Farmyard foray in this month’s Countryman

With wet weather threatening to stop play, Mat Manning heads onto the farm in search of shelter and finds plenty of pests doing the same.

Most shooters are pretty hardy when it comes to inclement weather – we enjoy being outdoors and don’t like to have our sport disrupted by cold or damp conditions.

That said, none of us really relish the prospect of getting ourselves or our gear soaked through, which means that heavy downpours can really spoil a shooting trip.

The forecast looked extremely wet for today’s session, with blustery winds and persistent heavy rain. This sort of weather is rarely good for hunting, partly because it’s unpleasant to be out and about in, but even more because you’re not likely to get many shots.

Just like us, most wild creatures don’t want to get a drenching, so they hunker down or hole-up until the worst of the rain has passed.

Even if I had managed to get a few shots either over fields or in the woods, the blustery wind would have made it difficult to shoot accurately.

Fortunately the open countryside isn’t the only option when it comes to airgun pest control. Because of their relatively low power, sub-12 ft-lb airguns can safely be used in and around farm buildings as long as you ensure that safe backstops are in place each time you pull the trigger.

So I decided to head to one of my farmyard permissions in search of a comfortable place to ride out the storm, and I hoped that a few flying pests would be doing the same.

Apart from offering me somewhere dry to dodge the rain showers, the large barns on this holding also provide excellent habitat for feral pigeons, which love to nest up in the rafters.

As well as munching their way through the stored grain and animal feed, these birds also pose a serious disease risk to livestock and farm workers when they splatter troughs, tools and machinery with their droppings.

The combination of shelter and food also attracts other unwelcome guests, including crows and woodpigeons, and it’s not just feathered pests that are enjoying the five-star accommodation.

This farm is also home to rats, especially during the winter months when natural food is scarce. These rodents tend to be most active after dark, but there’s always a chance of seeing one or two during daylight hours.


THE QUARRY

FERAL PIGEON

PEST STATUS: Feral pigeons cause damage by raiding feed and grain, but they also pose a disease risk by fouling crops.
HABITAT: These birds like to nest in large open buildings, and also in warehouses, car parks and train stations.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Feral pigeons can breed right through the year, so numbers can soon get out of hand if they are left unchecked.

CARRION CROW

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.


09:10 – DRESSING FOR THE OCCASION

Farmyards can be messy places, especially during the winter months, and don’t assume that it’s going to be warm just because you are shooting inside a barn. Wear the wrong gear and you could end up muddy, cold and wet, which won’t be good for your morale or your shooting.

Several days of rain and heavy tractor traffic have left the farm really muddy – and it’s past ankle-deep in some places. The last thing you want to wear in these conditions is your best leather boots, so Mat has opted for a pair of wellies.

They may not be the most flexible footwear for stalking in, but the majority of Mat’s shooting today is likely to be done from a static position, so he’s happy to wear waterproof rubber boots that are easy to wash down at the end of the session.

Although Mat is planning to settle into a spot where he can ambush his quarry from inside a farm building which will shelter him from the rain, he’s still dressing for the weather.

A decent waterproof jacket will shield him from downpours as he makes his way around the farm and will also help to keep the cold wind at bay.

It’s surprising how chilly it can get when a cold wind whips through a draughty barn, so Mat is wearing plenty of layers to keep him snug. A hat and gloves will also help to keep his head and fingers warm while he’s sat waiting.

09:20 – STRAIGHT INTO ACTION

Feral pigeons are flocking birds and can gather in very large numbers. They are also not the wiliest of birds – they’re nothing like as skittish as woodpigeons – so it’s often possible to quickly bag a few before the rest of the flock wise-up to the danger and take flight.

The feral pigeons in this farm are used to the constant disturbance caused by farm workers and noisy machinery. Because of this, Mat doesn’t try to stalk stealthily around the farm but walks purposefully as he makes his way around the buildings.

Rather than projecting the body language of a hunter on the prowl, Mat hopes he’ll just look like another worker in the yard; a sight that the feathered pests on this farm do not associate with danger and have learned to take for granted.

The ruse pays off and Mat quickly gets his first shot. There’s a group of birds perched up in the rafters, so he gets himself into a steady position and settles the crosshairs onto the nearest bird and checks for a safe backdrop because he doesn’t want to damage the roof.

The pigeon is sat right in front of a steel joist, which will stop a pellet in its tracks, so Mat takes aim and drops the bird with a wallop to the head.

Although the muzzle report from Mat’s silenced air rifle is very quiet, his pellet makes a loud slap as it impacts with the joist after passing through the bird’s head. The remaining birds take flight, but rather than flapping away, they simply flutter onto another roof beam.

Mat takes a couple of steps to ensure that the birds are in front of a safe backstop (a concrete panel this time) and shoulders his gun again. At under 20m it’s not a long shot, and another feral pigeon is added to the bag.

The remaining birds sit tight this time and Mat bags a third one before the rest of the flock wise-up and fly away.

