Farmyard crow control – The Countryman

With hordes of crows causing problems on the farm, Mat Manning uses all his tricks to get some farmyard crow control done.

Farmyard crow control is a serious issue for anyone trying to make a living in the farming industry; these scavenging birds are notorious for pecking the eyes from newborn lambs and also cause major damage to crops.

This outing follows a call from a disgruntled farmer friend who had crows wreaking havoc around his farm. Large flocks of the birds descended around lambing time, which is never good news, and they also turned their attention to the cattle feed. Before long, areas around silage clamps, feed rows and water troughs were caked with crows’ droppings, posing a health risk.

The birds were so numerous that I initially targeted them with a shotgun so I could take them on the wing. My outings yielded bags of around 30 birds, but crows learn quickly and the remaining ones now back away after a couple of bangs from the 12-bore.

The birds that evaded the shotgun will attract others, so it’s time to adopt a subtle approach to pick off the stragglers.

The quarry: carrion crow

PEST STATUS: 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.

HABITAT: 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.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Crows are sharp-eyed and very wary of man. Getting within range usually takes a high level of fieldcraft and concealment.

Silage cutting is underway, and with lots of vehicles whizzing around the yard it’s not safe to shoot in the vicinity of the farm buildings, but that shouldn’t be a problem. The crows have started to gather on a freshly cut field of grass adjacent to the silage clamps, and this looks like a promising place to target them.

I’m going to build a hide and use decoys to coax passing crows within range – the short grass will help the imitation birds to stand out. I’ve not had a chance to construct my hide in advance, so I’m doing it at the start of the session and as quickly as possible to keep disturbance to a minimum.

My gun of choice for today’s session is my FAC-rated Daystate Red Wolf. This very accurate .22 calibre airgun produces just over 30 ft-lb. I am not planning to take shots at extreme range, but the extra power will help to combat the steady breeze that’s sweeping across the field.

The extra clout will also enable me to achieve clean kills with shots to the heart/lung area rather than being limited to head shots.

07:50 – Damage and disease threat

Although Mat has accounted for dozens of crows on this farm over the past couple of weeks, there are still plenty of signs of their presence. A flock of around eight birds lifted off from the freshly cut field of grass as he arrived, and there are others milling around the yard.

Closer inspection reveals clear evidence of the damage being caused by the birds. Like most avian pests, crows quickly home in on an easy food source, and here it’s the animal feed. They’ve been gathering on the silage clamps, which are encrusted with white droppings, and they have also been stealing feed from the cattle sheds.

Apart from costing the farmer in terms of lost feed, the scavenging crows also pose a serious disease risk – their white faeces is splattered all over the place and it’s not hard to see the potential health hazard to livestock and farmworkers.

Crows are an indigenous species, so they have an important role to play in the natural ecosystem, but the spiralling population here is causing serious problems.

The farmer has attempted to use bangers and kites to frighten the birds away, but his efforts have not been effective, so the crows need to be controlled by shooting.

08:10 – Quick concealment

It’s going to be a hot day, so Mat is making a relatively early start to avoid the heat of the afternoon. His first task is to build a hide because crows are sharp-eyed birds and will steer well clear if they see a hunter lurking.

It’s a job that needs to be done quickly, though, as the birds will become suspicious if they see Mat working away on the edge of the field.

Mat picks a spot where a hedge provides a dense backdrop and shady cover, and then uses four poles to create a frame for his hide nets. Camouflage nets are then draped from the poles to create a screen and pegged to the ground to prevent them from flapping in the breeze.

Straight edges can really make a hide stand out, so Mat uses piles of grass left behind by the silage cutting to bury and conceal the bottom edge of the nets. He then dresses the hide with some vegetation to help it blend in with the hedgerow.

Most farmers won’t let you cut vegetation from trees and bushes, but weed species such as brambles, ivy, docks, cow parsley, burdock and nettles are very good for dressing a hide.

Mat has been given permission to snip some thin branches from the top of the hedge as it has grown straggly and is due to be cut at the end of the summer. They provide excellent leafy cover, and Mat uses plastic crocodile clips to attach them securely to the poles and netting.

Mat Manning’s expert tip – make and use a flag

There is nothing more irritating than building a hide and setting out your decoys only for birds to start flighting to another spot. Once birds begin to settle in an area, others will inevitably be drawn to them.

A solution to this problem is to use a flag. Mat makes his from old plastic sacks that he cuts into thin strips to give them more movement. He leaves one end intact and uses string to tie it to a garden cane. When the cane is pushed into the ground, the flag flaps in the breeze, creating movement that should frighten birds away.

