With pigeons proving tricky to target over open fields, Kev Hawker takes to the woods and is rewarded with a memorable evening’s airgun hunting.
Late winter visits to the woods are all about targeting woodpigeons for me. The pheasant shooting season has finished, so I have the run of the coverts, and the bare trees make it easy to spot woodies when they’re perched in the treetops.
The estate where I do most of my shooting has a large acreage of arable land, much of which has been used for rape crops this year. The rape’s leafy green foliage provides a rich food source for woodpigeons at a time of year when there isn’t much else around for them. Flocks of woodies have been hitting one of the bigger fields, which could result in a serious financial loss for the farmer.
I spent a day trying to decoy the offending pigeons within range of a carefully constructed hide, but the attention the birds have been receiving from shotgunners has made them extremely flighty and they were very reluctant to land close enough for me to get a shot.
Decoying pigeons can take up a lot of time and effort, so I decided to opt for simpler tactics during my latest visit by targeting the birds in the woods as they flight back to roost.
Shooting pigeons at the roost doesn’t usually produce huge bags, but it takes a lot less preparation than decoying, which makes it far less frustrating when things don’t go to plan, and any reduction in the crop-raiding birds’ numbers would be welcome news for the farmer.
My outing coincided with a spell of calm, bright and very cold weather. The chilly conditions would no doubt intensify the pigeons’ hunger and make them even more eager to gorge on the rape, but the lack of wind would be something of a mixed blessing.
A bit of breeze creates movement and noise in the woods, which makes it harder for wary birds to detect a waiting hunter, but at least without any swaying branches I could expect to get easier shots at birds that wouldn’t be bobbing around in the wind.
I arrived at the woods about two hours before nightfall, expecting the birds to start making the short journey back from the adjacent field just as the light began to fade. It might have been cold, but I’d wrapped myself with plenty of layers and it was a lovely afternoon to be out.
The first shoots of bluebells and wild garlic were starting to push their way up through the leaf litter, giving the distinct feeling that spring was just around the corner. The tender shoots filled the still air with a pungent aroma as they crushed under my boots, and their gooey sap made for slippery going underfoot, especially on the steeper slopes.
After making it over the slimy green carpet without ending up on my backside, I arrived at the area of the woods I was planning to target. Just like the rest of us, pigeons like to be cosy when they bed down for the night, so I’d headed to an area where a steep gully provides shelter from the winter chill. The undergrowth was dappled with a splattering of pigeon droppings, which is a very encouraging sign when you’re heading out on a roost shoot.
Apart from being sheltered by the sloping ground, this patch also has plenty of trees that are draped in a thick tangle of ivy. This parasitic plant chokes trees and stifles their growth, but its dense evergreen foliage provides protection from the weather when natural shelter is at its sparsest.
Apart from shielding roosting birds from the elements, ivy also provides food in the shape of its dark, round berries. I wasn’t expecting the birds to be very interested in them on this occasion though as the rape was providing them with a real banquet.
While looking for a place to settle in I heard two pops from across the fields. It sounded like the shotgunners were still getting some action, but I wasn’t too concerned by their presence and I hoped they might even push a few birds over in my direction.
There wasn’t time to build a hide and quite frankly I didn’t fancy the hassle or disturbance, so I was going to be relying on natural cover and my camouflage clothing. This approach also meant that I could stay fairly mobile and easily move across to a different area if the birds decided to roost in another spot.
I tucked myself in against the thick trunk of an old oak tree and pulled my fleece snood up over my nose to help hide the light skin of my face. As a final preparation, I used the side of my boot to shunt the leaves and twigs away from a small area around my feet.
This meant that I could move about without the worry of brittle debris crunching noisily underfoot if I needed to turn around or rearrange my footing to get a clear shot.
For the first twenty minutes or so I didn’t see a single sign of a pigeon. I had heard a few more bangs from the fields and was starting to worry that the shotgunners were pushing the birds in the wrong direction.
To my great relief, my fears were eventually allayed by the sight of three pigeons skimming over the treetops. They circled once and then dropped down into the boughs, one of them nicely within range at about 25m.
I lifted the gun into my shoulder very slowly so as not to spook the birds and picked out the closest one through my Hawke Sidewinder scope. Using the tree to steady myself, I watched as the crosshairs came to rest on the pigeon’s head.
The shot looked good and I pushed through the trigger, unleashing a pellet which connected solidly with the bird’s skull, sending it plummeting from its perch. The muzzle report from my Air Arms Ultimate Sporter is extremely quiet, but the two other pigeons spooked at the sound of the impacting pellet and clattered away into the distance.
That first pigeon was cleanly killed so I decided to stay still and wait until later to retrieve it. And it’s just as well that I did, as another bird swooped in while displaced feathers from the first one were still drifting down on the windless air.
This solitary bird was a little further away, but still comfortably within range. I gave the shot a small amount of holdover to compensate for the drop of the pellet, but I overestimated and gave it a little bit too much.
My .177 projectile passed harmlessly over the top of its head but the disturbance was enough to unsettle the bird and send it flapping away. I cursed under my breath as I cycled the Ultimate Sporter’s sidelever in anticipation of a chance to redeem myself.
It was quite a wait until the next opportunity. A small flock of birds dropped in and at least two of them were close enough for a shot. The nearest one was less than 25m away, and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t fluff the shot that time.
I don’t like to create disturbance in the woods at roosting time unless I have to, but I also know how frustrating it is to lose shot birds in the dark. With the light just starting to fade, I decided to break cover and pick up the two shot birds before it became difficult to see amongst the undergrowth. With both pigeons accounted for, I settled back in beside the oak in the hope of bagging one or two more before nightfall.
Dusk is a thrilling time to be out in the woods, especially at this time of year. Because of the lack of ambient noise in the still conditions, I could clearly hear tawny owls hooting in the distance, as well as some pattering on the woodland floor.
The latter sound was probably that of grey squirrels foraging amongst the leaf litter. These destructive rodents become very active around sunset – I’m sure there were one or two about, but I couldn’t spot them.
Part of the reason I didn’t manage to glimpse any squirrels was because I was spending most of my time staring up into the sky trying to clock incoming woodies. Two or three flocks passed overhead, making their way towards some part of the woods, before a pair finally landed within striking distance.
The 30mm tube of my Sidewinder scope ensures good light transmission, which is an asset when hunting at dusk. I soon picked out the silhouette of the closest bird, nestled the crosshairs onto its head and flopped it from its perch.
That third bird of the session turned out to be the last. A trio of pigeons is far from a big bag, but I had had a great evening in the woods and was delighted with the return for my efforts.
Pigeon meat is delicious and I was going home with the basis of a lovely game pie, and at least there would be three fewer pigeons hammering the rape in the morning as a result of my modest contribution to their control.