Safety in numbers

piegonsIt’s pigeon traffic, not flocks, that make a bag, reflects Rupert Godfrey.

It’s rare to be completely overwhelmed by numbers of pigeons, but it happened to me in early December. A local keeper phoned up to say that there were at least 5,000 woodies on a field of barley stubble on his patch. Better still, he said I could shoot it as long as I kept away from his partridge drive nearby.

Although this meant that there was really only one place to shoot it from – on the edge of a beech wood – it sounded as if it was worth a go, even though I’ve often heard ‘5,000 birds’ before... It is an area, though, where huge numbers of pigeons build up very quickly, and the farm adjoins another where well over 250,000 built up on some maize fields in 2007.

I could only shoot it on the following Saturday, and had no time for reconnaissance, so just decided to wing it and hope for the best. The forecast was for a strong southwesterly, which wasn’t ideal as it would be blowing straight down the edge of the wood. But I was stuck with that position.

After some lingering overnight rain, I arrived at 8:30am and, as I turned onto the track leading down to the wood, I saw what I thought was a huge murmuration of starlings, stretching from behind the wood far into the distance. But they weren’t starlings, they were woodies! I couldn’t begin to estimate how many there were in that one flock, but it was certainly far more than 5,000!

I drove through the wood and stopped where I could see half the field. It was about 70 acres and domed in the middle, so I couldn’t see the far side where one of the shoot’s partridge drives is. All I could see were more huge clouds of birds, wheeling around over it – literally thousands more. I drove round the field to try and move them off, so that they would come back later, but it was a forlorn task as they simply got up, flew round me and landed again. I realised I only had 500 cartridges in the car, and started wondering whether I would have enough.

I set up my hide against the edge of the wood. The wind was howling down from my left, and I needed several extra hide poles on the upwind side of the hide just to keep it standing. A whirly and a flapper with 10 dead birds made up my pattern, and I was ready for action. I decided to take it easy to start with, and try not to frighten off any big flocks.

A single bird came straight into the decoys and I killed it. It was one of the few singles I had all day. The field erupted, and an unbelievable number of woodies took to the skies. How many were there? 10,000? 15,000? It was impossible to judge accurately, but I know I had never seen so many birds over one field before. The key thing would be whether they would break up into smaller numbers and come back on a flightline, or whether they would just stay in large flocks.

Some of the birds left the field; others just settled down over the far side and stayed there the whole time I was shooting. Occasionally, my shot would put them up, but they just dropped down again – the pop of my 28 bore in such a strong wind was clearly not going to shift them.

A huge flock came over the wood from behind me. They looked at the decoys but just floated on over the field – and that was how things progressed. Sadly, the wind was just against me – a bit of east in it and I’m sure I’d have had a bonanza day.

Instead, they just kept coming from behind me. The overhead beech branches were too thick to be able to turn round and shoot them as approachers, so I was stuck. A few would peel down towards the decoys, but I was mostly shooting at birds angling away from me, which isn’t very satisfying. And after the first shot, the others would use the wind to turn and be gone in a flash. The first few downwind birds I tried to catch up with, I just didn’t! I knew as I pulled the trigger that I was nowhere near them, but as the morning progressed I managed to catch up with several absolute crackers, which, killed in front of the hide, were landing well over 100 yards away to my right.

It never took off as I’d hoped – they just stayed in flocks which I decided I had to shoot at. I’d have a quick blast of five or six shots, and then there would be nothing for 10 minutes. I shot a steady 40 birds an hour for nearly four hours, and by 1pm it was clear they’d had enough of flying round. There were still thousands feeding on the far side of the field, and it was clear they would be back there again the next day, despite my efforts.

My bag of 150 was certainly not one per cent of what I’d seen, so I reckon that there were at least 15,000 woodies there, and that’s not counting those that stayed on the far side of the field. A minimum estimate would be 20,000. Richard Lovell, who came to have a look, reckoned there were 40,000 there. He should know – he once spent an evening with an enlargement of a photo he’d taken of pigeons flying over a barley stubble, and counted over 21,000 in the one picture!

With that many birds there, you would expect a bigger bag than 150, but it’s flightlines that make a big bag. It is constant traffic to a field that you really want to see, rather than huge flocks. I remember a few years back, shooting a bag of 140 on September stubble and thinking that I’d probably seen fewer than 300 birds all day. They just came steadily in ones and twos, and decoyed well. What a difference!

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