Why woodies are special
Woodpigeon shooting has always been special for Rupert Godfrey, but in the last few years it has become better than ever. Here he explains why.
I still remember the first pigeon I ever shot. It was sitting in a Scots pine, enjoying the sunshine, when I ended its siesta with a shot from my bolt-action Webley 410. It was the start of my passion for pigeons which still continues forty years later.
I love wild bird shooting, and the only thing that gets my heart pounding faster than on a big pigeon day, is being in a grouse butt with a good view, and the sight of coveys flickering in the distance. The difference between grouse and pigeons, however, is that with the former, you are simply a marksman there to do a job, while others bring the birds to you. But with pigeons, it's all down to you - finding the right field, getting in the right place, setting out the best decoy pattern, and then having the skill to maximise your opportunities and your bag. It's only in the last 15 years, since we moved out of London, that I have been able to indulge this passion as much as I like, and it's interesting to see how things have changed during that time. I keep quite detailed records of every day I'm out, and my average daily bag has nearly trebled in that time. The reason for this is down to the answers to two questions I'm often asked. Firstly, whether the pigeon population is growing, static, or falling; and, secondly, whether I use a Pigeon Magnet, and what effect it has had.
The pigeon population must be virtually impossible to measure nationally because it is so fluid. I think birds move around the country a lot, especially in good acorn and beechmast years, and, certainly, ten plus years ago, they tended to congregate in winter wherever there were good acreages of rape, which they knew would keep them alive through a cold winter. Recently, in the area I shoot - Wiltshire and Dorset, from Amesbury down to Dorchester - there is undoubtedly a much bigger pigeon population than there was. I believe that this is mostly explained by the fact that redleg partridge shooting has developed so much in this area, and, as a result, there are literally thousands of acres of maize grown.
Drive West down the A303 from Stonehenge and see how many woods and spinneys have a cover crop nearby - it's hundreds. The pigeon's main winter diet has changed, therefore, from fairly unappetising rape; now it can feast all through the winter on delicious high food-value maize cobs.
Cover plot shooting in February has almost replaced roost shooting as a way of keeping the population under control.
Two days I remember demonstrate the numbers around here. I was shooting a 30 acre field of stubble, from a pallet hide, at the end of October 2005, with a big wood about half a mile behind me. I was expecting a big day, as I had seen a lot of birds there, and had shot the field twice before in the preceding fortnight. I had shot 140 by 11 am, when a flock of birds came over the horizon about half a mile in front of me. This flock simply grew, and grew. I didn't shoot as they were flying over me to the big wood, and I knew that they would come out there to feed. After a couple of minutes I checked my watch, and still they came. It took eleven minutes for the flock to pass. How many birds had gone by? Conservatively I would estimate ten thousand, but it could well have been more. There were further huge flocks, and I reckon I'd seen 50,000 birds over that one field that day.
The second occasion was in January last year, when I was shooting near Stonehenge, and for the first hour the sky was literally full of birds. At one point, wherever I looked in the sky there were pigeons, and I could see at least a mile in each direction. Unfortunately, they were flying about 400 feet up, but, again, there were tens of thousands of birds there. If you haven't seen it, it's hard to believe, but it makes me smile when I read that there aren't as many pigeons as there were. It really does depend whereabouts in the country you are, and what the local cropping patterns are.
The other main reason for the increase in bags is the advent of the Pigeon Magnet, which has undoubtedly had a major impact. Movement in the decoys has always been beneficial, and Archie Coats used to throw a dead bird into the middle of the pattern to attract passing pigeons. This may have worked in the 50s and 60s, but, as shooting pressure on woodies grew, so they became more difficult to decoy. I used to use a string-operated flapper, and it certainly worked better than nothing at all, but the Magnet made everything else obsolete.
The key benefit is that you don't have to be in exactly the right place, which helps a lot in the changing wind conditions, where flightlines may alter dramatically during the day. It means that your fieldcraft doesn't have to be as good as before, and it turns poor days into good ones, and good ones into red-letter days. Before I got my Magnet I had shot 27 hundred plus bags in seven years, in the six years since, I've shot 96 - including 28 of over 200. I have all but eliminated the days when I went out, and watched, frustrated, as birds flew past constantly two hundred yards, ignoring my perfect decoy pattern. Now, the Magnet will pull a percentage of those birds for you.
There have been occasional comments in the shooting press that they are not sporting, and, when they were first introduced, there were even advertisements saying ‘Get your Magnet now, as there won't be any pigeons left in a few years time.' That hasn't remotely proved to be the case, and I don't think they are as effective now as when they were first introduced, but for me the key point is that while they bring the pigeons into the killing zone, they don't decoy onto the ground nearly as well as they used to with a static pattern. Then, the routine was, let one settle, shoot the second one, and kill the first as it flew off. Now, the movement attracts, but it doesn't encourage the birds to land, and, consequently, I think the shooting is much more sporting and varied. As in the old days, to make a big bag, you still have to shoot well.
There are two other big influences on pigeons I have noticed. Firstly, they do not fly well on the first day of high pressure after a low. Some say that this is true of pheasants and partridges, too, but I've had too many disappointments not to think it is relevant for pigeons. The second influence is the amount of wild food available - beechmast, acorns, and berries - after a hot summer like last year. Last autumn I had no decoying after September 10, whereas the previous year I shot nearly 4000 during the game season. As I write this in mid-February, the birds are just moving onto some flattened, or chopped-off, cover crops, but the woods are still full of big flocks. The birds I have shot are in fantastic condition, with a layer of fat over the breast which you don't often see. It will probably be early March before the wild food is gone, and the decoying can start again in earnest. I can hardly wait!
The Pigeon Magnet was the brainchild of two Oxfordshire pigeon shooting enthusiasts, Phil Beasley (above) and Alan Mitchell.
When first introduced seven years ago it prompted lots of hostile press as being unfair, unsporting, a device which went totally against the ethics of the sport. Now there is barely a pigeon shooter worth his salt who doesn't use one.
So how did they come up with the idea? Phil, who has been professional pigeon guide for almost 30 years (though now handed over to his son William), explained that it was based on a songbird rotary machine used in Italy. “An Italian customer, who comes to shoot pigeon with us, brought one over for me to look at. I could see it had possibilities, as the one thing you need in a decoy pattern is movement. Flappers are good but we felt that this could be the next step.”
So Alan and Phil started building a rotary machine which they called the Pigeon Magnet, which has since sold in big numbers. “I had no idea that it was going to be so successful otherwise I would have patented it!” Phil laughed.
Its principle is very simple. The success of the machine is mainly due to the amount of movement and, for want of a better word, the ‘life' it gives to a decoy pattern. Passing pigeons are then apparently mesmerised into approaching the whirling decoys thinking that some of their feathered friends are having a serious feeding frenzy on the ground. The rotary device has accounted for some huge bags of pigeons (plus crows in Ireland, doves in Argentina and ducks in the USA). There has simply never been anything like it.
The machine consists of a motor unit mounted in a telescopic stand to allow for various crop heights. It has two arms each with either a dead bird decoy (or plastic in-flight decoys mounted to the end). When connected to the battery the machine starts spinning the two decoys in an anti-clockwise circle.
The UK trademark ‘Pigeon Magnet' was sold but Phil subsequently launched UK Shootwarehouse and is the country's major supplier of rotary decoy machines.
However, he now has another Gismo up his sleeve - the SilloSock! This is an ultraviolet decoy, combining the best features of a silhouette decoy and windsock decoy.