A big day's decoying

Huge pigeon numbers in Wiltshire

In 2007, it looked as if autumn was going to be a repeat of 2006, with a full crop of beechmast, and loads of acorns too. I hadn't had a day's decoying since September 2006, so the prospects weren't good, writes Rupert Godfrey.

However, it turned out that the beechmast was a false crop, with loads of shells but no nuts, and the acorns started bringing flocks of pigeons to the West Country. I shot several hundred right by my house, setting up under a hedgerow full of old oaks. The birds I shot were in wonderful condition - plump, and barded with fat.

There were birds on the barley stubbles, too, and throughout September and October their numbers gradually built up; there were huge flocks on the move, and a friend even reported seeing tens of thousands of pigeons flying along the coast near Lyme Regis - not an area noted for a lot of woodies. I was having some good days with Wiltshire pigeon guru, Richard Lovell, and fields of stubble within a mile of Stonehenge produced bags of over 200 for each of two Guns on three occasions. The last time, at the end of November, I arrived on a 30 acre field at 8.30 - an hour after dawn - and it was literally covered in birds: I estimated 15,000. I had to drive round and round the field for ten minutes to get them to leave, and they then returned in huge packs, unwilling to decoy, but with enough coming in to result in a bag of 302. I said to Richard that I had never seen so many birds on one field when I got there, and he replied: “You ain't seen nothing yet!”

He'd been getting excited for some time about a big area of maize that was being cut, 15 miles further west, near Chicklade. There was about 400 acres within a 1000 acre block, and the pigeons soon found it as the harvest began in early November. Soon Richard was talking about 10,000 pigeons, then 20,000, then 50,000: all concentrated on this 400 acres. Some of the stubble was soon cultivated, but about 200 acres was left. How pigeons communicate with each other is a mystery, but somehow they all got to know of this feast available, and their numbers grew further.

A day was planned for late November, with hides on four of the fields. By now, the estimated numbers were enormous: the fields were blue with feeding pigeons, and the beech belts beside them looked in full leaf, covered as they were in thousands of birds. The fields were so packed that it looked impossible for another bird to land. I had friends ringing me up, asking if I had seen these fields: you couldn't miss them as you drove along the A303. The lowest estimate was 150,000 birds; the highest, a quarter of a million: it was unbelievable.

The big day dawned, with almost perfect weather, a good south-westerly wind, and sunny intervals. At 8am there wasn't a bird to be seen, but then it was as if a tap had been turned on, and soon the sky was full of pigeons. The first shot I heard was at 8.20; I was set up and ready to go at 8.30, and was astonished by the size of the flocks flying around. For me, frustratingly, the main flightline had moved 400 yards, which meant that the flocks made first for the two hides behind me, where the shooting became almost continuous. There were two Guns in one hide, and there were regular fusillades of four shots.

I was getting odd birds coming down to the decoys, but only one out of every few hundred I saw. Flocks of several thousand birds were flying over, 4-500 feet up, and occasional birds would peel off, and dive almost vertically into the decoys, making for very difficult, but exciting, shooting. At one point, a flock at least three miles long came out of Great Ridge, the big wood above Fonthill Estate in the distance - tens of thousands of birds together: I've never seen anything like it - even on a big dove flight in Argentina.

After an hour I had 55 on the clicker, and the second hour produced the same; then, there was a twenty minute period when I didn't fire a shot, as none of the high birds ventured down. They were quite wary, and if a bird was on its back in the pattern, they wouldn't come in, so I had to keep things tidy. Then it picked up again, and at 11.30 I had shot 150, and 180 by 11.55. At this point, there was a sudden change: the flocks were lower, and they started coming directly to my field, pouring non-stop into the decoys. I was loading from my belt, with an open bag beside me to top it up, but at one point, I emptied the belt of its 25 shells without a chance to replenish it. By 1.30, I had 350 and it started to slow down, judging from the sound of it, for the other Guns, too.
At 2.10 I decided to stop, with 393 on the clicker, and began the long process of picking up: I ended in a nearby beech belt and picked up nine birds I hadn't counted, so finishing with 402. The double Gun hide behind me had accounted for 581; a friend from Devon had killed 511; the fourth hide 311; a grand total of 1,805: a quite unique, unbelievable day.

Despite this huge bag, we hadn't dented the population, and four days later, we shot it again: I was where the double hide had been, and right from the start - again at 8.30 - they poured in to the decoys. At one point I shot 17 without having time to put them on the clicker: whenever I had reloaded, there were more birds coming in. After two hours I had 210, and thought I must be on for 600 if they kept coming till 2pm as before. I had 300 by 11.35, but then they had obviously had enough, and it gradually slowed down. I stopped at 1.45 with 451 in just over five hours shooting. I hadn't picked up anything but wounded birds round the hide, and, for 50 yards around, the ground was covered in birds, some on top of each other. At least 50 were on their backs, but it had made no difference. The shooting had gradually become harder, as the incomers were decoying forty yards out from the hide, but it was fantastic sport.

The other three hides had killed over 750, so the second time round we amassed over 1,200 birds, making over 3,000 within a week on this one patch. I had shot 1,153 on three outings in six days: easily a record for me, and one, I feel, I'm never likely to break.

There was still enough maize left uneaten for two more shoots there: the first produced over 600 for three Guns; the second 300 for two Guns: good days by most standards, but never quite matching the unbelievable excitement of that first amazing day. Who needs South America?!

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