If you get pigeon roosting right it can be as challenging as Norfolk's finest grey partridges but so much depends on the reconnaissance, says Simon Reinhold. And Tom Payne offers some pigeon roost shooting tips too.
The pigeon have abandoned my favourite pigeon roost shooting wood of 10 years. Looking back through my records, 40 to 60 birds on an evening outing was not unusual. And one memorable afternoon, in what were perfect wind conditions, several trips were needed to ferry 93 back to the car.
Where once I could guarantee shooting through 100 cartridges, now you would be lucky to fire 10 shots. Why this is so is not certain. In conversation on the subject with the headkeeper on the estate, we agreed it is down to three factors.
First, the farming on the estate has changed. The move from conventional to organic means that thousands of acres of farmland are no longer as attractive a buffet to the pigeon as they once were. After the process of gradual change to organic was well under way, the estate also began thinning the wood. This had a knock-on effect on pigeon habits and the wind whistled through the big wood. Not only had the buffet become less palatable, but the free lodging had gained a colder, stronger draught.
The estate’s activity, while adversely affecting the pigeon, has done wonders for wild game management and grey partridges and wild pheasants thrive in the insect-rich headlands and brood-rearing strips that border the pastures.
At the same time the estate was changing and buzzard numbers were increasing. I suspect the big rise in buzzard numbers has had an impact on the nesting habits of the pigeon. Every summer I watch the jackdaws fledge in the park and the buzzards switch on to the easy lunch of the plump, unwary talon-fodder that is a jackdaw chick. The same focus may also be taking place earlier in the year on pigeon nests in the big wood before the buzzards move into the park.
One of the pigeon’s greatest strengths is its adaptability. It is the principal reason for their success in the modern farmed environment. Twenty years ago pigeon hardly ever nested in people’s gardens. Now they are moving out of woodland habitat to nest in suburbia. This may well be down to buzzard predation.
All these factors combined to reduce the need for my pest control. Except, that is, on the boundary. Here there is a young fir wood that runs for almost exactly a mile along the main road, the other side of which is a conventional farm, brimming with all the pigeon’s favourite crops. Another block of firs juts out towards the estate reservoir a third of the way along and this is the pigeon’s new favoured habitat on the estate.
Pigeon roost shooting in this wood took some planning as we must take into account some of the factors of an extraordinary few years. First, lockdown — I could not justify travelling to my other favourite roosting wood several miles away; I had to keep my activity local. This could not be more local and I could see my house from the edge of the fir wood. Secondly, the revised general licences that we are all having to navigate must be observed if we are to conduct pest control legally.
This young fir wood is the new favourite for pigeon because it is thick and warm, as well as being very difficult for buzzards to hunt in. The edges are flanked with mature hawthorns that stud the old hedge line. These are covered in ivy, the berries being a favoured food particularly in times of snow. The combination of fir and ivy, warmth and food is what I look for in many of the best roosting woods I have shot.
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The thick understorey of bramble and blackthorn also adds an impenetrable layer to deter all but the most determined muntjac. This also makes it attractive for nesting turtle doves in the summer, which benefit from the conservation of grey partridges. As a result, we must avoid carrying out pest control near these nests when they are occupied in spring. Accordingly, if we are to help the neighbouring farmer protect his crops, it has to be a mid-winter job.
I also had to find a spot where I could shoot near the road but be more than 50m from the centre of it to avoid a problem if anyone complained. Not only that but I also had to restrict my arc of fire so my shot didn’t land over the boundary, and try to shoot so the dog had every chance of picking the bird. There was far more to think about than just pulling the trigger, but it is why pigeon shooting is the greatest test. The ability to shoot is not enough and you only get the opportunity to find out if you have it after much hard work.
Reconnaissance is always the first step in a successful pigeon outing and a morning looking round to try to find a shootable spot started with me cutting a small path through thick bramble and blackthorn. My preferred choice was on the old cross hedge; a mature ash tree seemed to be a flightline. Another flightline was a far older ash tree covered in ivy. I planned to be equidistant between the two and to be able to be in range of both.
As it turned out on the day the plan did work. The first visitors, crops full, came over the road and headed for the firs behind me almost like a partridge drive. Some were high to the left but most of them crested the high hedge before falling to my true cylinder. I had deliberately chosen a 30in Hardy Bros boxlock ejector, as I suspected the combination of true cylinder and three-quarters would be an asset, allowing me to take higher crossing birds as well as those that came over the hedge.
Also I prefer a side-by-side for this type of shooting in heavy cover because your reaction time can make the difference between success and failure. As the sound of the shot began to disturb those in the vicinity, the birds tended to drift up the hedge more towards the ivy-covered ash and any crossing shots would have meant shooting over the road.
But after early success I had to move. My second pre-prepared option was a hollowed-out bramble further forward and under the mature ash to the left of my original position. This meant I could take the birds heading for the ivy tree much earlier and shoot parallel to the road rather than across it. It also gave me a much wider field of vision and more options, something I hadn’t considered during my recce.
One of the hardest things to do, though, is to abandon a plan that isn’t quite working as well as it might in favour of another option. We have a tendency to stick with what we have planned in the hope it will come right, rather than adjust our settings in the reality of the behaviour of our quarry. To overcome this, especially when trying out a new spot, I now tell myself that the first visit is always a learning experience. Trying new spots to find the best for the given wind only enhances your level of knowledge for your next visit. As with much in life, if it doesn’t work then so be it — you are wiser than you were before but you must be flexible enough to give it a go.
As it turned out my 19 pigeon and one jackdaw — returning stuffed full of pig food from a nearby unit over the road — were hard won, hard to pick and the product of almost a military-style campaign in difficult circumstances. As the fir trees are still quite young, the style of shooting was completely different from that in the 60-year-old big wood of 10 years ago, where every successful shot was a screamer.
The shooting was easier, though this is, of course, relative to the pigeon’s ability to spot you and veer off in a wingbeat. Even so, the satisfaction comes from having applied enough thought to produce a few shots in difficult circumstances — and the pigeon-mince bolognese that is currently on my hob.
Pigeon roost shooting tips
Our pigeon shooting expert Tom Payne offers the following tips:
- Make sure you go out on the right evening. You want 15mph winds at least, if you want to make a success of it, and snow can be brilliant because you disappear in the white. Cold is particularly good for roosting firs.
- Make sure you stand with the wind blowing from behind you because the birds will fly into the wind leading to nice incoming targets.
- It is important to have a good backdrop so the birds can’t see you. A mask, though, can mess up gun mount.
- You have to try to find a good window, rather than shooting through the trees — for which No 5 shot is best.
- Lofting poles can work really well with a single cradle and a dead bird.