Mat Manning has a hoot using an owl decoy and a bouncer during a crow control session on the farm.
The Quarry: Carrion Crow
A major problem for farmers, especially in the spring, crows peck the eyes from newborn lambs. They also feed on the eggs and chicks of other birds, and on newly drilled crops.
Crows have a wide range of habitat, but feed mostly around farmyards, in woodland and on arable crops. They favour nesting sites in tall trees either in woods or along hedgerows.
Crows are sharp-eyed and very wary of man. Getting within range usually takes a high level of fieldcraft and concealment.
Crow control becomes particularly important during late winter and early spring. Lambing season is just about to get into full swing and these opportunistic scavengers don’t take long to home in on vulnerable lambs.
The powerful birds usually go for lambs’ eyes first, and even if their attacks are not fatal, the wounds from their strong stabbing beaks are so severe that the animals they prey on have to be put down.
It’s not just lambs that suffer though — crows are also relentless nest thieves, and know very well that eggs and chicks provide them with a rich source of protein.
It is a natural part of life in the wild, but if numbers of corvids are allowed to climb too high, they can end up having a detrimental impact on songbird populations.
If that’s not enough, crows also have a taste for freshly drilled seeds. It can be ruinous to farmers’ livelihoods when they flock up with rooks, jackdaws and pigeons to plunder new crops before they have a chance to germinate.
The main reason I am controlling crows on this farm is to protect this season’s lambs, but spring’s seed drills will soon be going in and it will be beneficial to thin the birds out before the sowing gets underway. I also love to see songbirds thriving around where I shoot, so it’s encouraging to think there will be fewer crows harassing them as their nesting season approaches.
Although crows frequently raid the nests of smaller birds, they don’t like it when other predators get too close to theirs. Corvids are just starting to get territorial as spring approaches, so I have chosen to use an owl decoy to stir them up.
Even when presented with decoys, crows tend to be very wary, so I’ll be shooting from the cover of a hide.
Conditions are favourable. It’s cold but not freezing, and there’s enough of a breeze to create a bit of background noise and movement to help with my concealment, though it’s not so windy as to make shooting tricky.
My hide has been built in advance, there are a few crows on the move and the signs suggest that it should be a good session.
Two days before the shoot: Advance preparation
Crows are about the wariest quarry on the airgun shooter’s hit-list, and shy away from anything that looks suspicious. If Mat were to simply turn up and build a hide on the day he planned to shoot, the birds would very likely back away and refuse to return for a considerable time. With that in mind, Mat decided to build his hide in advance.
The hide is a simple blind made from a camouflage net propped up with hide poles. You don’t have to splash out on purpose-made poles though, as garden canes or hazel sticks will do the job.
The important thing is to incorporate your hide into existing cover to make it as inconspicuous as possible. Hedges, tree trunks and steep banks are all good backdrops that will help a camouflage net to blend in with its surroundings.
Once Mat has the main screen in position, he pegs down the base of the net to keep it tight. This prevents the ends from attracting attention by flapping in the breeze and also creates more room on the inside.
Even when a hide is set against a suitable backdrop, the straight edges of the net can stand out in the natural landscape. It’s easily remedied though, and Mat has used clumps of ivy and burdock stems to disguise his hide’s outline.
Never cut anything of value such as hardwood species when dressing a hide; weed species such as ivy, docks, thistles, nettles and grass stems are usually the best choice.
08:20: Mock Mobbing
Location plays an important part in ensuring a successful day’s shooting, and Mat has picked a spot where he expects to encounter crows. His hide is tucked into a hedgerow on a flightline the birds use to travel between the woods and the farmyard. Choosing the right place to site the hide is the first step, but Mat is also using decoys to persuade passing crows to pitch within range.
The main decoy is a large imitation owl, which Mat hopes will trigger the crows’ territorial instincts. When crows spot a bird of prey on their patch they will often pile in to mob it and chase it away – that’s the reaction that Mat hopes to provoke today.
Although the big owl is very eye-catching, Mat is also adding an imitation crow to the arrangement – it makes the setup even harder to miss and suggests that a mobbing is already underway.
Even when stirred up in this way, crows can remain very wary and are often reluctant to land on the ground. To get around this potential problem, Mat has set up his hide within range of two ‘sitty’ trees.
If all goes to plan, incoming birds will swoop in to inspect the decoys from the apparent safety of these large open trees where they will present Mat with clear shots from his hiding place.
08:50: Rapid Reaction
Waiting for corvids to react to decoys can take a lot of patience, but Mat’s initial response comes quickly. But it’s not a crow that’s first to take an interest in the setup, it’s a magpie.
It’s no great surprise as these little corvids share the crow’s ferociously territorial nature; they also share a lot of their bad habits, so it’s worth keeping them in check.
The first sign of the magpie’s presence is a chacking sound down the hedgerow as the lone bird catches sight of the owl decoy. Magpies aren’t quite as wary as crows and the plucky little corvid soon comes bundling in to barrack the imitation intruder.
