When heading out to shoot pigeons, it occurs to Simon Reinhold that his native Norfolk might just be sporting heaven on earth
A ribbon of life runs north outside Fakenham in Norfolk on its way to the sea. Either side of the River Stiffkey, well-drained land rises and falls, giving the lie to Noel Coward’s casual quip: “very flat, Norfolk”.
There are trout to be had in the clear chalkstreams and I grew up shooting in the river catchment, where I’m still very lucky to shoot today. At this time of year I’m often out protecting my oldest farming friend’s peas, in sight of the drive where I shot my first pheasant.
To the west, there’s a string of household names — the Sandringham, Houghton and Holkham Estates — that hosted great shooting parties in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and which today are at the forefront of efforts to preserve wild grey partridges. There aren’t many other counties I know of where in good years an estate is able to host driven wild partridge days, except perhaps Sussex, Northumberland, and Gloucestershire. Everywhere else is forced to rely on reared birds, which of course require far less effort and far less expense.
Having experienced wild Norfolk greys as a loader, I can confirm that they are truly the pinnacle of driven game shooting.
To the east of the Stiffkey as you go past Norwich, you enter a different landscape, the Norfolk Broads. Entirely man-made by early peat diggers, the Broads can be home to prodigious amounts of wildfowl, as can their more westerly neighbour, The Wash. Coots were so abundant in the Broads at the turn of the century that they were shot in their own right on ‘coot drives’ — even by royalty, who would make the relatively short journey from Sandringham.
Deer like racehorses
Further south is the vast expanse of Thetford Forest, another man-made habitat pulled from Breckland ruined by flint mining and rabbit warrening, activities long since abandoned. The 47,000 acres is home to some of the largest red deer in the UK. As you travel east from Thetford they get even bigger. Fed like racehorses on nutrient-rich crops growing out of England’s breadbasket, the hinds are nearly the size of Scottish stags.
As for the weight of the stags, one Norfolk keeper summed it up when he was asked by a guest where the best place to shoot a big red stag was on the estate. He removed the roll-up from his lip, smiled and, in that rising Norfolk inflection, simply said: “Standin’ in the trailer.”
The only things Norfolk is missing are grouse — though attempts were made to release black game on lowland heath outside King’s Lynn — and a wild population of sika deer. With its perfect climate for wild game, when the wind blows it will test the very best game Shots there are. Some say you rarely see a bad Shot from Norfolk.
Another reason may be that many Norfolk game Shots honed their shotgun skills shooting the pigeons that Norfolk has in abundance. Some professional pigeon Shots look on from other counties feeling that Norfolk has the cream of pigeon shooting in the British Isles, though many say that it is a closed shop when trying to get permission. That may be true as the old rules still tend to apply.
If you help on the shoot during the season or in other ways, you may be granted the golden ticket of a chance at a summer pea crop but if you show up dressed in Realtree hoping to buy a place, you may be wasting your time.
My own pigeon reconnaissance, a few weeks back, had taken me through the valley and over the hill into Walsingham, an important medieval site of revelation and pilgrimage.
As I drove, I fondly remembered my days out with my father and my own revelation particular on Pump House Drive, when I suddenly realised I could shoot — as a young man shooting three rights-and-lefts in a row followed by another pheasant was the stuff of dreams and I can still recall feeling embarrassed at all compliments that came my way.
As with all youthful success, though, it was short-lived; I ran out of cartridges on the last drive and my host marched over and spat a row of expletives at me that I have never forgotten.
As I passed out of the village, heading towards Houghton Saint Giles, I noted that the peas were split either side of a tarmacked farm track. The field to the north of the track was larger but had nothing on it. The field on the southern side held birds and it was a clear indication that this was their preference. Unfortunately, it coincided with the hottest day of the year so far and sun cream was vital. It is never ideal facing south in a hide and the buff was less to cover my face to avoid scaring the pigeons than it was to double down on protection from sunburn.
With the hide dressed with fronds of cow parsley to blend in the darker netting, the home-made decoys were thrown into a T pattern a little further out than usual as the wind was directly into my face.
Again, many would have opted for the northern side in these conditions but the pigeons were resting in the high firs that once protected an old commercial nursery and a young wood on the opposite side of this long, thin field. They were not interested in crossing the hedge behind me and there are times you cannot bend them to your will; you must follow their lead.
I don’t use gadgets if I can help it. There is something in me that prefers the purity of traditional ways. On a young pea crop, my version of Sillosocks decoys, with a three-dimensional white collar — 32mm PVC waste pipe cut into 1in lengths and split to splice it through the body — stand out well enough that gadgets shouldn’t be needed. Even the bouncer is no more than one flexible rod to raise the bird up and another passed through its chest to stretch
out the wings.
It’s always a good sign when the birds try to get into the pattern while you walk back to the hide. They came in ones and twos — the best option for building a bag. The action was almost immediate and my Norfolk Liar game counter began to click round.
Pigeons have altered their behaviour in the past 20 years. They seem to be much more comfortable now as suburban birds moving out from their garden roosts to feed in adjacent fields. They also seem less interested in pea crops than they have been in the past.
When I started out protecting crops a pea field was such a draw that you could almost guarantee a good day. That is no longer the case, but the job of crop protection is still necessary.
The birds were drifting over the high firs on the edge of the town bypass and into this thinner, smaller field and it is always gratifying when one decoys perfectly. One particularly memorable bird crested the trees, gave the telltale shake of feathers and a few shallow wingbeats that led me to mutter: “I’ve definitely got you.”
Having spent so many hours in a hide, even at distance your eyes become attuned to the quarry’s movements and it is birds that decoy so completely, sailing straight into the landing zone, that give me more satisfaction now than any numbers on a counter. The challenge then is to not get complacent and finish the shot.
With the counter on 25 it was time to clear out the pattern — dead birds lying on their back were beginning to ward off their living brethren. If I see that happening I will leave the hide to rectify the situation, otherwise I only pick up every 25 on the counter. It is a habit I have formed because too much time running in and out of the hide can be detrimental to a flightline. It can also be tiring on hot days and when you’re tired your shooting suffers.
Perhaps I am getting old. In the time it took to gather the dead birds, the wind swung round by 90 degrees and my T-shaped pattern needed to reverse as a result. The afternoon began to slow, with the birds getting wiser to the tactics.
Decoying shots at birds dropping in were replaced with long crossing shots, testing the limit of both my ability and the selection of the non-lead cartridges I have been trying out.
I am extremely fortunate to shoot in and around the places where I first picked up a shotgun. Norfolk is a sporting paradise. In conversation recently with a world champion clay Shot, who has shot all over the globe, we agreed we’d take a windy day in Norfolk over anywhere else on earth. It’s easy to see why the Royals have such a fondness for Nelson’s County.