Has avian flu impacted the pigeon population?
Peter Theobald wonders where all the pigeons on his permissions have gone. Paul, his shooting partner, may have some answers
As usual at this time of year, I look at the crops being grown on all my permissions to try to ascertain where my pigeon-shooting outings for the coming 12 months are likely to take place. I will usually know when and where to look for a potential shoot, having memorised the crops on the various farms and logged them for future reference.
However, this year looks like being a struggle for the simple reason only one of my farms is growing rape. When pigeons vanished from most of my areas in early October to feast on the bumper crop of acorns, it is usually the draw of rape that brings them back once the natural harvest has been exhausted. Without fields of rape to focus on the pigeons are still foraging under any oaks in the area, clearing the abundance of food that still lies on the ground.
In a normal year it is easy to assess local populations – just tour the various rape fields and they will be there. The biggest problem in such scenarios being which field to shoot. This year, however, the birds are spread here, there and everywhere in small groups, giving the impression that numbers have not returned to pre-acorn levels. On the other hand, Paul, who lives only 20 miles from me and has several farms growing rape, reports flocks of up to 1,000 birds hitting the various fields. Indeed, we have shot over 350 pigeons on one large block of rape in the past month.
In days gone by you could rely on spring drillings to pull birds off the rape fields, giving it a vital two or three weeks to get away, but, because of the driest February in living memory, most of the fields were drilled by the end of that month. Perfect seed beds meant that little seed was left exposed, resulting in only small windows of opportunity for a decent shoot. As decoyers, we rely on adverse weather conditions at drilling time, both to extend the planting season and in the hope that farmers will leave a bit of seed on top.
Drawing a blank
What has really surprised me is the one farm that is growing rape has not attracted any pigeons at all, leading me to conclude that when the local birds disappeared from the area in October they simply have not returned yet. I still pay the fields a visit every week just in case the pigeons turn up, though it is quite demoralising to draw a blank time after time. But if I don’t check regularly you can be sure the birds will turn up in their thousands.
I have experienced these circumstances in the past, and because you are not seeing large flocks on any given crop it is easy to surmise that something is reducing populations other than decoyers shooting them. Regarding the present situation, I have heard reports that avian flu has taken its toll on pigeons in some areas, though I have seen no evidence of this where I live.
I do not see the situation changing on my permissions as none of my farms are growing anything that might tempt pigeons to hang around during the spring and summer growing months. Traditionally, peas would hold the birds in my area right through till harvest but because of the dry summer last year, farmers who did grow peas lost money on them. Beans and oats replaced peas in the farmer’s rotation, neither of which are attacked by pigeons during the growing season.
Fortunately for me, Paul has no such problem and he is looking forward to a busy few months. Apart from several fields of rape that are being hammered at the moment (meaning potential shooting on fields that have been grazed flat), he has three farms that are growing large acreages of peas. As luck would have it, many of the pea fields are situated some way from where the farmers live and they are quite happy to leave the management of pigeon numbers to Paul.
Any decoyer worthy of the name will tell you that to keep crop damage to the minimum but still kill large numbers of birds you have to let pigeons settle between outings. Farmers who pop out for five minutes to check their fields are understandably reluctant to ignore large numbers of birds and will usually set about chasing them off with rockets and gas guns.
Where the fields are situated can have a big effect on how we manage pigeon numbers and we look forward to the time when the height of the crop hides feeding birds from farmers. This may sound selfish but we have proved time and again that the surest way to reduce crop damage is to shoot as many pigeons as possible. This can only be achieved if the birds are allowed to settle.