With feral pigeons and corvids threatening to spiral out of control on the farm, Mat Manning heads out with a sub-12 ft-lb air rifle – the perfect tool for controlling feathered pests around agricultural buildings.
Where is no getting away from the fact that farming operations attract pests and the impact can be at its greatest when uninvited guests home in on the yard. You can’t blame animals such as feral pigeons, corvids and rats from targeting farmyards, as these places provide them with shelter in large buildings and easy food sources.
Most of the farms that I shoot on tend to be hit worst during the winter. Cold, wet weather and a lack of natural food makes five-star living on a farm even more of a temptation during the colder months. As spring slowly rolls around, the days lengthen and temperatures rise – combined with the wealth of food and shelter on the farmyard, this can create ideal breeding conditions. Thankfully, pest numbers on this farm are still comparatively low, but they will soon spiral out of hand if no action is taken.
The main problem posed by pests here is their habit of stealing animal feed, which is not only costly in its own right, but also carries a serious disease risk when droppings contaminate troughs. The threat applies to farm workers too, as tools and machinery can also get splattered – as can harvested crops that are destined for the human food chain.
Combine that with the fact that jackdaws have also been trying to nest in the farmhouse chimneys and crows are taking rather too much interest in the chicken run, and it’s easy to understand why the farmer wants the problem dealt with.
A few hours on the farm also appeals to me today because there’s a threat of heavy showers, which means the risk of a serious soaking out in the fields or woods. That being the case, the shelter of the farmyard is as useful to the hunter as it is to the pests.
The quarry: feral pigeons
PEST STATUS: These birds cause serious problems, not only by stealing grain and animal feed around the farm, but also by contaminating feed, water troughs and stored produce with their droppings.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Descended from the wild rock dove, which cannot be shot, feral pigeons are fast-breeding birds that have colonised car parks, train stations, warehouses and farm buildings. They come in a variety of colours from blue and grey to pure white.
11:40: Food and shelter
Just like humans, pest species need food and shelter in order to survive and thrive – and that’s why they are so at home around the farmyard. Unfortunately, the conditions around agricultural holdings can be so favourable that unwanted visitors can soon get a real hold and start causing serious problems.
Mat is shooting on a mixed farm, and the attraction is clear to see. Large barns provide lots of shelter from the elements, and the beams and rafters that crisscross the inside of their roofs create perfect nesting sites for feral pigeons. A nearby wood is home to crows and jackdaws, the latter of which have also started trying to nest in the farmhouse chimney pots, and these birds are making frequent visits to the yard to feed.
When it comes to food, the birds on this holding are spoilt for choice. Large maize silage clamps provide easy pickings out in the yard, and animal feed is accessible in large stores and in pens that hold lambs and calves. There are also free-range chickens nearby and their feeders are loaded with nutritious pellets and grain. This combination of rich pickings will inevitably attract avian pests and very likely rats too.
11:50: Low power advantage
Some shooters bemoan the low power output of a sub-12 ft-lb airgun, but it is a big advantage when shooting around the confines of farm buildings. Lower power means a reduced risk of ricochets, which could pose a hazard to livestock and machinery. Apart from being safer to use around buildings, lower-powered airguns are a lot quieter than their FAC-rated counterparts and less likely to spook quarry or unsettle livestock.
Today Mat is using his .177 calibre FX Impact MkII. This bullpup is extremely compact, which reduces the chance of it getting bashed as Mat makes his way around. The Impact is power-adjustable, but Mat is leaving his on its full output of around 11.6 ft-lb – that’s low enough to be safe with careful use of backstops, and leaving it on the usual setting saves Mat from having to re-zero.
Mat coupled his Impact with an MTC Mamba Lite telescopic sight. This optic produces a clear sight picture, but Mat winds down the zoom lower than usual when around the farm. Reducing the magnification of a telescopic sight improves light transmission, helpful when targeting feral pigeons around gloomy farm buildings, and the increased field of view makes for easier target acquisition when shooting over relatively close ranges.
12:05: Flying start
It is not unusual for the bulk of the action to come towards the start of the session when shooting around the farmyard. Pests that live in or close to farm buildings quickly become accustomed to the noise of livestock and machinery as well as the comings and goings of farm workers, which means they tend to be less wary than their cousins that spend more time out on the open countryside and need to survive on their wits.