09:35 – THE MAIN ATTRACTION

It’s not just the ideal nesting habitat offered by the roof beams that attract feral pigeons to farms. Birds home in and take up residency because agricultural holdings also provide an abundance of food in the form of animal feed, stored grain and produce.

One of the big attractions on this farm is the grain store, which offers pests an almost endless supply of easy pickings. The birds here only have to travel a few feet from their nests to feed, so it’s no wonder that they’re thriving.

The farmer has tried using netting to keep them out, but it’s not practical when farm vehicles need constant access in and out of the building. Bangers are not an option as they would cause a great deal of stress to the nearby livestock, so culling with a quiet air rifle is by far the best option.

Looking closely at the grain, Mat can see that it is riddled with feral pigeons’ feathers, footprints and droppings. This is a clear sign of the problems these birds can cause on the farm – thankfully, this grain is being used as poultry feed and is not for human consumption, but it’s still a concern.

Closer observation reveals the presence of rat droppings too, so Mat will be back very soon for some after-dark pest control.

09:50 – SHADY DEALINGS

Apart from providing welcome protection from the rain, farm buildings also offer plenty of hiding places from which pests can be ambushed.

Whether you tuck yourself into a shady corner or a stack of bales, there are lots of ways to conceal yourself without going to the trouble of building a hide when shooting inside a barn.

Apart from making life easier, using existing farmyard features for cover is less conspicuous than a purpose-made hide because pests are used to them being there.

Mat manages to bag two more feral pigeons from inside the grain store before the remaining birds clear off. With no more pests inside the buildings, Mat decides to set up an ambush so he can pick them off as they venture back.

Rather than waiting for the feral pigeons to fly back into the barn, which could take some time now they have been spooked, Mat will be targeting one of their favourite perches out in the yard.

Before swooping into the barns or fluttering down to feed, the feral pigeons and crows often flight to the top of a tall silo. They use the high vantage point to check that the coast is clear before they drop in, and Mat hopes to be able to pick off incomers from there.

Mat’s hiding place couldn’t be simpler as he’s settled into a shadowy corner. Shade is one of the most underrated forms of concealment, but hiding in the gloom is a remarkably effective way to avoid being spotted.

10:30 – SCALY-TAILED SURPRISE

Farmyards can often throw up the odd surprise. The abundance of food on offer attracts a wide range of pests, so there’s always the chance of adding a bit of variety to the bag.

Mat’s ambush tactics quickly produce another feral pigeon. Just as expected, the bird perched onto the top of the silo shortly after Mat settled in. It was another clean head shot, so Mat left the bird where it fell, ready for retrieval at the end of the session rather than breaking cover to pick it straight up.

When targeting avian quarry in this way, it’s easy to be so focused on scanning the sky that you forget to look elsewhere for signs of quarry. After spotting evidence of rats in the grain store, Mat makes a conscious effort to keep an eye on the ground. Just because rats are most active after dusk doesn’t mean that they won’t creep out by daylight.

A few minutes after he toppled his first feral pigeon from the silo, a flicker of movement across the yard catches Mat’s eye. It’s a rat scuttling around on a compost heap about 20 metres from where he is sitting.

The farmer uses the large heap to turn spoiled vegetables into rich compost to feed his crops. Unfortunately, the rotting vegetables provide easy pickings for rats while the heat they generate as they break down creates a cosy nesting site.

The rat is fidgety, as they often are when they venture out by day. Mat tracks the skittish rodent back and forth through his scope, following it with his crosshairs as it forages for tasty morsels.

Eventually, the scaly-tailed rodent lingers and raises its head to test the air with its twitching nostrils. Mat draws a bead between the rat’s eye and ear, touches off the trigger and rolls it over with a smack to the head.

11:55 – FINAL PICK-UP

Over the next hour or so Mat manages to nail one more feral pigeon, two crows and another rat. Action eventually tails off though, so Mat decides to draw the session to a close.

The timing has worked out pretty well as it’s about to get busy around the yard and apart from putting the pests on edge the imminent increase in tractor traffic will also create a safety hazard.

It has been a productive few hours on the farm, and Mat has managed to make a reasonable bag. All that remains to be done is to clear up the shot quarry.

None of the pests in today’s bag are edible. Although Mat loves to eat what he shoots when he can, feral pigeons and crows are not table birds, and there’s no way that rats are going to end up on the menu.

Safe disposal is very important because leaving shot quarry lying around can create an even higher disease risk than these pests posed when they were alive.

Mat picks up the birds and takes them to the farm’s fire site. Picking up rats with your hands is never a good idea – even when wearing gloves – so Mat finds a shovel to scrape up the dead scaly-tails.

Mat’s farmyard foray has made a useful contribution to the control of pests on this holding. He will continue to make regular visits to drive their numbers down further and prevent them from creeping back up.

He’s already planning another morning session to target the birds, plus some after-dark sessions with night vision gear when he expects to account for quite a few more rats.

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