Hard­man’s Hunt­ing

Our Phil’s on a mis­sion to find out where the pi­geons are hid­ing, be­fore it’s too late?

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This month is the one I have been wait­ing for, the Septem­ber is­sue. Ev­ery year I look for­ward to this one, more than any other. You see, it’s around now that the fields are fi­nally har­vested, and the long crops that have tempted wood­pi­geons to feed, but hid­den them safely out of my reach for months, are no longer there. The safe haven they once of­fered is gone, and the grain that is spilled dur­ing the har­vest­ing process, now sits out in the open, on the ground, wait­ing to be gob­bled up by huge swathes of hun­gry birds. Usu­ally, the next few weeks will see me bag hun­dreds of pi­geons on the stub­ble fields – it’s the high­light of my hunt­ing year. Hav­ing spent the past month or so watch­ing, study­ing, and ob­sess­ing over where the pi­geons are feed­ing, I have it all worked out. I know which fields they pre­fer, which trees they sit in, what time they ar­rive, and when they leave.

All I need to do is wait for the field to be cut, and then put out my plas­tic de­coy birds in an ef­fort to cre­ate a re­al­is­tic feed­ing group to lure the in­com­ing pi­geons into a small kill zone, where I wait in am­bush. I’m pretty sure I say it ev­ery year, but I will re­peat it once again. De­coy­ing wood­pi­geons is my fa­vorite hunt­ing tac­tic, bar none! It hands down beats rat shoot­ing for ex­cite­ment; it re­quires more skill than rab­bit stalk­ing, and more knowl­edge and field craft than any­thing else I can think of; it en­com­passes ev­ery­thing you will ever have learned about hunt­ing, and brings them all to­gether into what can ei­ther be the great­est days hunt­ing you have ever had, or the most frus­trat­ing. It is not sim­ply a case of pop­ping out a few plas­tic birds and wait­ing, and it can take years to mas­ter, but when you get it right, its be­yond worth it.

SOME­THING’S DIF­FER­ENT

This year was dif­fer­ent from the very be­gin­ning, and I no­ticed around a month ago that I wasn’t see­ing the usual build up I have come to ex­pect. Sure, pi­geons were sit­ting on the power lines and I could see them drop­ping down into the crops as I drove past, but for a month straight their num­bers usu­ally steadily in­crease. This year how­ever, things were de­cid­edly quiet – a few birds here and there, but nowhere near the num­bers I am used to see­ing. Still, I kept telling my­self that they’d come as soon as the first field was cut, that they were just run­ning late, that sort of thing.

The weather lead­ing up to har­vest was ex­tremely unset­tled. One day it was blazing sun­shine, the next day tor­ren­tial down­pours, which meant that it was dif­fi­cult to try to pre­dict when they’d fi­nally start to cut the fields. De­spite my best ef­forts I was play­ing catch up from the get go this year, and the first sign I got of the fields be­ing cut was when I drove past and saw the com­bine har­vester cut­ting the outer edges of one of them.

In to­tal, I have six de­cent crop fields that I have ac­cess to shoot over, which gen­er­ally means my har­vest goes some­thing like this: I see the first field be­ing cut in the morn­ing, and baled in the af­ter­noon, so I get ready to hit it the next day, mak­ing sure I have all my kit in or­der and I am ready to go. I de­coy the freshly cut stub­ble on the first field whilst the farmer works on the sec­ond, be­cause it is the only field the birds have ac­cess to at the mo­ment, which nar­rows down their op­tions and makes it harder for them to re­sist my de­coys.

Day one, I’d say I prob­a­bly av­er­age 15 or so birds, which might sound a lot, but av­er­aged over a full day’s shoot­ing and given what I know can be achieved, it’s not re­ally any­thing to write home about. It is a very important dress re­hearsal for what’s to come next, though.

Day two sees the sec­ond, larger field har­vested, and then on the fol­low­ing day, the com­bine moves on to the third, whilst the farm

hands bale the sec­ond field. This con­tin­ues over the next few days, one field is baled, as the next is cut, and once they’re done they move on un­til they’re all har­vested. As soon as the com­bine is fin­ished on the fi­nal field, the driver takes it back to the farm and re­turns with a trac­tor pulling a plough, and starts to plough the first field, whilst the fi­nal one is be­ing baled. This mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion means I have a very lim­ited win­dow of op­por­tu­nity, but they can only cut dry crops, so any rain usu­ally means a pause in the work whilst they wait for the crops to dry, and thank­fully, we al­ways seem to get at least one wet day dur­ing this process, which ex­tends my time on the de­coys by a cou­ple of days.

SO IT BE­GINS

This year, as I have al­ready men­tioned, was dif­fer­ent. The com­bine had done the first field and they baled it in the af­ter­noon, but whilst they were do­ing that, they also cut and baled the sec­ond field, work­ing quite late into the evening. The next day was rain­ing heav­ily, but I still ex­pected to find fresh stub­ble and wood­pi­geons aplenty, in­stead, as I ap­proached the field, I saw seag­ulls in the sky, a lot of seag­ulls. Although con­fused, I knew from ex­pe­ri­ence that could only mean one thing, they were plough­ing the field al­ready! I rushed to see what was go­ing on, only to find a trac­tor plough­ing the sec­ond field, the first was al­ready com­pleted. I guess with the rain fore­cast they de­cided to crack on with plough­ing whilst they waited for the other fields to dry out enough to cut, but this had to­tally de­stroyed my plans. I have had some suc­cess de­coy­ing fresh plough in the past, but there hadn’t been enough time yet for the stub­ble to pull the birds in, so I knew I would be wast­ing my time try­ing to get any real num­bers, and with the rain com­ing down hard, I de­cided to head back home, re­group, and make a new plan.

