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Shooting in the snow – how to adapt to challenging weather

A layer of snow means Tom Payne has to think on his feet, swapping his intended quarry, roosting pigeons, for a few mallard

This is a prime time of year for a pigeon shooter. Not in terms of numbers but rather that we can employ all three shooting methods — decoying, roosting and flighting — to control the numbers causing crop damage. Each is highly effective if carried out correctly, during the right conditions and if you get the timing right. 

Weather plays a huge part in dictating the way pigeons behave and I spend a lot of time studying it. This is more important than ever in the winter months, and if you want to have success in the field then you have to get this right. 

For decoying, a perfect wind is around 15mph up to 25mph max. No wind spells disaster as the birds will remain flocked and travel as one. For flighting, I would recommend similar conditions and speeds, otherwise the birds will not break away and finding shootable flightlines becomes a real challenge. For roosting, however, the stronger the wind the better. 

There is another factor that comes into play at this time of year: snow. This can be disastrous for decoying but actually works out well for roosting. A thick layer of snow will still cause problems but enough to leave a covering will lead to good shooting conditions. The right amount of snow will help you disappear on ground level and helps mask your shot. A mixed hardwood boundary with fir trees become the best woods for roosting and, in the snow, the warm firs draw birds like a magnet. 

Tom drives the estate in his Land Rover to recon for future outings


Challenging navigation

Also, due to the snow, birds can struggle to navigate over the white ground; you can find them unwilling to leave the area and so, with a bit of wind, you can create superb opportunities to maximise an outing. As we hit the first proper cold snap of winter, I was hoping that it would encourage the birds off acorns and wild food and on to the farmers’ bounty of green crops, where the population can be managed. 

I was also excited that a couple of my good roosting spots would perform, with the threat of snow looming. When the flurries arrived, I was even more hopeful. My good friend Charles Granlund gave me a call the week before to give me the heads-up on the pigeon situation on the estate he manages. He explained that birds had started to take an interest in the rape but, as they were not shooting this season — for the same reason that many are not — asked if I would be interested in roosting a few pigeons. I’m out a lot during the shooting season so I was hoping that I could find a day to venture out over the Christmas period. As the snow fell, it opened up an opportunity, and so I headed to Charles’ estate to hatch a plan. 

Charles shoots at a passing mallard — the estate has several lakes, ponds and splashes

Our initial idea was to roost the pigeons together. The snow was fairly thick and the temperature was well below zero. We drove the estate, just to recon for future outings and other possibilities for when things are not so bust. We also had an eye on other potential shooting outings before the season ended. Charles’ ground has some great walked-up opportunities. 


Lots of ducks

On the old, overwintered stubbles a few pigeons scratched about but we were actually starting to see a lot of ducks. There was certainly a shootable surplus, with a few geese thrown into the mix as well. When I asked about the numbers, Charles explained that there is a lot of water on the estate — big lakes, small lakes, ponds and splashes. Traditionally, it has always been a good spot for the birds. 

Our plan of roosting pigeons was starting to fade as we approached a small lake near the wood we had hoped to roost. As soon as we got close, around 50 mallard jumped into the sky. Charles knew exactly what I was about to suggest. Fortunately, I go everywhere with a couple of slabs of non-toxics in the back of the Land Rover. Even in the ridiculous situation we find ourselves in, it pays to be prepared for the days where non-toxic is required, and I was ready. 

We both agreed that ducks would be a better alternative to pigeons as the birds were moving quite consistently through the afternoon. The pond we had chosen was half frozen, so it would be an inviting home for flighting that evening. The three old stubble fields that surrounded the pond would make picking up quite straightforward; we aimed to keep Charles’ young lab, Midge — in only her second season — fairly disciplined in the water. Frozen lakes and working dogs are not a good mix. 

We started fairly early as small groups of mostly mallard were moving and consistently returning to the lake. We started in the same spot, just to see what would happen. Picking a spot was simple — find the bit that wasn’t frozen. As we chatted, four mallard appeared suddenly, paddles down and whiffling in. I managed to cock the whole thing up spectacularly, only firing one shot. I was so amazed and appalled that I hadn’t used the second barrel. I had a few choice words with myself and we made the decision to split up. 

The new plan works well and the pair drop a good number of ducks, avoiding the frosty water

Charles took the top half of the pond, aiming to catch out a line coming in over a ditch. Meanwhile, I stayed in the same spot to try to make amends for my dismal start. No sooner had Charles arrived in his spot than I heard a bang and a thud on the stubble field behind him.

We were up and running. I, on the other hand, was having a few issues getting into position. I edged around, trying to find a spot I could shoot comfortably without any obstacles getting in the way — while also not getting caught out. While looking for my perfect spot, I took a long left-to-right pigeon heading over a small splash behind me. I was up and running, too. I chuckled to myself — I can kill a 50-yard pigeon but not a 15-yard mallard.

As I decided on my position, I looked over the hedge behind me. As soon as I did, I saw four mallard coming straight at me. I took advantage of this bit of good fortune, killing the first bird knowing that the rest would then flare to the left. As they swept upwards, I dropped a second bird from the group.


The better spot

I called Charles back from his spot as the birds were focused at the bottom half of the pond. He was getting on quite well but I had a feeling that it would be the better spot later on. A single mallard suddenly appeared low, right-to-left, and I reacted quickly to fold it into the rushes on the edge of the pond. The plan was working well. We were managing to keep dropping birds away from the frosty water, but we knew this would change as the light faded. 

Tom always carries a couple of slabs of non-toxics in his Land Rover, which allows him to be flexible

Crows started returning to roost and, in the quieter spells, I was in the right spot to catch three very good birds out. Corvids pose a constant threat to nesting birds, so I was pleased that there would be three fewer raiders to cause damage next year. Each one was a classic long, high bird on the way home. When they don’t know you are there, crows are straightforward to kill. 

By this point Charles had made his way back down. We were unsure if we would get any more because we had started making noise fairly early in the day. I sometimes think that can affect how busy your more ‘traditional’ flighting period will be. We stood level with each other, on opposite sides of the pond, to maximise our clear and safe angles. 


Water retrieving

We were losing the light now but still had just enough to add a few more to the bag. Feeling confident in our position, and with enough light reflecting off the snow, we dropped a few more into the non-frozen part of the pond. Midge was itching for some water retrieving and this was her moment. We decided to pull up stumps and finished picking up. The temperature had dropped even further and it was seriously cold. We were both looking forward to getting back to the warmth of the fire after an enjoyable flight.