The agitated bird hops around in one of the sitty trees for a few seconds before fluttering straight down to the decoys. Mat wastes no time in getting a bead on the black and white bandit and smacks it over with a wallop to the heart and lung area – magpies are quite delicately built, especially compared with crows, so a solid strike to the chest from Mat’s FAC-rated Daystate Red Wolf snuffs it out cleanly.
Mat breaks cover and quickly retrieves the magpie from the decoy zone, as he doesn’t want it putting incoming crows on edge. It proves to be a good move and there’s soon a pair of crows circling over the owl.
One of the birds makes the mistake of pitching into the upper branches of the closest sitty tree, and Mat fells it with a head shot that drops it cleanly into the undergrowth. The other crow immediately backs away at the disturbance, but at least Mat has now managed to connect with his target quarry.
Expert tips: General licences
All birds are protected, but certain pest species can be controlled by shooting if the guidelines set out by the government’s general licences are met, as Mat is doing here.
England’s temporary general licences – which were introduced last summer following a legal challenge by Wild Justice – had been due to expire at the end of February. However, Defra recently announced that they will be extended until July, whilst the organisation continues to work on replacement licences that are fit for purpose.
To ensure that your shooting complies with the legal requirements for your
area, visit the BASC website and make sure to check
their latest guidance on general licences.
09:45: Added attraction
After a busy start, things go very quiet. The odd bird is still passing high overhead, but they’re not taking enough interest in the decoys, even when Mat tries using his caller, so he decides it’s time to take action in an effort to increase the appeal. Mat retrieves the crow to set it up on a bouncer.
Also known as floater poles, bouncers are long poles with a ground spike at one end and a frame that holds the bird at the other. A central spike pushes through the dead bird’s vent and through to its head to hold it in place while two angle-adjustable arms with crocodile clips support the wings.
With the clips attached to the bird’s wings and the stiff wire arms pushed apart, the wings are spread to give the impression of a bird swooping down to land.
By pushing the floater pole’s base spike into the ground, attaching the crow and extending the flexible fibreglass pole, Mat creates a lifelike decoy that bounces enticingly in the wind.
Apart from looking very convincing, the movement will also help to catch the eye of passing crows while enhancing the impression of the mobbing which the combined decoys are intended to create. After making the addition to his decoy pattern, Mat slips back into his hide to await the birds’ reaction.
10:25: Calling the Shots
Thanks to a gentle breeze injecting life into the shot bird, the bouncer has the desired effect and Mat is soon back in action. The reaction to the bobbing bird emphasises the importance of having movement in your decoys, which makes passing crows more likely to deviate from their intended course as they fly over.
Things pick up very suddenly when a flock of crows takes an interest in the decoys. At one point there are six birds wheeling and croaking loudly above the hide.
Three of the crows drop down into a sitty tree. Very slowly so as not to spook them, Mat threads the muzzle of his Red Wolf through the camouflage netting and picks up a clearly silhouetted bird in his sights. The crosshairs settle on its head, Mat touches off the trigger and another corvid is added to the bag.
Rather than being spooked by the demise of their brethren, the remaining birds become enraged and start divebombing around where it fell. Mat waits until one lands in the same tree. It’s another straightforward shot.
After losing that second bird from their ranks, the birds move away and head back towards the woods, but Mat manages to coax a few back over the coming hour by using his caller.
Mat’s approach to calling crows is a subtle one, and rather than blasting away until the birds become suspicious, he just gives it the odd croak to help steer their attention towards the decoys.
11:25: Birds brought to book
Eventually even the combination of the caller and assorted moving and static decoys fail to deceive the crows. The wily birds have seen enough to make them suspicious and they’re stubbornly refusing to venture close to what they now recognise as a dangerous place.
Mat is not too concerned; after three fairly inactive hours in the hide, the cold is starting to creep in and he’s ready to stretch his legs and head for home. It hasn’t been a bad session at all though, and the final tally of six crows and a magpie is certainly a respectable one, making a worthwhile contribution to his efforts to keep corvid numbers on the farm at a more acceptable level.
He would have accounted for one more, but an unseen twig deflected his shot wide of the target, resulting in a clean miss and a wasted late opportunity. These things happen and Mat at least took some comfort in the fact that the crow got away unscathed rather than being struck by a wounding shot.
The crows were shunning the decoys towards the end of the session, which suggests that they probably won’t fall for the same trick again – not for some time, anyway. With that in mind, Mat packs away the hide. His next foray after the crows on this farm will be based around another area and with a different decoy setup.
A switch in tactics should enable Mat to account for a few more corvids before they grow suspicious once again and another change is required to keep them coming.
GUN: Daystate Red Wolf (www.daystate.com)
SCOPEMTC: Mamba Lite (www.mtcoptics.com)
AMMO: Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign (www.daystate.com)
SCOPE MOUNTS: Sportsmatch two-piece (www.sportsmatch-uk.com)
JACKET: Ridgeline Monsoon Classic Jacket (www.ridgelineclothing.co.uk)
Decoy: Full Body Owl (www.jackpyke.co.uk)
Bouncer: Telescopic Pigeon Bouncer (www.djdecoys.com)