Mat Manning sets up for a morning’s decoying as the woodpigeons gather over a harvested barley field
Late summer is a prime time for the pigeon shooter. Large flocks of these birds gather to feed on spilt grain left behind after cereal crops are harvested. Birds usually return to dine on seed when farmers sow their autumn drillings in the following weeks.
This creates great opportunities for airgun shooters to make bags of these birds, helping farmers reduce numbers of this agricultural pest while harvesting some delicious free-range meat at the same time.
I’m shooting over barley stubble today. The birds have homed in on the easy feeding situation and are likely to destroy the autumn drillings unless their numbers are reduced.
My usual approach for this kind of pest control is to head out with a shotgun and take birds on the wing as they flight in to decoys. However, this particular field is very close to houses, so a silenced airgun is the perfect tool for the job.
Pigeon activity usually spikes twice at this time of year. The first busy time is in the morning when the birds flight out for their first feed of the day. It is then quite typical for things to go quiet around midday, as the pigeons will retire to the woods to snooze for a few hours after their early binge.
Later in the afternoon, following their daytime roost, they flight back to their feeding grounds and can provide good shooting until the light begins to fade.
Today I am heading out for a morning session and the conditions for the shoot look promising. It is nice and warm, and the breeze is gentle, which usually makes for good pigeon shooting.
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.
07:15 – Vital reconnaissance
It is very tempting to rush in and set up as soon as you arrive at the field the birds are targeting, especially if there are already lots of pigeons around when you arrive. Being too hasty at this stage can really spoil your chances though, so Mat always holds back and spends some time observing the birds’ behaviour before he sets up.
Study pigeons around their feeding grounds and you will notice that they use set routes to fly in and out of the fields. These flightlines are easy to spot and often follow distinctive landscape features such as valleys, treelines and roads.
Frustratingly, the routes pigeons use for their flightlines can shift due to changes in the wind and other factors. Nonetheless the birds can be very reluctant to veer away from established flightlines, so Mat wants to make sure that he sets up as close as possible to a route they are using to enter the field.
After a few minutes of careful observation through his binoculars, Mat is able to identify an area where the pigeons are feeding on the last remaining scraps of grain and also the route they are using to access it. By targeting this area and placing his decoys beneath the incoming flightline, Mat should have the best chance of making a good bag.
07:30 – Cover-up job
Don’t worry about frightening pigeons off of the field when you arrive. The birds are accustomed to being spooked by walkers and dogs, and will usually flight back to their feeding ground in small groups once the disturbance has passed.
An important consideration for Mat is to ensure that the pigeons don’t spot him when they return. These birds are extremely sharp-eyed and usually spook and fly away if they spot anything suspicious. Mat’s first step towards getting them to settle is to construct a hide that will keep him concealed.
Even a very well-made hide will attract attention if it isn’t properly incorporated into the existing landscape. With this in mind, Mat picks a spot where a hedge and tree trunk create a natural backdrop that will blend in with the hide net and block any light that might shine in from the back and reveal his silhouette. The site Mat has chosen also puts him within range of a tree where he hopes he will be able to persuade incoming pigeons to perch.
Mat uses purpose-made hide poles to create a frame for his camouflage nets. The bottom section of the nets is then pegged to the ground to stop it from flapping in the wind. To complete the hide, Mat weaves a few brambles into the netting to soften its outline and help it blend in.
07:50 – Fake flock
Woodpigeons have a strong flocking instinct. If they see what appears to be a group of birds settled in a field where they expect to find food, they will often join the gathering. For this reason, Mat is using decoys to give the pigeons confidence to return to their feeding grounds.
Because the birds have been gathering in large numbers in this field, Mat is setting out a big decoy pattern of 25 shell and full-bodied decoys. Woodpigeons like to land and take off facing into the wind, so Mat arranges his artificial birds in a horseshoe shape with birds pointing into the wind.
Some are tilted at slightly different angles and the spacings are varied in order to achieve a natural look. With the closest decoy around 15 metres from the hide and the furthest about 30 metres away, Mat will use them as range markers when pigeons flight into the pattern.
Nothing attracts the attention of passing pigeons like a bit of movement, so Mat is using some shell decoys that have a spring section in their ground pegs.
The flexibility of the spring makes the birds bob and nod in a lifelike manner when the wind catches them, enticing others to join them. Pigeons are jinking past while Mat is setting up, so the birds appear eager to get back on the grain.
