The sudden abundance of food caused by the autumn maize harvest has attracted a plague of pests that could decimate the following crop. Mat Manning sets up for a decoying session to bring the offending birds to book.
The damage caused by pest birds to agricultural crops can have a huge impact on food production and farmers’ livelihoods. A few dozen birds can quickly munch their way through a lot of seed, and flocks can soon spiral into the hundreds when passing pigeons and corvids home in on an easy feeding opportunity.
Farmers do their best to keep ravenous birds at bay by using scarecrows, flags and bangers, but these methods have limited effect, as was proven when key general licences were revoked earlier this year.
Birds soon learn to ignore these scaring techniques, and even when they are effective they only push the problem on to another place. More often than not, shooting is the best method.
I’m helping a farmer with crop protection today. The field I’m shooting over held a maize crop until a few weeks ago. Smashed up sweetcorn left behind by the forage harvester has attracted crows and pigeons in their droves.
Soon the farmer will be drilling the field with an autumn cereal crop, and if left undisturbed the birds will devour the seeds, which would be detrimental to the success of the crop.
Apart from giving the new drill of seed a much better chance to flourish, there could be a chance to harvest some free-range meat for the freezer if the woodpigeons show up.
These are educated birds, and they have seen a fair amount of shooting pressure since this year’s corn crops began to ripen at the start of the summer. That means I’m going to need to shoot from the cover of a hide, which is pretty standard for this sort of scenario.
I will also be using a selection of decoys to encourage the birds to land within range. Pigeons, crows, rooks and jackdaws are all visiting the field in numbers, but the decoys will give them confidence to come back after the disturbance of my arrival and should also enable me to persuade them to land where they will offer me the best chance of clear shots.
The QUARRY: WOODPIGEON
PEST STATUS: Woodpigeons congregate in huge flocks that can comprise thousands of hungry birds, devouring crops with ruinous impact.
HABITAT: Woodpigeons are woodland birds, but also roost in gardens, hedgerows and parks.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Pigeon is excellent to eat, and the breast meat is valued by chefs. Successful pest control will be rewarded with some great meat for the table.
PEST STATUS: Carrion crows are notorious for their impact on songbirds and game birds, but can be damaging to crops too.
HABITAT: Crows can be encountered over a diverse range of habitats. They nest in woodland, but often descend on cereal crops and raid farmyards.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Crows are suspicious birds and have extremely good eyesight. Hunters may need the cover of a hide to outwit this adversary.
09:50: TIME TO WATCH
When you arrive at a field that’s being hit by pigeons and corvids, it’s all too easy to want to set up as soon as you arrive. Seeing pest birds flitting around is enough to make any shooter want to get straight into the action, but you will shoot more if you just put the brakes on and stand and watch for a few minutes.
Reconnaissance is the key to success when presented with this sort of pest control situation. Watch the birds carefully, and they will tell you where to set up and where is best to place your decoys.
Mat stays at the field’s edge, observing the birds through his binoculars to see where they are hitting the field hardest and the routes they are using to get there.
It soon becomes apparent that the incoming crows and pigeons are approaching along a very clear flightline, which follows the ridge of the valley and then breaks off along a hedge which flanks the field.
Flightlines can change depending on factors such as the wind and the direction from which birds are travelling. That means you can’t just assume that a spot that produced shots on your last outing will still be productive the next time you visit, and that’s why Mat always sets aside some time for reconnaissance at the start of a decoying session.
10:15: UP WITH THE HIDE
Crows and pigeons are notoriously suspicious birds, so the concealment of a hide is usually required when targeting them. It’s even more important today as sustained shooting pressure has made the birds particularly distrusting.
After studying the birds’ behaviour from afar, Mat has chosen to site his hide close to an incoming flightline. He is setting it against the hedgerow, which creates a natural backdrop to break up its outline and prevent any backlighting from revealing his silhouette through the camouflage net.
Mat begins by setting up hide poles to create a frame – he prefers the ones with a foot-bar so he can stamp them down into firm ground. When getting the props into position, Mat makes sure that he allows himself plenty of room to move within the hide, without making it too large and conspicuous.
Once the net is in position, Mat pegs the lower section to the ground to prevent it from flapping in the breeze, as the movement can spook incoming birds. At this stage, he would usually spend a few moments dressing the hide with vegetation to help it to blend in.
However, crows are already circling and the disturbance caused by spending too long on the hide could do more harm than good. The camouflage pattern on Mat’s net is a pretty close match with the natural backdrop, and he reckons it should go unnoticed as the birds seem to be distracted by their urge to feed on the remaining maize kernels.
10:25: SAFETY IN NUMBERS
A lot of shooters are of the mistaken opinion that decoys will attract pest birds wherever you put them. It’s not quite as simple as that, but when used properly they can be very useful for coaxing pigeons and crows within range of your air rifle by helping to convince them that any danger has passed and it is safe to return.
While studying the birds, Mat noticed that they were gathering in small flocks. That means a large decoy pattern would probably look unnatural, so he starts by setting up a fake flock of six pigeons. He places the birds in a rough horseshoe shape with what he hopes will be an inviting landing area in the middle.
