Anytime, all of the time?

pigeon squabsGeorge Padley considers the ethics of shooting woodpigeons during the breeding season.

During the spring and early summer, many birds, including the woodpigeon, are either nesting or with young, some even rearing their second brood. Gamebirds are afforded the sanctuary of a closed-season, while pest and vermin species, quite understandably, have no such protection. 

In playing devil’s advocate, I ask, does the legality of shooting pigeons at this time of year make it right, or even acceptable? I can imagine vexed readers rolling their eyes, thinking ‘here he goes again, banging the moral drum and forcing guilt down the throats of already perfectly considerate and passionate enthusiasts’. Let me assure you, it is never my intention to lecture or moan about subjects for the fun of irritating Fieldsports readers. Rather, I intend to put forward a case that provides stimulus for healthy debate in the hope that it may rekindle thought processes that are sometimes overlooked or ignored.  

The pest of all pests?

Recent decades have seen the woodpigeon become an ever-increasing nuisance to farmers. Fuelled in part by the introduction of autumn-sown oilseed rape in the early 1970s, the British breeding population is now estimated to be well in excess of 13.5 million. Pigeons have long since taken the blame for poor-yielding crops, and have now become the go-to excuse when deliberating with a neighbouring farmer, grinning into his pint glass in the local pub, as he claims he’s set for record-breaking yields. I joke, but the damage caused is well researched and documented; few would dispute the havoc pigeons can reap over fields of arable crops such as peas, oilseed rape and brassicas, to name a few. 

Research by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) suggests that pigeon shooting for crop protection purposes, aligned with other methods, can be an effective management tool. Good farming practice makes for fair game then. The question, however, is whether every pigeon shot through spring and summer is shot as a pest?  

A first class Quarry

A true and challenging sporting quarry, it is no coincidence that many good Shots of the humble woodie also make very accomplished game Shots. Impeccable vision and an ability to change direction with a flick of a wing-tip are just two reasons why a jinking pigeon is one of the very hardest targets you’ll find. Ask any seasoned game Shot what they believe to be the most difficult shot in the book; if it’s not a fading high pheasant, dropping, with its wings set, then you can bet your bottom dollar it’s the second shot on a right-and-left of pigeon. They’re addictive and exciting, we love them and we wouldn’t be without them.

The considerations

shooting pigeonsA pest and a great sporting bird; but are either or both of these enough to justify indiscriminate year-round shooting? 

Personally, and I am not a pigeon fancier, I find that the consequences of making the shot and potentially leaving young squabs abandoned to a certain fate detracts from the sport. Does that make me a half-hearted Shot who overthinks the fundamental realities of shooting? You’ll decide, but I don’t believe it does. 

For me – and as I suspect for most if not all other game Shots – we shoot live quarry for the challenge that simply cannot be replicated by shooting at a clay pigeon, and to take something home for the pot. I’m in no doubt that when I decide to shoot, I am selecting a particular ‘target’ and not shooting to inflict misery, inadvertently or otherwise, on dependent young birds. Of course, none of us are infallible, but I do consider myself to be my own worst critic on tricky issues such as this, and I do enjoy shooting with a clear conscience.

I am sure I am not alone in feeling saddened to see pheasants and partridges that have survived the whole shooting season only to be cleaned up on the side of the road in February and March. We shoot to kill but that doesn’t mean we derive enjoyment from the taking of a life. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to shoot pigeons in spring but I can’t say I’ve ever felt the need or desire to do so, and I guess this is because I have stopped to fully think through the consequences of my actions. 

The arguments for and against are endless and by no means clear-cut. Blurring the boundaries further, I was speaking with a gentleman only last week, who is adamant that pigeons, subject to the correct climatic conditions, will breed year-round – he himself claiming to have shot woodies earlier this year that would have fledged last December.

Clearly, not everyone shooting spring pigeons does so in disregard of the impacts they have. Many will say it is a necessary evil in order to help control the population and protect crops. I remain to be convinced by this when, often, all we are really doing is pushing them from one field to the next, and this could just as easily be done by using more conventional bird-scaring measures. 

Ultimately, this will remain a personal decision. After all, it is not illegal to shoot woodies in the spring, and who am I to question the actions of others. I entirely understand that pigeon shooting provides a bridge through to the next shooting season whilst, at the same time, acting as a control on the numbers of a genuine pest, but for me there’s a distinct difference between great sport in February and early March, and shooting pigeons anytime and all of the time, regardless. 

I’m of the opinion that some of the ‘best’ Shots also make some of the best conservationists – our sport relies heavily on this and we do need to remain mindful of all the consequences when pulling the trigger, regardless of time of year.

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