In an effort to stop pigeons from decimating corn crops, Mat Manning sets up with hide and decoy tactics to pull in the birds
Arable farming is a big industry in my locality, and farmers’ profits can take a serious hit when woodpigeons pile into their crops. These birds have a strong flocking instinct, and are attracted by the comings and goings of other birds. Because of this, ripening crops can soon be decimated as masses of hungry pigeons swoop in to get their fill.
I always keep my eyes peeled for gatherings of pigeons around cereal crops – not just on my existing permissions, but also on other ground. If you spot a big flock of birds clobbering a cornfield, a knock on the farmhouse door and a polite offer of some free pest control will often receive a positive response. The farmer will get an immediate solution to the problem, and you might well tap into a new permission.
While driving around the local countryside, I recently spotted pigeons starting to gather on the stubbles after a farmer friend harvested a field of wheat.
Although that crop was gone, the birds had already started to feed on flattened spots in the neighbouring field which had yet to be cut. Reluctant to use bangers in the tinder-dry field, the farmer had set up flags to deter them, but the birds quickly grew accustomed to the flapping plastic sheets and soon returned.
Although the pigeons were difficult to target around the flat-spots in the middle of the standing crop, the stubbles offered a more open place to reduce their numbers.
THE QUARRY: WOODPIGEON
PEST STATUS: Woodpigeons congregate in huge flocks that can comprise thousands of hungry birds, devouring crops with ruinous impact.
HABITAT: Woodpigeons are woodland birds, but also roost in gardens, hedgerows and parks.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Pigeon is excellent to eat, and the breast meat is valued by chefs. Successful pest control will be rewarded with some great meat for the table.
Initially, the shotgun was the tool for the job, enabling me to take birds on the wing and make some decent bags. As is often the case though, they wised-up after a couple of outings and started to shy away from the noisy 12-bore.
Convinced that there were still a few more birds to be had, I decided to take a stealthier approach with an airgun. My choice of shots would be far more limited, but I was confident that a silenced air rifle would help me put a few more woodies in the bag.
The bulk of the summer harvest may just be passing by the time you read this, but the tactics I describe should get results whether you are targeting pigeons over the coming maize harvest, autumn drills, winter rape or even next year’s spring drills.
07:20 – ON THE RIGHT LINES
Simply turning up and plonking a load of decoys into a field won’t usually be enough to consistently steer incoming pigeons within range of your air rifle.
Your imitation birds need to be set up in the right place to look convincing, and the best way to work out where and how to position them is by studying the behaviour of feeding pigeons. The saying that time spent observing is never time wasted certainly rings true when it comes to pigeon shooting.
Before deciding on a site for his hide and decoys, Mat stands on the edge of the field and scans through his binoculars. By watching birds coming and going, he should be able to identify the areas of the field they are targeting – they’ve been feeding for a few days and will have mopped up most of the grain left behind by the combine harvesters by now, which means their feeding grounds will be more limited.
Not only is Mat able to see where the pigeons are dropping in, he can also see the flightlines they are using to fly in and out of the field. Woodpigeons are usually reluctant to stray very far away from these clearly defined routes, so it pays to set up ambush close to an incoming line.
The pigeons are flighting to a different area of the field from where they were feeding on the previous day, but following a few minutes of careful reconnaissance Mat has a good idea of where he needs to base his ambush.
07:40 – NET GAINS
Pigeons are very sharp-eyed, and treat anything out of the ordinary with suspicion. That means an inconspicuous hide is required if birds are going to drop in close enough to offer straightforward shots.
During his reconnaissance, Mat spotted an incoming flightline that passed over a couple of trees on the field edge. The birds were using these trees as stop-off points from which to observe the scene below before swooping down to feed.
Mat has decided to construct his hide close to these trees because it’s easier to shoot woodies that are perched still up in the branches than ones that are waddling around on the ground and bobbing their heads up and down as they peck at the remaining grain.
Mat is constructing a simple net hide, propped up with purpose-made poles. Although the net offers some concealment on its own, it works much better with a dense backdrop to stop light from shining in through the back, so Mat sets it up in front of a thick area of hedgerow. With dense natural cover behind it, the screen begins to merge into the landscape, and it only takes a few docks and nettles woven into the mesh to soften its edges.
The bottom of Mat’s hide is pegged to the ground. Tightening the net in this way prevents it from flapping conspicuously in the wind and also creates more room on the inside. With his concealment taken care of, it’s time for Mat to set up his decoys.
EXPERT TIP: FLOATER DECOYS
Decoys like Mat’s Enforcer Flying Decoys are often referred to as ‘floaters’ as they come with long, bendy poles which make them bob and flap enticingly in the breeze. These decoys are usually used by shotgun shooters to encourage birds to fly by and offer passing shots. They are a less obvious attractor for airgun shooters to use because birds don’t usually like to land close to them.
Mat gets around this by setting them up well out in the field and using their movement to grab the attention of passing birds and steer them towards his main decoy arrangement. Priced at almost £70 for a pair, these decoys are not cheap, but they can be very effective and they’re extremely well made. They’re hand-painted with several layers of chip-proof paint, which uses MatteBlock technology to stop them from shining when wet or in bright sunshine. Their BreezeRider motion stake is easy to set up, and ensures just the right amount of movement.
07:55 – FAKE FLOCK
Even when you set up under a busy flightline, your decoy pattern has to look realistic if you’re going to convince incoming birds that it’s safe to land. Modern pigeon decoys are remarkably lifelike, and by following a few simple guidelines it’s not difficult to create an imitation flock that looks just like the real thing.