Birds tend to take off and land facing into the wind, so Mat positions his decoys with their beaks towards the breeze. He doesn’t want the pattern to look unnaturally neat though, so he tilts each bird off at a slight angle and mixes up the spacing between them.
Once he has his fake flock of pigeons in position, Mat sets up two crow decoys further out in the field. These are positioned away from the pigeons because woodies can sometimes be reluctant to land close to corvids. The furthest crow is placed 35m from the hide, and will serve as a useful range marker.
Although Mat expects birds to land among the decoys, he has deliberately set up about 25m from a fairly open tree. Being cautious birds, it is likely that some incoming crows and pigeons will choose to perch in the apparent safety of the tree while they scrutinise the decoys.
These birds should be easier to shoot than those on the ground as they’ll be clear from the remaining maize stubble and won’t be moving around.
10:40: RAPID RESPONSE
The session gets off to a frustrating start when Mat realises that he has forgotten to put a head net in the pocket of his new jacket. Sharp-eyed birds can sometimes spot flashes of skin through the hide netting so it pays to cover up, but Mat will just have to hope that the peak of his hat will help to keep his face hidden.
The birds are clearly eager to get back on the feed, and Mat hardly has time to settle in before a pair of crows starts circling overhead. They glide down lower and lower before swooping into the uppermost branches of the tree.
The two crows are clearly interested in the decoys and although all their attention appears to be focused on them, Mat is still very cautious as he slips the muzzle of his gun through the netting ready to line up for the shot. Any sudden movement would almost certainly catch their eye and blow his cover.
Through the crosshairs, Mat picks out the most clearly presented of the crows, both of which are within range. He lines up for a head shot, and then touches off the trigger. The pellet hits home with a smack and the unsuspecting crow drops like a stone while its startled mate flaps off into the distance.
Moments after his first shot, Mat is back in action again after another crow lands just behind the decoys. It’s a longer shot, but the bird has pitched up on a brow, keeping it clear of the maize stems.
Mat gives the shot a touch of holdover to compensate for the fall of the pellet and it’s another solid hit and a second bird in the bag. The session is off to a flying start.
12:05: RINGING IN THE CHANGES
The attraction of freshly harvested maize and the pull of the decoys doesn’t guarantee a busy day’s shooting. Wild birds live on their instincts and soon shy away from anything that doesn’t look quite right.
That often means that, even after putting in the work at the start of the session, you have to ring the changes to keep shots coming.
After a very productive first few minutes, Mat has a long wait before bagging a woodpigeon, then things go quiet again. There are still plenty of birds moving over the field, but they’ve backed away. It seems that something is making them reluctant to land within range, and it’s probably the sight of the shot quarry.
Mat decides to break cover and clamber out of the hide so he can have a tidy up. He collects the shot crow from under the tree and then picks up the crow and pigeon from out in the field.
Rather than taking them back into the hide, Mat sets up the shot birds as decoys by propping each one up on the maize stalks. Real birds bring a serious boost to the pattern as they look far more convincing than plastic decoys.
Once back in the hide, Mat digs out his crow caller and gives it a few blasts in the hope of pulling the distant birds back towards his decoys. It takes time to master quarry calling, but Mat’s advice is to mimic the calls you hear from nearby birds – but try not to overdo it because you don’t want to drive them away or make them aware of your hiding place.
14:20: BACK ON TRACK
The natural additions to Mat’s decoy pattern, combined with his calling efforts, have the desired effect, and another crow soon lands in the tree and within striking distance.
It’s a straightforward shot and the crow drops cleanly into the undergrowth and out of sight, so there’s no need to cause further disturbance by picking it up.
A jackdaw then pitches among the decoys. Shooting at birds that are partially obscured by crop stubble can be tricky, especially when their heads are bobbing up and down as they peck morsels off the ground. It gets easier with experience, and you get a feel for how and when birds are likely to move and learn to time your shots accordingly.
There’s no guarantee though, and Mat pushes through the trigger just as the jackdaw drops its head to feed. His pellet whistles high over the mark before it slaps into the ground, sending the startled bird flapping away.
Sport with the pigeons has really slowed down. These birds often disappear during the early part of the afternoon as they retire to the woods to sleep off their morning binge. It would appear that today’s ‘lunchtime lull’ is now underway, but the corvids are still feeding hard.
Mat has now been set up for about four hours. At this stage in the session, he would usually be thinking about stretching his legs to alleviate the cramp or even thinking about heading for home.
But the corvids are coming too thick and fast to worry about discomfort. It’s a great opportunity to help protect the forthcoming seed drill, so Mat won’t be going anywhere for a while.
GUN: BSA Ultra SE (ww.bsaguns.co.uk)
SCOPE: Optisan HX 4-12X40 (www.optisanoptics.eu)
MOUNTS: Sportsmatch Two-Piece (www.sportsmatch-uk.com)
AMMO: Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign (www.daystate.com)
BINOCULARS: Nature-Trek 10X42 (www.hawkeoptics.com)
HIDE NET: Camo Systems Real Tree Scrim (www.bisley-uk.com)
HIDE POLES: Jack Pyke Super Hide Pole (www.jackpyke.co.uk)