Controlling corvids ahead of the lambing season

We go back to February as Mat Manning puts in a late shift to crack down on scavenging corvids ahead of the lambing season.

Hunting trips don’t get much more exciting than an evening targeting crows at the roost. Waiting in a twilit wood for these large, noisy birds to arrive as tawny owls screech in the distance and badgers rustle amongst the undergrowth is a unique experience and certainly brings you close to nature.

Wherever and whenever I do it, the control of crows is always a job that gives me a lot of satisfaction, mostly because these birds can be incredibly destructive when their numbers get out of hand. 

The primary reason for culling these carrion crows is to stop them from attacking newborn lambs. These birds use their large, stabbing beaks to target the soft areas of their prey – usually pecking out the eyes and then moving on to the belly. 

It’s a slow, lingering death for the lamb, and apart from being extremely upsetting, it also has a very serious financial impact on farming businesses.

By clearing the area around his feet of twigs and leaves, Mat was able to move about without making any telltale crunching sounds

In my locality, large flocks of crows also cause damage to crops, usually by feeding on freshly drilled seeds and emerging shoots. Maize crops are a real favourite and it’s shocking how quickly a large gathering of corvids can decimate a newly sown crop.

On top of that, and the reason why I think crow control is important is because these opportunistic scavengers also feed on eggs and chicks from the nests of other birds. The impact on vulnerable songbirds is huge, particularly ground-nesting species.

The farm where I am currently tasked with thinning out crows is a mixed holding. Lambing is just getting underway, which is why the farmer is particularly keen to get the birds’ numbers under control.

I have made some reasonable bags by targeting the crows out on the open fields with hide and decoy tactics, but these artful birds don’t tend to fall for the same ruse twice.

After witnessing the loss of some of their flockmates they are starting to treat my decoys with suspicion so it is time for me to change my approach, and that means switching to roost shooting tactics.

Successful roost shooting for crows is all about being in the right place at the right time, and that’s why I found myself trudging into the woods that flank one side of the farm just as the sun was beginning to set.

Crows return to their roost much later than most other birds, and if I was planning to shoot woodpigeons I would have been way too late. A lot of woods are actually used as roosts by pigeons and crows, but many pigeon shooters don’t realise this because they have packed up and gone home before the corvids show up.

Crows have a preference for areas of woodland with plenty of tall trees – they like a good vantage point from which they can scour the undergrowth for lurking danger before they flutter down to more sheltered boughs.

Although you are unlikely to see many crows in the woods during your daytime outings, you should be able to see their most obvious calling card. The ground beneath a busy crow roost will be splattered with their white droppings – it’s a clear clue that’s very hard to miss.

Find a splattering of white droppings on the ground and you may just have located an active crow roost

Moving off of the main track through the woods, I weaved my way through the trees to the area where the crows like to bed down for the night. Although this sort of shooting takes place in poor light conditions as night begins to fall, you cannot use artificial illumination to shoot crows – and that means no night vision gear or lamps. 

The best way to extend your shooting time beyond dusk is to use a good-quality scope that transmits plenty of light. My BSA R-10 TH is topped with a Hawke Sidewinder 30 SF in 4.5-14×44 spec.

This scope has a 30mm tube and really sucks in the light, especially on its lower magnification settings. The Sidewinder is also equipped with an illuminated reticle, which can be very useful when trying to get a clear aim at black crows when they’re set against a darkening sky.

Small groups of pigeons scattered from their roosting trees as I crunched through the undergrowth, but there was still no sign of the crows. Arriving at my intended spot, I settled against a forked ash tree and used my boot to clear the leaf litter from around the base of its trunk. 

A tree like this provides useful cover and a handy rest to lean a PCP for a supported shot, but a misplaced foot can give your position away if it crunches down on brittle leaves and twigs. Creating a clear area only takes a moment, but the advantage of quiet footfalls as you shift position to get a better aim can make a huge difference to your results when targeting wary corvids.

I put on my head net to prevent sharp-eyed crows from spotting my face peering up from the undergrowth and waited. It is amazing what you can hear when you are quiet and still in twilit woodland. 

The songbirds were silent, but pheasants were crowing as they settled down to roost, something heavy (probably a badger) was snuffling around in the gloom and it wasn’t long before I heard the first cries of hunting owls. Most encouragingly, I could hear the distant croak of crows growing ever-closer as the birds began to drift away from their feeding grounds and back towards the shelter of the woods.

Mat puts on his head net to help prevent sharp-eyed crows from seeing his face peering up from the undergrowth
The Hawke Sidewinder 30 SF has excellent light transmission, but Mat achieved an even brighter view by winding down the magnification

My first sighting of a crow was a solitary bird taking a high, straight course directly over the treetops. More birds gradually gathered above the woods until there was a wheeling, cackling flock numbering several dozen. The birds drifted lower and lower until a small group pitched in the uppermost boughs at the opposite end of the spinney. 

Crows rarely settle for long when they first arrive at the roost and, sure enough, they soon lifted again as a single restless flock and began to drift back in my direction. The raucous chorus of croaks and screeches drowned out all other sounds as the crows circled above me. 

A group of five or six birds peeled off and swooped down into a tall oak about 30 metres from where I was standing. The light was fading fast, but the bulky crows were silhouetted against the grey sky and the Sidewinder’s crosshairs soon found the head of one of the closest birds. Using the tree to steady the BSA, I made adjustments to my aim before touching off the trigger. 

Darkness closes in on the woods and Mat lines up for another shot as the crows return to their roost

The R-10’s whisper-quiet muzzle report was followed by a solid “thop” as the .177 pellet found its mark. The crow pivoted on its perch, relaxed its talons and dropped head-first through the branches before crashing down stone dead into the ground while its startled mates flapped away. I cycled the BSA’s bolt to reload in readiness for the next opportunity.

Prime crow shooting time at the roost only offers a very small window of opportunity, but sport can be very hectic during that brief spell of action. Sure enough, another small pack of birds soon broke off from the main swirling flock and spiralled down into the trees around me. 

Tangles of twigs and ivy made it difficult to get a bead on any of the birds, but after shuffling around the tree to get a better angle I eventually managed to get a clear view of one. At about the same range as the first one, it was a straightforward shot in the windless conditions and crow number two was soon on the deck.

Mat was able to retrieve all five of his shot birds after scouring the woodland floor by torchlight

The session followed a similar pattern over the next 20 minutes or so, with birds constantly dropping in and fluttering away again. On several occasions the sharp-eyed crows saw me moving or managed to glimpse a flash of reflected sky in the lens of my scope and flapped away squawking and croaking before I had a chance to take a shot. Others made the mistake of lingering, though, and I managed to account for a total of five crows before it became too dark to shoot.

Picking up shot your quarry is always important, whether you’re shooting at edible pests or not. Crows obviously aren’t going to end up in the pot, but they still need to be tidied up – and mine were coming home with me because I like to have a few in the freezer ready to use as decoys on future outings. 

I am pleased to say that I managed to find all five birds by scouring the woodland floor by torchlight, and they will prove very handy when I return for another go at the crows. Set up as bouncer and flapper decoys, they’ll help me make the estate an even safer place for this spring’s new arrival of lambs.

More on hunting from Mat Manning

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