Rupert Godfrey reflects on autumn 2015 and considers the effect that a glut of acorns can have on late-season sport.
After two consecutive beechmast and acorn bonanzas, surely it couldn’t happen again? The beechmast didn’t happen around here, but there was a glut of acorns. By the middle of October, I could see birds flighting into a line of oaks visible from my office window and picking the acorns off the trees. I have had good sport in the past, simply flighting them into these hedgerow trees – not big bags, but 30s and 40s, which are great fun, especially when only two minutes from my front door. Generally, though, it hadn’t been a great year for woodies in my immediate area: I had only killed 150 round here, compared to 750 last year. There simply didn’t appear to be the weight of birds around.
I had a good autumn further south on the stubbles, which lasted well into October, after which it became more difficult to get access, even where there were still birds, because pheasant shooting was getting underway. It was noticeable, however, that some days they decoyed brilliantly, and others they just didn’t want to play. On two farms in particular the pigeons were very obliging; on another – almost equidistant between these two – they were really skittish. There was no obvious reason why as there were good flightlines on all three farms, and plenty of birds moving around, but one day I ended up with only 96, when it could easily have been 300.
It had been the same at home when I shot the first rape stubble. The local Devizes birds really don’t seem to get harried much at all, so they usually decoy well, but I shot 60 and watched during the day as several hundred passed by within 100 yards, but wouldn’t come closer. I tried everything with the decoys – different patterns, more birds, fewer birds, magnet or no magnet – but to no avail; it probably made a 200 difference to the total bag. The annoying part of it was that two or three birds would decoy perfectly, and then the next 30 would take no notice. These days are sent to try us!
There seemed to be many more young birds around, even in late October. Part of the reason for the good decoying days was the proportion of young and naïve birds in the bag. Some days it was nearly 75 per cent – a percentage I would associate more with early August than mid-autumn. These young birds were occasionally very challenging, however, as they flew fast towards the decoys, jinking and twisting as they did so – I call it ‘whiffling’.
When some are coming fast, and others floating in, one needs to heed one of Philip Fussell’s shooting mantras: ‘Speed of target; speed of swing’. I found that really slowing my swing down on a slow approaching pigeon made it much easier to make a slight correction as I put the gun up if the bird did a typical woodie jink. Although it means that one needs to start moving the gun earlier, the slow gunmount doesn’t appear too noticeable to the incoming birds. It meant that my percentage of first barrel kills rose dramatically, and made right-and-left opportunities much more common.
From young birds to old
Having shot a pigeon that had been ringed, I sent the info on it to the Natural History Museum as requested. They put me onto the BTO website (www.bto.org/ringing-report) where there is a wealth of fascinating info on birds which have been ringed. The oldest woodie recorded was at least 18 years old (as it was ringed as an adult), and there are several aged over 16 recorded.
One potential problem on the horizon: because of our non-sunshine-summer around here, many of the maize plots simply don’t have any cobs. The plants grew, but there’s no food, and there will be nothing for the woodies come February when the plots are cut. A couple of issues ago I wrote ‘Thank God for maize’, describing my wonderful spring shooting in 2015. What will it be like in 2016?