I was up well before first light, eager to get out into the fields early after having been cooped up for most of the week. So eager, in fact, I’d charged the gun the night before and all my kit was stacked near the front door ready for transfer to the Jeep. Part of the reason behind my enthusiasm was that I’d been playing around the previous weekend with a new pellet for my BSA Ultra SE’s barrel. Sure that I’d found one, I was now keen to field-test it on live quarry.
As it was still dark, I set about preparing the vegetables for the Sunday roast later. I topped, tailed and peeled parsnips, swede, potatoes and then strung some runner beans, gathering the vegetable waste to take with me and use as crow bait. Also in the bag were a pair of flocked crow decoys, a crow call and my camera gear. Game bag is a misnomer really – it’s a utility bag. There’s little room in it for shot quarry, so it also holds a 12-loop game carrier and lots of folded supermarket carrier bags.
The wet conditions of late made for a drive through semi-flooded lanes, then a squelchy traverse of the sodden field margins in the motor. No problems encountered here, and the Falken Wildpeak tyres on the X-Trail haven’t let me down yet. I was heading for a remote wood down on the flood plain, which is a crossing point for the winter corvid flocks.
Just as woodpigeons have set flight lines, so do rooks, crows and jackdaws. In a landscape like Norfolk’s, the flocks can often fly a mile between trees across wide, open arable land and low hedgerows. These small copses are welcome resting points, somewhere for a bird to pause and survey the landscape for food or foe. Often, the flocks will simply fly over, so it’s as well to give them a little encouragement to land.
Corvids, as experienced airgun hunters know, are cautious and canny bandits. For that reason, there was no lurcher with me today, and I’d parked up half a mile from the wood. I didn’t want any unwarranted movement from a dog, nor anything nearby that the corvids would associate with human presence. As if to underline the point, as I stalked along the hedgerow, the small squadrons of rook and jackdaw that flew over spotted me, then wheeled away, screeching and chattering their warnings.
When I reached the wood, I slipped inside the tree line slowly, paused for a few minutes alongside a broad beech trunk and set down my bag. I’m quite intimate with all my shooting permissions, so I know where to enter or exit… and what I might meet when I first slip into a wood.
I know where the rabbit warrens are; where the squirrel highways run; where the woodpigeons drop to feed; where the magpies nest (they frequently return to the birthing nest, even in winter); where the jay buries her acorns; where the hare shelters; where the roe makes its scrape; and where the cock pheasant leads his small harem to shelter from the rain and wind. And I know all this because I sit quietly and watch, and have learned to read track, trail and sign, to boot. More importantly, I know because I want to know, because I’m a hunter. I’m not a spectator, looking into this scene like someone watching a television documentary. I’m a living, breathing part of it. Indeed, many of the creatures living in this wood today do so because I have influenced their survival. Many have expired – at my hand – because they threaten to dominate and disturb the natural balance. And don’t anyone dare tell me I’m wrongly interfering with nature – please. I’m an intrinsic part of that nature; I’m entitled to.
Crouched for a while just inside the wood’s edge, I could see a steady flight of rooks, crows, jackdaws and pigeons crossing along the far hedgerow. I needed them closer, so I quickly set up two flocked crow decoys. One I arranged to look as if it were feeding on two addled hens’ eggs, and the other I placed next to my vegetable peelings. I backed into cover with a good view of some sitty trees and started to attract the birds with my call, mimicking the frantic staccato sounds of a crow raising the alarm.
The first few scouts broke rank and wheeled towards the wood. More followed soon after they saw the decoys and started screaming. The rest of the flock was drawn in like a magnet, and the sky above me became a kaleidoscope of corvid frenzy – an awesome sight and sound that, to the first-timer, can seem quite intimidating. There were literally dozens of crows, rooks and jackdaws soaring, mobbing and fluttering on or off branches.
Before long, a winter tribe of magpies couldn’t resist joining the throng, and it was one of these I felled first as it alighted on a bough. The fall of the magpie outraged the crows even more, and their angry cries increased in volume by several decibels. A number gathered on one of the bare sitty trees, mocking the dead magpie. A .177 Baracuda Extreme took out one of the hecklers, a carrion crow – and as it tumbled to the floor, the rest took to the air again.
A couple of jays arrived – late for the party, as always – and the Ultra SE claimed its first jay; just a rook and a jake, and I’d have a full house. It wasn’t to be, though – the demise of the jay was a signal for retreat and within a minute the sky above was clear, the black maelstrom gone. Still, I was happy: I’d found the perfect pellet for my new .177 rifle – H&N Sport’s Baracuda Hunter Extreme.
My paranoia concerning the magpie is often evident; I’ve never hidden my distaste for this cunning little crow. In fact, controlling its impact on my shooting environment is almost an obsession with me.
While many ornithologists and bird charities are in total denial as to Pica pica’s proclivity for egg and chick predation, I’ve just seen too much first hand evidence to turn a blind eye to the bird. A pair of magpies will strip a blackbirds’ nest of fledglings in hours, returning again and again until the plunder is complete. If anyone has doubt about this corvid’s criminal tendency, just watch the reaction of other birds when a magpie appears on the scene – especially during the breeding season.
Songbirds will fuss and fret, often congregating to face the threat en masse. They react in a defensive way, yet an unselfish way to protect nest and young. It’s quite unlike how they behave when facing an honest threat, like a hawk; then the songbirds will flee. But when magpies are in the vicinity, their very demeanour shows they are dealing with a cowardly back-door burglar.
The magpie, facing a threat to its own nest or young, is rarely so honourable. It will generally lurk in the shadows, heckling and complaining. Though I have known individual birds to attack my owl decoys, this occurrence is rare. When directly threatened, the magpie is a master at putting objects between itself and the threat – the coward.
While hunting or exploring, magpies circle low, keeping a distance from the object of their curiosity until they’re confident enough to approach. They skulk in hiding, gurgling and chuckling in a manner that has ‘no-good’ written all over it.
Their anatomy is deceiving: a slender skeleton with big plumage, so they can slip between bower and bough almost unseen, perfectly camouflaged as a sub-canopy raider. They’re thieves, cowards and scavengers. Is there a positive side to the magpie? Yes – but only as a natural carrion cleanser in my opinion.
Available in .22 (shown) and .177, H&N Sport’s Baracuda Hunter Extreme is a new heavyweight pellet that weighs in at 9.26 grains for .177, and a whopping 19.1 grains for .22. A smooth-finished, waisted diabolo, it’s unusual in that the head is a fl attened dome into which is drilled a small hole and cross.
While it may not seem a dynamically superior pellet on the face of it (pun intended), the head configuration allows the pellet to ride on a cushion of air in flight. And upon impact, the cross-head expands massively when it hits anything hard, making it an excellent choice for the small-calibre hunter who requires extreme shocking power without the risk of over-penetration (known as overkill), so often the bane of the