Ian Barnett offers up some pointers for the mechanics of roost shooting, he is the author of Airgun Fieldcraft: A lifetime’s shooting advice
As the last of the golden leaves give up their tenuous grip at the top of the gently swaying beech trees, a horde of grey aeronauts circle above, silhouettes against the hues of an evening sky. On some unseen, yet clearly mutual signal, they swing out and fly in together with their beaks into the breeze. With much clattering and fuss they descend deep into the copse. Before they’ve arranged themselves, one of the group has already tumbled head over tail to the floor, its plight lost on the others in the chaos of establishing ‘roosting rights’. The hunter, barely discernible among the shrubbery and ivy below, had taken the initiative to snipe the woodpigeon just as its claws were about to grip the branch…
Mentally marking where it fell, I leave the bird where it lies to await my next opportunity. Up on the branches, the birds are restless, their lilac waistcoats reflecting in the dying orange winter sun and offering temptation. They jostle and fidget, deciding which ivy or mistletoe crevice looks most attractive tonight – and I know that if I shoot now, the entire flock will lift. This is all about timing again. I pick one of those plump breasts, cease the crosshairs slightly sideways to find the heart/lung area and wait, hoping this bird isn’t ready to sleep yet. Suddenly, I sense the migration from bough to bower is imminent. Several wings extend and flap and as the birds start to move, I release the shot which topples the target – and, again, its demise is lost in the confusion of mass movement and noise.
These aren’t the first two pigeons today, but the last. On this, the day’s second foray, I’ve been here since 2pm. I knew that, following the clock change, it would be too dark to work beyond 4pm, but the experience of hundreds of woodpigeon roost-shooting sessions has taught me that it’s often the early birds that are easier to cull. These are the pigeons so full, fat and sated that they have to leave the fields early to find sanctuary. There was already one in my bag before this squadron arrived.
The morning’s shoot – a different wood on a different estate – had yielded a hat-trick, already breasted out and tucked in my freezer. I’d awoken to a sharp, hoary morning – clear skies over a white, frosted landscape. But the sundogs that sat beside Old Sol on her ascent warned me that the day would deteriorate. It was always going to be a pigeon day, in my mind, whatever the weather – and I needed some plump breasts for the freezer (it’s such a versatile meat). There’s a small copse next to a farmyard, green and lush with evergreen cover, and which I can usually rely on for a bird or two; I’d gone there for the day’s first roost. Woodpigeons will leave the fields to digest their plunder late in the morning, roost for an hour or two, then set out again to continue feeding. Even if you haven’t been watching pigeon flight lines (which I would always advocate doing), you can sometimes stumble across a roost site. It will be evident from all the pigeon squit on the floor. From a hunter-gatherer’s perspective, this is like finding a gold mine; you’ll have found somewhere that your quarry will return to every day or night. In fact, this is also a place to be just before inclement weather, such as a hail storm or (in the summer) a thunder storm, because this is where woodpigeons will seek shelter.
The mechanics of roost-shooting are pretty simple. Get into position early, under cover, yet with a good view of the wood’s canopy. Make sure you’ve got the breeze at your back so that the birds land facing you. If possible, make sure the sun is behind you – this way you will be in the shadows and less likely to be spotted by landing birds. The only other attributes you need now are a moderated multishot PCP rifle (which makes silent, swift sniping achievable) and the talent for shooting at elevated targets – the darkest art that the air rifle hunter must learn, and an art so specific to the actual rifle that you hold and the pellets you’re using that no one can truly advise on how to achieve success, only point you in the right direction. It’s important to know your rifle intimately, and how the ammunition that you run through it behaves under pressure from gravity, and you will then be master of the elevated shot. How do you learn that behaviour? Just spend time shooting at inanimate objects like apples, fir cones, conker shells and the like. A practice shot is never, ever a pellet wasted, and gradually you’ll move from lots of pine cones and the odd pigeon to lots of pigeons and the odd pine cone just to check your eye.
The more time you spend underneath a woodpigeon roost, the more you will come to understand the birds’ behaviour: the pecking order when they arrive, the distribution of rights, who sleeps where. You probably won’t be the only watcher, either. I’ve sat within a roost and watched Old Charlie squatting beneath, looking up and licking his lips. I’ve seen sparrowhawks beat me to the first kill among the ivy. I’ve even seen my incoming flock disrupted and diverted by shotgun fire simply because the farmer and I haven’t communicated each other’s intentions.
Tonight, though, I realise I’m finished, and set off to recover the two birds before I completely lose the light. It’s just before sunset and, as one of the shot birds has an enormous bulge in its crop, I decide to investigate. I use my Jack Pyke Poacher knife to nick open the skin, revealing about 200 unripe holly berries. Harmless plunder, but it shows their capacity for crop damage. Sometimes, I’ll dress out the birds in the field, but it can be a messy job with feathers going everywhere. Tonight I decide to breast out at home and go straight to table with a self-concocted recipe. Field to fork in under two hours – a most satisfying meal, to say the least…