Today, Mat has set up his flag on the far side of the field he is shooting over, but he often puts them in other fields. When birds are dispersed because farmers have recently drilled or harvested multiple fields, Mat will use several flags in different areas to keep the birds moving and channel them towards where he is shooting.

08:25 – Attract and repel

One of the best ways to encourage crows to land where you want them to is by using decoys. Mat sets up a flock of six artificial birds, positioned in a random pattern, but all facing roughly into the wind – the closest one is 20m from the hide and the furthest is 35m away.

Nothing attracts the attention of passing birds like movement, and decoys that flap or bob up and down can make a huge difference. Mat is using a motorised pecking crow decoy from A1 Decoy, which nods up and down in a lifelike fashion.

The only problem with moving decoys is that birds tend to spook when they get very close to them, which is not ideal when you’re using an airgun. With that in mind, Mat sets up the pecking crow about 20m from his main decoy pattern in the hope that birds will be attracted by the movement and then settle among the static decoys.

Another important thing when using motorised decoys is to conceal the battery, which can alarm incoming birds. Mat achieves this by simply covering it with a heap of grass.

Apart from persuading birds to land within range of his hide, Mat also wants to persuade them not to land in other areas. Several crows have been showing an interest in a spot on the opposite side of the field, so he sets up a flag there to drive them away.

08:40 – Early birds

Get everything right and you can often expect a very quick response when decoying corvids, which is the case today. Less than 10 minutes after Mat settled into his hide, a solitary crow glided over the decoy pattern and pitched down on the grass behind it.

Because he paced out the distance to the furthest decoy, Mat knows the range to the crow is just over 35m – very comfortable for the FAC-rated Daystate.

The crow is facing away from Mat so he takes it with a shot between the shoulders. A loud ‘thock’ confirms that the .22 pellet has found its mark and the crow slumps over with barely a flap.

Mat quickly reloads as more crows will often swoop in after witnessing the demise of one of their mates. There’s no raucous response this time, though, so Mat has to wait it out.

He decides not to break cover and retrieve the shot crow, as it has thankfully come to rest on its belly and looks quite natural – if the bird had died with its legs in the air it would almost certainly have frightened any others that came close and would have had to be moved.

Twenty minutes pass before another single bird drops in, and this time it’s a rook at about the same range. Rooks are just as destructive as crows so Mat adds it to the tally. This one lands belly-up so Mat decides to leave the hide and reposition it.

09:20 – Getting in a flap

Shot birds bring a huge boost to the decoy pattern – plastic birds do a decent job, but they can never rival the texture, colours and play of light on real feathers when it comes to convincing incoming crows.

Mat uses the shot crow to bolster his original decoy pattern, but decides to use the rook for something more animated. Rather than simply turning it over so it sits the right way up, he places it onto a flapper machine.

Powered by a 12v battery this neat device has a central prong that pushes up through the bird’s body and two metal arms that attach to the wings. When set up and connected to the battery, the flapper activates intermittently to make the dead rook flap its wings.

The flurry of movement can attract the attention of passing birds from a considerable distance, but just like the pecking decoy it needs to be set up a little way from the main decoy pattern as the movement can make corvids suspicious when they get close.

For best results with a flapper machine, break the shot bird’s wing bones close to the shoulders so they have more movement, and remember to use grass or other vegetation to hide the battery and wires.

The additional movement of the flapper has the desired effect, and Mat is soon getting more shots as crows land close to the static decoys. The morning’s bag is beginning to build nicely.

11:50 – Final tally

After a busy first hour or so, the sport gradually tails off and the second half of the session is noticeably slower. The dwindling action can probably be attributed to two factors: the birds are beginning to grow suspicious of
the decoy setup and the increasing temperature is also causing them to retreat to the shade of the woods.

The heat is also becoming a hindrance to Mat, so he decides to draw the session to a close just before midday. Sport was far from hectic during the final hour, but Mat has still managed to build a respectable bag of eight crows and a single rook.

That’s not a bad tally for a morning’s shooting and it will help to mitigate the problems the corvids are causing around the farm – the reduction in the number of scavenging corvids will also be a great benefit for more vulnerable birds that are nesting in the locality.

Mat is happy with how the session has gone, but the job is not finished yet. He has decided to leave the hide in position and will come back for another go at the crows either this evening or tomorrow.

Mat’s gear

GUN – Daystate Red Wolf (.22 FAC)

OPTICS– MTC Mamba Lite

SCOPE MOUNTS – Sportsmatch two-piece

AMMO – Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign

DECOY – Pecking Crow

SEAT – Jack Pyke Hide Seat

More from countryman Mat Manning

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