Mat has set up two flapping decoys on floater poles which make them bob up and down in the wind about 50m from his hide. These are set a long way out because he doesn’t expect birds to land near them – he just wants their movement to guide any passing birds’ attention towards the main decoy pattern.
The main pattern is created from a dozen Enforcer shell decoys, which feature sprung pegs that cause them to sway like waddling woodpigeons. The imitation birds are set out to create a wide horseshoe shape.
Like all birds, pigeons like to land and take off facing into the wind, so Mat is placing all of his decoys so they face into the breeze. They aren’t lined up in straight rows though – Mat mixes up the spacing between singles and pairs of decoys, and tilts each one off at a slight angle to give the fake flock a more natural appearance.
Decoys also serve as useful range-markers. Mat knows that the closest one is 18m from his hide and the furthest is 35m away. This means that anything that lands in the open central area is comfortably within his killing zone – although Mat would like to pick birds off from the trees, there’s every chance that they could flight straight to the decoys.
08:25 – EARLY ACTION
After positioning his decoys, Mat settles into his hide. He’s got a beanbag seat to keep him comfortable during the wait, and he’s put on a camo headnet for extra concealment. The hide should do a reasonable job of keeping him out of sight, but he doesn’t want incoming birds to spot any tell-tale patches of pale skin.
The early signs were good, as the odd bird was flighting overhead while Mat was setting up, so he’s not expecting a long wait. Sure enough, a pair of birds soon approach over the floater decoys, but rather than carrying on into the trees they glide straight into the middle of the main pattern.
Mat shoulders his BSA Ultra very slowly. Peering through his scope, he settles on one of the birds and watches as it scratches at the ground. At just over 20m away, it’s quite a close shot. The bird turns to present its back to Mat, and pauses with its head held high.
Mat touches off the trigger and his shot finds its mark right between the pigeon’s shoulders. The shot bird flops over with barely a twitch, while its mate beats a hasty retreat.
Pigeons are bulky birds, and a shot to the chest has to pass through feather, dense breast muscle and thick bone before it can connect with a vital organ. The shot Mat opted for gave the pellet a much clearer route to the heart and lung area, and the result is a clean kill.
08:50 – ADDED ATTRACTION
Mat’s first pigeon may have rolled over stone dead, but it’s causing concern to incoming birds, and several have jinked away on their approach. The shot bird has come to rest belly-up, with its feet in the air, which isn’t very helpful when you’re trying to convince pigeons that there’s no danger lurking.
With no option other than to break cover and move the offending bird, Mat slips out of the hide and heads across the field. This pigeon isn’t going straight into the game bag, though – it will be used to boost the decoy pattern.
The imitation birds may look pretty lifelike, but you can’t beat the real thing, so Mat uses a sharpened stick as a peg to prop up the dead pigeon by pushing one end into the ground and the other into its chin. Set up in this way, it changes from a warning signal to an inviting attractor.
A few minutes after Mat settles back into the hide, pigeons are circling overhead again. Now the landing zone has been tidied up, a lone bird soon decides to drop in. Just as before, it ignores the treetop vantage point and flutters straight down amongst the decoys, which are almost working a bit too well.
Mat quickly lines up for the shot, and fells the woodie with a swift shot to the head before it has a chance to start feeding. This time the bird comes to rest belly-down. It has slumped into quite a natural-looking position, so Mat decides to leave it where it is rather than unsettle incoming birds by breaking cover again.
EXPERT TIP: STAY HYDRATED
It might sound obvious, but Mat rates a drink as one of his most important kitbag items during summer sorties, and it’s amazing how many shooters overlook this vital extra. Conditions can get very hot and dusty out on the cornfields, and simple tasks like building a hide and setting out the decoys can be enough to work up a serious thirst. Frequent swigs of cool water will not only refresh you, but will also keep you feeling sharp and on top of your game, which can only be a good thing for your shooting.
Overlook the importance of taking a drink out with you, and things can soon get uncomfortable. At the very least it can cause discomfort and irritation, but if you get really thirsty, you could become unwell or find yourself heading for home before you’ve had the best of the shooting. Pack a bottle of water into your bag and you know you’ll feel refreshed and hydrated right through the session.
10:45 – LATE MORNING LULL
During the long, hot days of summer, pigeons often feed hard in the morning and then head back to their roosting woods to slumber in the shade of the trees before returning for an evening binge. For this reason, sport usually drops off towards the middle of the day.
True to form, Mat notices a distinct dip in the action as the morning wears on. He’s not complaining though; there has been a steady trickle of pigeons over the last couple of hours, and he’s finished with six in the bag.
It’s a smaller tally than he’s had on his previous visits, but it’s half a dozen less greedy birds to raid the neighbouring crop and enough meat to make a delicious meal. Better still, these birds won’t be riddled with shot like the ones he had with the 12-bore.
The lull in activity also gives Mat an opportunity to head home for some lunch and catch up with a few jobs, but the shooting isn’t over just yet. After picking up the shot birds and packing away the decoys, Mat decides to leave the hide in position.
His plan is to head back late in the afternoon when the temperature starts to drop and see if he can’t account for a few more pigeons when they fly back to the cornfields for another feeding spree.
GUN: BSA Ultra SE
SCOPE: Optisan HX 4-12×40
MOUNTS: Sportsmatch two-piece
AMMO: Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign
BINOCULARS: Nature-Trek 10X42
HIDE NET: Camo Systems Realtree Scrim
HIDE POLES: Jack Pyke Super Hide Pole
DECOYS: Enforcer Shell and Flying decoys