Rich Saunders is invited to help bring a corvid invasion under control, but the target-rich environment proves trickier than he expected.
My heart sinks when the owner of one of my permissions tells me he’s “‘overrun” or “infested” with pests, because I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve turned up with plenty of pellets and spare air only to be left disappointed.
But when my mate Gareth, himself an experienced hunter and pest controller, invited me to one of his permissions to shoot a few crows telling me “you won’t have seen anything like it”, I was a little more confident.
Any lingering concern that he’d exaggerated the number of corvids disappeared the second I pulled into the farmyard and was met with swarms of crows, jackdaws and rooks. They were in the cattle sheds, on the roofs, hopping around in the yard and flying overhead.
It turned out the birds were being attracted by several open grain barns along with two large clamps – one containing potatoes and another filled with waste bread used to bulk-out the cattle feed. The cost to the farmer in terms of lost feed is one thing, but the more pressing issue is the health risk posed by birds defecating in the cattle food and water troughs, not to mention just about every farm gate and piece of equipment.
Gareth showed me a huge field which was filled with what had to have been at least a thousand birds, explaining that they progressed along a line of sitty trees before making their way to the feed clamps.
I borrowed his binoculars and could see he was right; just about as far as I could see, each tree was black with corvids, scores in each one, and the air was filled with their ceaseless squawking.
With so many birds around, you might understandably expect shooting them to be easy. However, with literally thousands of eyes watching our every move, things proved to be a lot more difficult.
Using a silenced 20-bore shotgun, Gareth has shot hundreds, if not thousands, of birds as they approach the feed clamps.
Recently though, they’d learned to steer clear after a few shots, so he’d decided to change his strategy and target them in the same area, but with an air rifle.
With shots no more than 30 metres away, we used 12 ft-lb. rifles. Mine was a .177 calibre Daystate Revere, whilst Gareth favoured a Daystate Mk 4.
Even as we fiddled with our gear, the birds continued to land on the concrete walls of the clamps before plundering the piles of bread and potatoes.
However, as soon as we emerged from the trucks brandishing the rifles, they disappeared like smoke. Clearly this wasn’t going to be as easy as it had first seemed. We made our way to the clamps anyway and took up position, using some farm vehicles as cover.
It was too late though, most of the birds had worked out what was going on and those that did approach veered off at the last second, alerted by squawks from the crows, jackdaws and rooks that were flying overhead and behind us.
Plan B was to shoot from inside our trucks on the basis that at least we’d be hidden from above. In addition, we figured the birds were used to vehicles dotted around the yard and would pay us little attention. We were a little more successful and crows and jackdaws started to approach the clamps. However, as soon as we made any kind of movement they were off, leaving us staring at piles of bread and potatoes once more.
We gave up, knowing we’d blown our chance. Over the next couple of days, Gareth and I worked on an approach we had considered initially but rejected because the huge number of birds had lulled us into a false sense of security. So a week later we returned with a plan to target the birds as they perched in the last of the sitty trees.
Once again, we were greeted with swarms of corvids. We brought poles and camouflage to set up a hide on the far side of the field.
The only obstacle was that the crows, rooks and jackdaws in the trees would see us setting up. Gareth solved the problem by firing off a couple of shells with his shotgun. The birds flew off and we hurried across the field to set up before they came back.
Some overhanging trees, long grass and tall weeds provided plenty of cover, and by the time we’d dressed the hide with some foliage we felt confident we’d be able to snipe away unobserved.
Faced with shots of around 50 metres and fortunate to have a fallout area covering more than 300 acres, we’d brought FAC-powered rifles this time – a short-barrelled Daystate Delta Wolf for me and a Daystate Air Wolf for Gareth, both .22 calibre and set at 30 ft-lb.
I’d zeroed my rifle at 30 metres, which meant that I’d need one mildot of holdover on my MTC King Cobra F1 6-24×50 scope. Fortunately, there wasn’t any wind to complicate matters.
Sitting on beanbags in the close confines of the hide wasn’t the most comfortable I’ve ever been, especially as the heat built during the day and insects buzzed about, but fortunately the corvids soon started making their way down the line of trees.
With only the tips of our silencers poking through the camo nets, we rested our rifles on trigger sticks as the birds landed on the very top of the sitty tree opposite us in small groups of three or four at a time.
My first opportunity was a crow. With my rangefinder I’d measured the distance to the top of the tree at 53 metres, at which I knew the Delta Wolf was more than capable of sub-1” groups. I placed the King Cobra’s SCB 2 reticle on the bird and used the aim point markings to allow for pellet drop.
I aimed for the base of its neck, knowing that hitting dead on would result in an instant kill as would a strike low in the heart and lung area, or high in the head. Holding my breath, I let the 16 grain pellet fly. At more than 900 feet per second, it zipped across the 53 metres and hit the bird with a sound like someone hitting a melon with a cricket bat. The crow folded its wings and fell off the branch.
Over the next few hours Gareth and I forgot the uncomfortable seating, biting insects and hay fever-inducing foliage as a steady stream of crows and jackdaws, along with the occasional rook, alighted on the tree, invariably on the same bare branches.
From our hidden position we took turns to snipe away, accounting for more than 20 birds with clean hits to the heart and lung as well as a few headshots, before carrying them back to the incinerator in a bin bag.
As we returned to the yard, yet more black clouds of corvids were a reminder that the pandemic isn’t over yet,
and we’ll need to go back for another jab at them. I can’t wait.