Expert tip: Manage your expectations
Pigeons’ tendency to flock together can create the chance to make some really big bags, but it also means you can be left with an empty field if the birds identify a more bountiful opportunity. This can be a real problem during peak harvest and drilling seasons when lots of farmers are at work and creating new feeding grounds for the birds from one day to the next.
Also, there are days when pigeons will literally throw themselves at your decoys and other times when they shun them for no apparent reason. You just have to take the good times with the bad, make the most of your opportunities when they arise and don’t beat yourself up when things don’t go as planned.
08:05 – Early action
The wide spread of decoys, accentuated by the shells bobbing in the wind, soon starts pulling in the birds. The first couple of small groups appear suspicious and are reluctant to land, but it’s not long before a pair of birds alight in the sitty tree.
Thinking that they are safely out of the way of any danger, the pigeons quickly settle and Mat is able to shoulder his rifle without being spotted. One of the birds is completely obscured by foliage, but the other is clearly presented and Mat is able to get an aim on its head.
The crosshair settles and Mat squeezes off the trigger. A loud ‘whop’ follows the pap of the muzzle report and the pigeon drops like a stone while its startled mate flaps away in a panic.
The shot pigeon has dropped into undergrowth, out of view of incoming birds, so Mat decides to leave it where it fell rather than break cover. Although there is nothing obvious to spook new arrivals, the next few birds refuse to commit to the decoys and Mat begins to wonder what is putting them on edge.
Just as Mat begins to consider a change to his decoy arrangement, three pigeons swoop in and flutter down into the middle of the pattern. Mat lines up on the nearest one and lands a pellet between its shoulders to make a second addition to the morning’s tally.
08:40 – Boosting the pattern
The decoy pattern continues to attract passing birds and Mat adds more pigeons to the bag until one ends up on its back close to the centre of the pattern.
This is a problem because incoming birds are sure to be spooked by a belly-up pigeon. Sure enough, after two groups of passing birds jink away during their approach to the decoys, Mat decides that action needs to be taken to remedy the problem.
Although it isn’t usually a good idea to keep breaking cover, Mat has no choice but to leave the hide and retrieve the pigeon that has come to rest on its back. Rather than taking the bird back with him, he turns it over and adds it to the decoy pattern.
This is a great way to fool incoming birds as they approach the landing area as a real bird will always look more convincing than a plastic one. It is worth propping shot birds’ heads up to make them look more lifelike. Some shooters carry sections of stiff wire for the job, but a sharpened twig works just as well, and today Mat is able to simply prop them on the stiff corn stubble.
Before he returns to his hide, Mat picks up the other shot birds and places them among the decoys for added realism. Mat often uses this ruse to boost his decoy pattern as the session progresses, and it obviously works because he quickly gets another shot soon after returning to the hide.
11:25 – Pick up and pack up
Pigeons often feed hard during the first part of the day as they wake up feeling hungry and fly straight to their feeding grounds. Sure enough, Mat has enjoyed a few hours of good shooting, with birds frequently arriving in small groups and providing regular action.
As the morning wears on though, the activity slows down quite considerably and Mat finds himself having to endure long unproductive periods between each shot.
This lull in the action is nothing unusual, as pigeons have a habit of returning to the woods to roost during the middle part of the day. Mat was expecting this to happen and isn’t too disappointed about the action drying up, because after spending several hours cooped up in his hide he is ready to get out and stretch his legs.
Mat’s first priority is to collect all of his shot birds. He has managed to amass a respectable tally of 12 pigeons – that’s good news for the farmer and great news for Mat because woodpigeon is very good to eat.
The majority of the meat on a pigeon is confined to its breast muscle, so rather than going to the trouble of plucking and gutting each bird, Mat simply plucks them around the chest and then cuts out the rich breast meat.
It is likely that Mat could return to this spot and shoot plenty more pigeons later in the afternoon as the birds flight back for their evening feed. Unfortunately, work and family commitments mean he won’t have time, so the hide is coming down until he has a chance to get out again.
GUN – FX Impact MkII (sub-12 ft-lb), www.fxairguns.com
OPTICS – MTC Mamba Lite, www.mtcoptics.com
SCOPE MOUNTS – Sportsmatch two-piece, www.sportsmatch-uk.com
AMMO – Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign, www.daystate.com
BINOCULARS – Hawke Nature-Trek 10×42, www.hawkeoptics.com
DECOYS – Enforcer Pro Series Full and Shell, www.enforcerdecoys.co.uk
DECOY BAG – Jack Pyke Maxi Decoy Bag, www.jackpyke.co.uk
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