A pigeon shooter's job is to protect crops, writes Tom Payne, and this must govern your decisions out in the field

There are some occasions on which the responsible pigeon shooter must turn down outings that sound good in favour of prior arrangements or more pressing needs. I’m lucky enough to manage pigeon on many farms and estates, and I do my best to be there when there is a problem, but sometimes there just isn’t the time.

It is important that bag sizes are put to one side. Just because there is an opportunity to shoot 100 pigeon on one farm, it doesn’t mean that the 20 or so pigeon on another farm are not causing the farmer just as much worry. In a situation such as this it is important to prioritise. I focus on the state of the crops that are being affected — all crops at this time of year will have a period when they are at their most vulnerable and would see no recovery before harvest if damaged. Farmers are about to reap what they sow, with, hopefully, high yields. Pigeon are a huge agricultural pest that will affect this, and the quantity of grain and seed that a pigeon can consume is staggering. When they find a field to their fancy, they don’t hold back.

Prime pigeon time

June and July are tricky months. Crops are vulnerable and the harvest is not far away, so how do you make a plan and what should your priorities be when protecting crop? Pigeon have adapted so well to modern agricultural techniques and I believe that they have also adapted to bring other crops into the fold. Years ago I could be pretty certain that in these periods I would be shooting over a laid crop, normally barley. But laid crops are a rarity these days. This is mainly due to modern crop strains and the management of nitrogen in the soil.

Barley would go down in heavy thunderstorms due to long-stemmed varieties and too much nitrogen in the soil, making the crop weak. Another of the best crops to shoot over was swathed rape. Rape is now sprayed off to stop the growing process. By spraying, less of the valuable seed is lost. As the plant reaches maturity, the seed pods become vulnerable and can easily spill their seed. I mention these three crops as I would say they are the most popular crops being farmed today. I could start going into peas, fruit crops, vegetables, salads and so on, but let’s stick with these three.

Assessing the issues

So what are the problems and issues that we must look at when it comes to controlling pigeon pre-harvest? As I mentioned, pigeon have developed their feeding abilities. A great example of this is to look at standing barley and wheat. Wheat especially doesn’t go flat anymore, but over the generations pigeon haven’t forgotten the nutritious, milky grain that is held within the head of the crop prior to its becoming fully ripe. This grain is a fantastic source of high nutrition and moisture, and is easy to digest. So as a crop, even though the wheat is standing, it is definitely not off the menu — I now shoot a lot of pigeon over standing wheat.

Traditionally pigeon mainly concentrated around the tramlines and edges of the field, but now I see more and more birds going into the crop and using the weight of the body and wings gently to take the crop over. From here, they balance carefully, gently plucking away at the heads. This type of situation can provide some fantastic shooting and good bags.

The first thing you need to consider is what is the damage being caused on the crop? This may sound obvious, but if the damage being caused by pigeon is less than the damage that we may cause as shooters walking through the crop knocking it down, knocking heads off or breaking the plant in its final ripening stages, then we shouldn’t shoot. I see pigeon going into rape that has been sprayed off. Under no circumstance should this crop be shot. Even a slight nudge to the seed pods will spill the seed. At this point, shooters should wait until harvest.

Only if the farmer insists that I must shoot regardless, because they feel the damage is too high, will I shoot. If this is the case, then you must plan well. When entering the field to place decoys, always stick to the same route. Don’t just march across the crop aimlessly.

Question your ethics

The second question you need to ask yourself is, is it ethical? Do you feel that, without causing damage to the crop, you are able to pick every bird shot and, more importantly, are you able to retrieve wounded birds? Our sport survives on responsible and ethical shooting. If the answer is “no” to both, then I believe strongly that no shooting should take place, especially if you are on your own. One way of tackling this situation is to use a dog. In a standing crop I will always favour my cocker Daff, as she can keep low through the crop, hunting away, picking birds without causing damage. Pigeon, my Labrador, is just too big and ends up taking crop with him. Consider these factors when out pigeon shooting and you are sure to keep farmers happy.