Magical hour!

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A flock of six or seven woodpigeons drifts overhead, silhouetted against the steely blue glow of the late evening sky.

The birds circle back over the treetops, open their wings and glide down into the spinney that’s shielding you from view.

Perched in the bare treetops, the plump birds jostle on spindly branches, craning their necks as they scan the gloomy woodland below in search of lurking danger.

Don’t dare move a muscle, these woodies are on high alert… and the least movement in the undergrowth will send them flapping off into the cold dusk sky.

At least two of the pigeons feel safe: they’ve fluttered down into lower branches where sturdier boughs offer a more stable place to roost, and dense tangles of ivy provide shelter from the chill of the long night that lies ahead.

As the birds drop their guard, you shoulder the rifle – very, very slowly. Leaning the weight of your body into the tree trunk that’s been screening you, you pick out the lowest bird in the scope.

It’s presenting a clear shot, at a slight sideways angle, so you flick off the safety catch and settle the crosshairs on its chest, just below the fold of the wind.

The silence of the still evening wood is shattered by the muted ‘pap’ from your muzzle, and instantaneously again by the ‘whop’ of the pellet striking home.

Your bird drops like a stone, crashing down into the dry leaves on the woodland floor as the others clatter away from the roost on panicked wings.

You crunch across the leaf-litter, collect your prize and slip back into your hiding place to wait for the next squadron of woodies to swoop within range.

Nothing warms the heart on a crisp winter’s evening like a successful roost shoot and, with a little forethought, most airgun shooters can employ this very effective method of pest control.

Woodpigeons also happen to taste delicious, so your efforts will be rewarded with some prime free-range meat for the table.

With his snood covering his face, Mat waits for the first birds to drop in

With his snood covering his face, Mat waits for the first birds to drop in

There’s also the chance of making some bumper bags at this time of year because woodies tend to gather in bigger flocks at the tail end of winter, so now really is the time to get out there and make the most of it.

Like most airgun hunting scenarios, the success of a roost shoot hinges very much on planning. You might bag one or two woodies by simply ambling into the woods an hour or so before dusk. But you’ll probably shoot more if you give it some forethought.

I’ve just returned from an evening in pursuit of pigeons on one of my woodland shoots.

The session concluded with a trio of woodies. That’s not a huge haul by any pest controller’s standards, but it’s a useful contribution to my ongoing efforts to curb their numbers, and provided me with plenty of meat for a hearty meal into the bargain.

The reason for keeping pigeons in check on this particular patch is twofold.

Apart from feeding on adjacent arable crops, the woodies have also got into the habit of fluttering down to feed from pheasant hoppers when they first stir from the roost.

These morning raids impact on the gamekeeper’s grain bill, so he’s as keen to see the birds thinned out as the farmer is.

Most of my roost-shooting sorties are short, sharp affairs; this one was no exception. The success of these quick sessions depends very much on being in the right place at the right time, and I’d done my homework to ensure I got that part right.

The timing part isn’t so difficult. The pigeons are flighting-in for a peaceful night’s sleep, so it stands to reason that they’re going to arrive toward the end of the day.

I like to be in position about two hours before nightfall – this is usually about right to avoid spooking too many early arrivals and also to avoid wasting too much ‘dead time’ in the woods, when the birds are still out feeding on crops.

Finding a good spot is a bit harder – your average 30-acre wood contains a lot of acres where either no or very few pigeons ever roost. However, there are plenty of useful clues to point you toward hotspots.

Splashes of white droppings on the woodland floor are the pigeon shooter’s favourite sign, and more obvious features of your shooting ground will help to narrow your search.

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Nobody likes getting into a cold bed, and neither do woodpigeons. Roosting birds will head to the places that provide them with most shelter from the elements. This is likely to be the lee side of the wood – the side that isn’t buffeted by prevailing winds.

Even here, there are other features that will help to create a favourable microclimate: steep banks and gullies provide additional protection, as do evergreen plant species such as ivy and fir trees. Locate the most sheltered places on your shoot and you’ll soon find the white smattering that signals an active roost.

I’d located just such a place, and there was actually so much cover that I had to move a couple of times until I was satisfied with the arc of fire from my hiding place.

Although the mass of twigs and ivy leaves complicated the matter of threading shots through to unsuspecting pigeons, the tangled cover also helped to keep me hidden.

The greens and browns of my camouflage clothing enabled me to melt into the leafy backdrop, especially once I’d pulled my neck snood up over my nose to keep my face hidden.

The first pigeon came quickly, and presented me with another quandary as it toppled into the undergrowth: to retrieve or not to retrieve?

It’s a real poser, because when breaking cover you risk spooking incoming birds that could present the chance of another shot.

My advice is to make the decision based on the situation before you.

If you’re in any doubt about whether or not you made a clean kill, collect and dispatch the bird as quickly as you can.

If your pigeon drops like a brick, mark the spot very carefully, taking a line from any surrounding trees, because they can be absolute devils to find once the light has gone.

I decided not to take any chances and made an immediate pick-up.

It quickly became apparent that more birds were passing over me than pitching around me – not by any great distance, but far enough to be out of sight or out of range.

I’d not had time to build a hide, and even if I had, it would now have been in the wrong place. One of the great advantages of relying on natural cover and camouflage clothing is that it enables you to quickly shift position.

So that’s exactly what I did – and it proved a good move, literally.

Once I’d found a hiding place from which I could cover treetops that offered good, clear shots, I went on to bag another two woodpigeons before night closed in.

Further proof that successful roost shooting depends on the ability to pre-empt your quarry’s habits and the ability to adjust your approach when things don’t go quite to plan.

Mat Manning

A haul of three woodies was testament to Mat’s preparation and adaptability

A haul of three woodies was testament to Mat’s preparation and adaptability

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