South African rock pigeon shooting
If you really want to be tested by pigeons, says Rupert Godfrey, you need to head to South Africa.
What's the most challenging bird to shoot? In Britain, most people would probably say a November downwind grouse. Well, now imagine those grouse on speed, and you've got the South African rock pigeon.
The rockie (Columba guinea), also known as the speckled pigeon, is a little smaller than our woodie, but flies much faster. Whereas the woodie's normal speed is just above 30mph, the rockie's is about 55mph – similar to the red grouse. It roosts in towns and on cliff edges, and flies out to feed, morning and afternoon, on whatever's available. At the beginning of the South African autumn, that's usually sunflowers, and the earliest ripening fields are a massive draw.
The trick is to intercept them, just as they get to the chosen field, which may be 100, 200 or even more acres. They fly low into the wind, just like coveys of grouse and, when they have fed, they return, high on the wind. A rockie will eat 55g of sunflower seeds in the morning, and again in the afternoon, so is regarded as a terrible pest by the farmers of the Free State, south of Johannesburg.
I was lucky enough to join a party in early March – probably the best time to see the huge numbers of rockies, and before they have packed. Unlike woodies, which will not return quickly to a field where they have been shot, rockies are very obliging, and can be shot again and again on the same field, as long as a day's rest is allowed them between shoots.
The main field we went to had been shot seven times before our visit – but you wouldn't have known it. I've shot rockies twice before, and I had warned the novices in the party what to expect. Two of the team have grouse moors and are well experienced in shooting fast-moving quarry. What would they think?
We were called for an early breakfast at 4:15am, as the best field was nearly 90 minutes away from our lodge, and the birds would leave their urban roosts at dawn, which was at around 6:30am, so we needed to be in position by then. We were placed about 80 yards apart, a few yards into the sunflowers, with a small piece of cammo netting in front of our positions. Like the woodie, the rockie has terrific eyesight, and one needs to be as still and hidden as possible, until the first shot is taken.
I was the second of the team to be placed, and relaxed in my chair while the others were put out. A Cape turtle dove flew by, and I killed that and, standing to reload, I saw a bunch of dots on the horizon. The adrenaline surged, as I realised it was the first ‘covey' of rockies about 300 yards out. Like grouse following a ridge, they curled down a fence-line towards me, and I could see they were coming straight over my position. As with grouse, it is essential to shoot one in front, but not too far out, as that will turn the covey back. The trick is to try and turn the survivors, so that they offer a chance to your neighbouring guns.
How they differ from grouse is their reaction to the first shot: they go ballistic! The rest of the covey either hit the deck, or flare upwards and away, making the second shot an extremely testing one. If one has timed the shot correctly, the covey will have straightened out a bit by the time it reaches your neighbour.
The problems are increased as the coveys get bigger and, of course, they do not all fly straight at you. When they are quartering towards the line, often your neighbour fires just as you select a bird, which, one hundredth of a second later, is nowhere near where it was, and you are surrounded by a whirling mass of birds, flying in all directions.
They are an incredibly tough bird, too: whereas the woodie will come down if a pellet scratches its wing, rockies will fly on with a visibly broken wing. Time and again, one would take a shot, and think ‘That's a dead bird', only to see the seemingly mortally wounded bird perk up and fly away into the distance. I had one tower in front of me, which I expected to fold up, and drop; instead, it decided it wasn't badly hurt at all, and flew back to town.
We had been offered 7s, 6s and 5s for our cartridges, in varying weights from 24-29g (three of our party were using 12 bores; one a 20; and I took my trusty 28s). Having seen in the past how tough the birds were, we all chose the larger shot: 7s really aren't up to the job. I used 24g No. 5s in my 28 bores, which were adequate, but not as good as the 28g Express shells I prefer at home.
That first morning, the coveys were quite small, and the afternoon flight – always at least double, and often treble the size of the morning flight – was cancelled due to unseasonal torrential rain. Our two grouse experts agreed, however, that they had never seen anything that so resembled packs of grouse approaching, with no heather in sight.
For our final day's shooting, we were asked to pick which field we would like to return to, and we unanimously chose to go back and see what a full day would bring. The morning flight was bigger than the one we had experienced, but it was the afternoon which really brought our trip to a tremendous finale. From midday until 4:30pm there was an almost constant stream of coveys and packs of rockies. The packs were not deep, but wide, so that they might only be 10 yards from front to back, but were 150 yards wide, sometimes going over three Guns simultaneously. Their aerobatics had to be seen to be believed.
From about 3pm it was necessary to keep an eye out behind, as well. The rockies started to return to their roost, high against the azure sky – anything from 40 to 80 yards up. With the wind behind them, they were like the fastest driven partridges one could hope for. Sometimes it was just a few birds; at others, huge flushes of several hundred would be in the air together.
At the end of the flight, the five of us had accounted for about 900 rockies. We tried to estimate how many birds had come through the line. As none of us thought we had possibly killed more than one per cent of what we had seen, the lowest estimate was 100,000 birds. At times, the horizon behind us would be black as a raptor disturbed the feeding birds.
One of the gratifying aspects of the trip was to see how much the birds are valued – when dead. The birds from the morning flight are distributed on the farm where they are shot, and the local farm workers were barbecuing them as we had our brunch. I've never seen birds so beautifully plucked, and then bones picked so clean. During the afternoon flight, when the local school finished for the day, the pupils filled their hands with the birds lying along the road in front of us, before happily scampering home with their unexpected bounty.
There are a number of operators online selling rockie shooting. We chose Carel Coetzer, of Grassland Safaris, who has been doing it for 19 years, and really knows his stuff. As with all wild bird shooting, things don't always go according to plan, but we had four splendid days, though we were all knackered by the end. It was hard work, but extraordinarily exhilarating. Yes, you can shoot more doves in Argentina, but once you've tasted rockie shooting, doves will be a bit of a let-down.