After walking slowly into the first main barn, Mat stops to investigate the roof beams and quickly spots a small group of feral pigeons. After steadying himself for a shot, Mat lines up on a bird that is presented against a thick metal joist – this structure acts as a solid backstop that will stop a pellet and prevent it from damaging the roof if it misses or passes through the target. At fairly close range it is not a challenging shot and Mat hits the bird cleanly in the head to send it tumbling to the floor, stone dead.
Spooked by the disturbance of their mate’s demise, the remaining birds take to the wing, but they don’t go far and soon settle on the beams at the opposite side of the barn. Mat only has to take a few steps to line himself up for a safe and comfortable shot. Another bird is added to the tally and Mat manages to account for a total of three before the rest of the flock wise up and leave the barn.
Expert tip: safety first
It is always important to shoot with care, but the need for safety goes up by several gears when shooting on the farmyard. There will be workers around, livestock is almost certain to be present and there is also a risk of stray shots damaging valuable machinery.
Always walk around the yard when you first arrive in order to familiarise yourself with the layout and to earmark any potential hazards. It can also be helpful to arrange your visits to coincide with days or times when there are fewer workers in the yard.
Don’t pull the trigger unless you are certain that there is a safe fallout zone or backstop behind your target. Angling your shots so the target is presented in front of a steel joist or a concrete wall is one way to ensure that you have a solid backstop in place.
12:50: Time to hide
A walk around the rest of the farm buildings produces four more feral pigeons, but the losses have put the birds on edge and they have backed away from the yard. Mat has also noticed that the crows and jackdaws, which are usually far more cautious than ferals, are refusing to come near the yard while he is on the move.
In order to go unnoticed, and hopefully put a few more birds in the bag, Mat decides that it’s time to settle down for an ambush. There is usually no shortage of hiding places around farmyards as feed sacks, pallets and parked machinery can all be used as a handy screen to hide behind.
Shade is another great form of concealment that can be found in abundance inside farm buildings and Mat soon settles on a shady spot amongst a stack of straw bales. Even on a dull day like today, the contrast between the light outdoors and the gloom inside the buildings can make it extremely difficult for wary quarry to spot a shooter lurking in the shade.
The spot Mat has chosen gives him a clear view of much of the yard as well as a large silo that the birds often use a lookout before they swoop down to feed or into the barns to perch among the rafters. Apart from offering a wide arc of fire, the position also ensures that Mat’s shots will be made in a safe direction.
13:55: Rummaging rat
The decision to dig in for an ambush pays off, and Mat is rewarded with a steady trickle of shots over the next hour or so. Feral pigeons make the mistake of venturing back, but crows and jackdaws fall for the stealthier approach, and Mat topples a few corvids from the top of the silo.
By far the biggest surprise of the session was a rat that decided to creep out for a mooch in broad daylight. These disease-spreading pests are usually most active around dusk and into the night, but they do occasionally show themselves by day.
This one was trundling along the edge of a chicken run where the wire mesh boundary runs beneath the roof of a lean-to. It looked as if the fidgety rodent was making its way over to the poultry feed, but a moment’s hesitation gave Mat time to settle his crosshairs and roll the rat over with a smack to the head at about 25m.
The daylight sighting suggests that the rats here could be more abundant than Mat thought – although the absence of burrowing and droppings suggests otherwise. A visit with night vision gear will enable Mat to do a thorough job of picking off any others that have settled on the farm.
14:20: Pick up and go
All too soon it is time to draw the session to a close. The forecast rain has held off better than expected, but the farmyard is starting to get busy. The farm workers are back to work and there’s heavy machinery whizzing around the yard.
Although the pests on this holding are used to disturbance, the constant clatter of tractors is too much for them. On top of that, the best of the sport has passed and Mat doesn’t feel it is safe to continue shooting with so many workers around.
Mat’s tally for the short midday session stands at around a dozen birds plus that bonus rat. That’s not a bad total for less than three hours on the farm and it will certainly have a significant impact on the breeding stock of ferals. There are still a few left though, and too many crows and jackdaws; Mat will return to tackle those sly corvids with decoy tactics in a few days’ time.
Before Mat leaves there is one final job to carry out. The shot birds will continue to present a disease risk if their corpses are left strewn around the farm, so they need to be collected and disposed of on the farm’s fire site.
FX Impact MkII
MTC Mamba Lite
Ridgeline Grizzly III Jacket