A well-constructed hide is key on days like this, and we overlaid the poles with a second hide-net as a double layer of camouflage, leaving only a single-skin window at the front for us to look through. This made spotting the birds a little more difficult, but we had three pairs of eyes scanning the skies, and the pattern pulled in most of the pigeon we saw without birds shying away.

By mid-morning the intervals between shots started to increase and a change in wind direction meant the birds did not decoy so readily. This offered us an opportunity to tidy up the pattern and to make some alterations to the layout; it also meant that I could put a few more questions to William about the forum. He said: ?When Pigeon Watch started getting hits, I received lots of e-mails, some with tips for pigeon shooting, but mostly from shooters who wanted to tell me about their days in the field. The early site had a map of the UK, and I would type up these reports and display them on the map.

?Before long my email inbox was overwhelmed, and with the help of my elder brother, Andrew, I launched the Pigeon Watch Forums on 21 December, 2001. The forums marked a turning point, as visitors could now register as members, allowing them to share shooting stories or decoying experiences directly with each other.?

As a member, I find the real-time nature of a forum to be very effective, as it means that members can post a question relating to shooting and there could be a reply within minutes ? more than 10,000 messages are written on Pigeon Watch in a typical week.

A decade online

It?s now over a decade since the launch of Pigeon Watch, and during that time William continued to work on the site alongside his studies at Oxford and then his Masters at Cirencester.

?Many of my friends went into the world of finance or became land agents,? said William, ?but I continued to focus on developing websites, and supplemented this by working part-time as a private tutor, and writing articles.?

Pigeon started to arrive steadily once again, but we were doing more talking than shooting, and this was allowing a few birds to get away. We switched our attention back to the shooting, as we did not want Will?s efforts to give us some good sport to be in vain. However, as is typical of winter rape shooting, soon after 1pm the birds dried up, and Will returned to pick us up. Our time in the hide was over, and we had bagged a total of 36 birds ? not record- reaking, but a respectable day of winter rape shooting nonetheless.

As we gathered our birds and loaded the kit into Will?s truck I asked him how he got started as a guide. He said: ?We started the business 16 years ago ? initially placing an advert in Shooting Times ? as a means of supplementing my income when I was a student.

?We only used to do Saturdays and charged £30 a day, placing Guns on local farms where my father used to shoot. It wasn?t long before the phone was ringing with enquiries from prospective clients who had neither the land, time, equipment nor skill to organise a day?s pigeon shooting for themselves, so the next logical progression was to offer a guided service for this type of client.

?My father started to teach me the ins and outs of pigeon decoying. It took several years, but when success came and the client went home with a smile on his face, it was a satisfying moment. The failures bothered me, as the main focus is always client satisfaction.

?When I took a year out to study advanced deer management at Sparsholt College my father took over the pigeon guiding, and it was during that year that we acquired some of our pigeon strongholds. On these, George Digweed shot his (then) world record of 661 pigeon with his own gun in a single day. On my return from college we had to get moreland to satisfy demand.?

After 16 years, Will?s company now operates a 175,000-acre shooting area, accounting for between 30,000 and 35,000 pigeon each year, and he is often asked by farmers to take over the pigeon control on their farms.

Before leaving, I asked William what he predicts for Pigeon Watch in the future. He said that he doesn?t foresee large-scale changes, but that additional features for the site will be developed. One thing that he has noticed is the extension of the forums? influence in the real world. The nature of a web-based club means that many members will never meet, but their proactivity has led to butchery courses and brewery tours being organised.

Indeed, in 2010, inspired by a post by one member, the now annual North versus South Pigeon Watch charity clay pigeon shoot started. This year will see the third event taking place in June at Orston Shooting Ground in Nottinghamshire, with the hope of extending the good work of the past two charity shoots, which raised more than £8,000 for Great Ormond Street Hospital and Orchid Cancer.