A CHANGE OF PLAN

The next day I was back out, no de­coys, just me and my Weihrauch HW110. Ev­ery­thing I had learned over the past month was with the first two fields in mind, and since they were now noth­ing more than bare muddy earth, I had to catch up with what the birds were go­ing to do, and I had to catch up fast. It wasn’t go­ing to rain for­ever, and I knew that the com­bine would be back, with the dreaded plough not far be­hind.

First task was to see if the fresh plough was ac­tu­ally at­tract­ing any pi­geons so I set my­self up over­look­ing a sitty tree so I could tar­get any in­com­ing birds that might choose to perch

“I de­cided that maybe all hope wasn’t lost, and I might still get some de­cent de­coy­ing this year af­ter all”

there, whilst I watched the skies above. Af­ter a frus­trat­ing and largely wasted af­ter­noon, I’d only bagged a sin­gle bird from the tree, so I de­cided to study the fields that were yet to be har­vested. It was clear that the ploughed fields were lost op­por­tu­ni­ties and no mat­ter how much at­ten­tion I gave them, the birds sim­ply weren’t in­ter­ested.

Speak­ing of birds, I still couldn’t ac­tu­ally find the pi­geons, although I know at this time of year the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion largely acts as a flock, so they had to be some­where, didn’t they? I must ad­mit I was be­gin­ning to doubt my­self slightly, but na­ture doesn’t change, not com­pletely, and not in a year.

They’re al­ways here; ev­ery year for as long as I can re­mem­ber I have seen them ar­rive, the num­bers steadily build­ing over days and weeks un­til hun­dreds ap­pear ev­ery day to feed. They had to be some­where, and I would guess some­where close, but if I was go­ing to find them, it was go­ing to take ev­ery bit of skill and knowl­edge I had gained over the years, and maybe a fresh per­spec­tive.

I spent an­other cou­ple of hours over the next few days walk­ing the hedges and sit­ting un­der the trees, pick­ing off what pi­geons I could from the field bound­aries, but I was filled with a sense of great dis­ap­point­ment. Twelve months I had waited for this, and it was look­ing like I’d have to wait an­other 12 to get a chance at it.

DEADLINES, DEADLINES

With the dead­line for this very piece upon me, I was out of time and in se­ri­ous trou­ble. I am con­tacted pretty reg­u­larly by read­ers who find them­selves in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions, look­ing for ad­vice, so I de­cided to run with this piece, to show you all that it doesn’t al­ways go right for us – just be­cause we are mag­a­zine contributors, that doesn’t mean we have some mag­i­cal pow­ers that au­to­mat­i­cally guar­an­tee us suc­cess. I’d spo­ken to the ed­i­tor a few days be­fore and ex­plained the sit­u­a­tion and he sug­gested sim­ply mak­ing this a two-part ar­ti­cle. I’m not one to shy away from work­ing un­der pres­sure, and there was still an out­side chance that I could still pull some­thing out of the bag and ac­tu­ally make a suc­cess of it, so I agreed.

That de­ci­sion ac­tu­ally turned out to have other, rather un­ex­pected ben­e­fits, too. I was out tak­ing a few ex­tra pho­to­graphs, and de­cided I wanted to get a cou­ple of shots of the fur­thest fields that I thought were un­touched, be­fore they got cut, but what I ac­tu­ally found was that a part of one of the fields had al­ready been cut, which left half of it ploughed and the other half still stand­ing. That was in­ter­est­ing enough, but I soon I no­ticed just how many pi­geons were on it! I al­most couldn’t be­lieve my eyes – I had found them, fi­nally!

Right there and then I de­cided that maybe all hope wasn’t lost, and I might still get some de­cent de­coy­ing this year af­ter all, if I moved quickly while the birds were still us­ing this area to feed. Be­cause I need to know ex­actly where to set up, I will head out to­mor­row to do a recce, fi­nalise where I will be best po­si­tioned, and then shoot the fol­low­ing day. Suc­cess or fail­ure, ei­ther way, part two of this story will be in next month’s is­sue, fea­tur­ing a pic­ture of me smil­ing along­side a hefty bag of shot birds, I hope. Wish me luck! I

I was run­ning out of ideas and start­ing to get des­per­ate.

I spent hours study­ing the fields, try­ing to for­mu­late a plan.

Pi­geons love to eat; find their food and they won’t be far be­hind. With no birds to de­coy I tar­geted them at the edge of the fields in­stead.

With things the way they were, I couldn t af­ford to miss any op­por­tu­nity.

Fi­nally! This is what I have been search­ing for so des­per­ately.

This looks quite promis­ing.

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