Red letter days

A large flock of woodpigeons

Occasionally, there will be days when the pigeons just won't stop coming and records are broken. Rupert Godfrey does some counting.

Nowadays the woodpigeon is regarded as a worthy quarry by all shooting aficionados, and many regard a big day at the ‘doos' as a fantastic experience, comparable to a day at driven grouse, or, for the few who experience it, a day at grey partridges.

It's therefore surprising that, in the ‘Golden Age' of shooting before the Great War, the pigeon was obviously low on the agenda for most of the top shots: Lord Ripon's game records don't appear to have a separate column for pigeons, listing them together with the sundries, under ‘Various'.

Lord Walsingham (left), his peer at the top of the shooting tables, was obviously keener, and recorded, in the Badminton Library series Field and Covert, the contents of the crops from birds he killed at his estate, Merton, in Norfolk, over several days in December 1885 and January 1886.

Gladstone's Record Bags and Shooting Records lists several good - but not outstanding - bags: 437 killed in 41/2 hours at Abbeyleix, now in Eire, in December 1911, by Cecil Fitzherbert, and notes that J.F. Mason of Eynsham Hall in Oxfordshire - a noted pigeon Shot - ‘never killed more than 373 in one day'. Lord Walsingham is only mentioned as having killed 185 in January 1891.

Probably the most well-known bag was shot by Archie Coats, on January 10, 1962, at Stoke Charity in Hampshire, on a field of clover. He killed 550, and would have shot more if he hadn't twice run out of shells. Archie wrote, at the time, that he ‘knew the record was not more than 500'.

John Ransford, who broke this record some years later, had not been expecting much, but went out as a favour to a farmer complaining about birds on his wheat, and ended up with 560 shot in an afternoon!

Since then, the claimed record has steadily risen, and many bags of 700+ have been recorded, but often these were over standing crops and not all the birds were picked. The pigeon population also seems to have grown, and, although bird counts are notoriously inaccurate, the British Trust for Ornithology recently released details of a 30 year study - from 1967 to 1999 - which suggests woodpigeon numbers rose by 344% over the period. Little wonder they remain the main agricultural pest - and sometimes pigeon shooters hit the jackpot.

Probably the biggest solo bag of the 20th century - never widely known - was shot near Leatherhead, Surrey, in the late 1970s by Malcolm Unitt, who died earlier this year. He told me about it some years ago: he'd been watching a field of stubble for some days as the numbers built up and knew he was in for a big bag. It's a great area for pigeons to concentrate in huge numbers, as it's right on the edge of urban London, and, though the field he shot is now bisected by the M25, the oak tree his hide was under is still visible.

His car was due in for a service, and his wife dropped him off at the field at 8.30am, and he was set up by 9. At 11.30 he hadn't fired a shot, and, he said, that if he'd had his car with him, he'd have packed up and gone home, writing it off as one of those mysterious days when woodies simply don't want to fly.

Soon after 11.30, however, the first bird was in the bag, and from then until he packed up at 6.30, the traffic was constant. He picked up 820, killed with about 1,075 shots (he said he had four 250 cases of shells and 100 in a bag, and there were only a few left over). There were probably more birds which could have been picked, but both he, and his dog, were knackered!

There have been other huge bags shot in the area over the years: two Guns from one hide killed 850, and, some years ago, I could have had a record day there (on a field of laid oats, of all crops) if only I could shoot better, and hadn't been jet-lagged! I'd shot 300 by 3pm, and suggested to Richard Lovell that, as I was so tired, he should put another Gun - who wasn't getting much shooting on his field - in my place.

Soon after I made the suggestion, it was as if a tap had been turned on: what had been a steady flow of birds turned into a torrent. In the next 15 minutes, I killed 51 birds, hardly missing. The adrenaline was flowing big time, and my tiredness evaporated.

Unfortunately, the other Gun took me up on my offer, so I retired. In the next 90 minutes he fired 300 shots for a further 150 birds, until he, too, had to leave, at 5pm. Richard was left with the unenviable task of picking up, and he said birds were pouring in as he did so, up until 8pm. I often wish I hadn't made the offer, as, even with my average that day of just over 70%, I think a bag of 800+ would have been achievable.

Since then, I remember seeing that a bag of over 900 has been shot - in Cheshire I believe - on maize, when they kept coming all day. Records keep getting broken. A few years ago, I met an inexperienced pigeon shooter from Norfolk, who said he'd had a great day, when he'd fired over 1,250 shots: he was quite pleased with his bag of 240! An experienced Gun, in that position, taking all chances, would surely have had the chance of 900+.

More recently, I heard of a day last winter, when, again on maize stubble, but this time in Wiltshire, a Gun started at 9am and had fired 400 shots by 11am, when he was forced to give up because of gun headache! That day, there was nobody to take over, but again a record might have been possible, if they had kept coming.

Big bags of pigeons cause some debate as to whether it's right to take such large numbers. My answer is that you can only kill them if they are there, and, on a really big day, you generally only kill a small percentage of the birds on the field (although I was once told, in all seriousness, by a farmer, that several pigeon shooters had surrounded one of his pea fields and put a flock of 1000 pigeons off, and, as they circled the field, had shot so accurately that only one had got away!).

If you go out after pigeons a lot, there will inevitably be the days when things go right - and a lot of days when things go badly wrong!

It's always worth packing some extra cartridges, just in case that red-letter day takes you by surprise.

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