A lot is different since Archie Coats' heyday, but one thing remains constant - the threat to crops posed by pigeons, says Tom Payne

As I turned the pages of Pigeon Shooting by Archie Coats, I came across the phrase ‘rabbit clearance society pigeon poking programme’ — quite a mouthful and certainly something you wouldn’t hear in the 21st century. However, it got me thinking about how things have changed for the modern Gun.

Archie’s book is regarded by many as the pigeon-shooting bible. The tactics Archie Coats used have become the basic skills for all pigeon shooting and the phrases he coined are still used as part of the pigeon shooter’s idiolect.

Old Shooting Times articles and books such as Archie’s are the only forms of literature that offer an insight into pigeon shooting back in the 1940s and explore how things have changed over the past 75 years. Though there have been many changes throughout that time, the effects have been both positive and negative for pigeon populations and the shooting thereof.

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Habitats and breeding were affected by the cutting down of large areas of woodland to support the war efforts in the 1910s and early 1940s. At the time, there would have been an immediate effect on the rural populations of woodpigeons, with the removal of large blocks of woodland, but the recovery of those populations was swift. The planting of young fir woods provided superb habitats if they were mixed in with hard woods, such as oak and beech. Certainly, the modern forestry methods of the time really helped improve habitats for the woodpigeon. Indeed, in Archie’s day, there was a big shift in agriculture, with a swing away from livestock and towards arable farming. This improved pigeon numbers and made certain counties pigeon ‘hotspots’.

farmland

With more land being farmed for cereals after the war woodpigeon numbers exploded

Ever adapting

Some regions are simply better suited to pigeons than others and these tend to be counties that offer plenty of arable farmland, high urban populations, good roosting and breeding woodland. The ever-adapting woodpigeon also finds itself with new roosting grounds in the form of the suburbs and urban gardens: safe from predation, with easily obtained bird feed to help support successful breeding. The 21st-century pigeon also enjoys the added bonus of surrounding arable farms supplying food throughout the year.

In Archie’s heyday, cereals were the main crops of growth; predominantly wheat and barley. With regards to green crops, many of the pigeons’ favourite weeds were found growing in among cereals and on livestock farms. Post-war, and prompted by an ever-growing human population, farming saw huge changes, with more land being farmed for cereals, introductions of new farming methods and farming on a much larger scale. Birds, such as the grey partridge, were starting to be affected by these changes, but woodpigeons were booming.

The introduction of winter oilseed rape in the late 1960s would bring about probably the biggest change of all for the UK’s woodpigeons. That unbelievable winter food source and holding crop saw numbers increase dramatically. I would go as far as to say that it was the biggest crop introduction to have changed pigeon shooting as it became the staple winter holding and food source.

Woodpigeons

As pigeon numbers continue to rise, the role of the pigeon shooter is more important than ever

The farming landscape continued to evolve. From the 1980s, the UK was no longer a patchwork quilt of farming practices. Massive block farming had become the norm, with the two main crops being winter wheat and oilseed rape. Interestingly, this had no negative effect on the woodpigeon and we wouldn’t see a change to this approach to farming for quite some years. In fact, we have only seen real change in the past five years or so, during which there has been an almost 40% reduction in the area of oil seed rape grown due to a ban on insecticides making it far less profitable.

Farmland Archie Coats would recognise

Lately, we are starting to find ourselves, in some parts of the country anyway, beginning to look like a farming nation that Archie Coats would recognise. With the introduction of various Government schemes and the move towards habitat enrichment and farming to improve biodiversity, we have seen a move from block farming to a far more interesting rural landscape on the cropping front.

From a pigeon shooting point of view, far more ‘restaurants’ are open throughout the year. The move away from oil seed rape has been followed by a move towards growing peas as a break crop. As a pigeon shooter, I’m all for it because it allows me to employ different tactics over lots of different crops at different times of the year.

Also, because of the varying crops, it is easier to manage pigeon populations on farms and estates, as shooting in the block-crop format made controlling pigeons on winter rape incredibly tricky.

Pigeon shooting decoys

Tactics and terminology used by Archie Coats are still being used by modern pigeon shooters today

Major asset

In Archie’s day, there would have been only a handful of pigeon shooters, and certainly very few professional pigeon Shots, quietly going about their business. The Government understood the importance of crop protection, so cartridges were supplied to farmers and pigeon shooters for free.

But now pigeon shooting has never been so popular. The number of pigeon shooters in this country today is quite amazing. The big difference, in the 21st century, is that we find ourselves trying to show the importance of crop protection and having to defend a general licence that was so wrongfully removed by the Government in a period when crops were at their most vulnerable.

However, playing devil’s advocate, I was shocked at the number of people who either didn’t know there was a general licence or who didn’t fully understand it. Hopefully everyone is now fully aware and acting in accordance with these licences, following best practice.

Solitary pastime

I can say this of Archie, having met him and knowing many of his friends: he would not be able to get his head around social media and its negative impact on fieldsports, particularly pigeon shooting. Archie saw pigeon shooting as a solitary pastime, taking on a formidable agricultural pest, albeit one of the finest birds we shoot, and doing so to the best of his professional ability. He wouldn’t understand the conceit of showing off bag sizes to the world with no actual education involved or even any explanation as to why it was important to manage a large number of pigeons on a particular crop.

He certainly saw the pigeon as a fine food source and it made him a healthy living. It’s not as easy these days. The bird is highly respected for its eating qualities, and it is still sought-after on the Continent, but it is difficult to get a decent price for the bird. There are lots of pigeon shooters, but I’ve seen the price that some chefs are willing to pay for pigeons — there’s certainly a healthy profit there for the game dealer, based on current prices.

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Formidable

A lot has changed over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the fact that pigeons are still a formidable agricultural pest that is highly adaptable to change. They know how to survive and know how to be successful. This constant change and resilience to our farming practices suggests that woodpigeons have one of the fastest learning capabilities of all the animals and can adapt and survive on an annual basis.

Policy changes

Areas of the UK that are predominantly livestock based continue to hold smaller populations of pigeons, but density in certain spots can be high — and will inevitably get higher — due to the increase in arable and forage crops available.

It is going to be interesting to see how pigeon shooting continues to evolve over the forthcoming years with the impending changes in agricultural policies and farming.