Com­ing home to roost

The game-shoot­ing sea­son might be over, but, says Adrian Dan­gar, Fe­bru­ary is the time to head out to the woods to wait for wave upon wave of wily wood­pi­geons to come in to roost at dusk

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Adrian Dan­gar

One Fe­bru­ary evening, Adrian Dan­gar pits his wits against wave upon wave of wily wood­pi­geons

It’s all too easy to over­look the hum­ble wood­pi­geon, but how many of us stood on a peg last sea­son and watched a crack shot tum­ble a small grey speck from the sky with quite the best ef­fort of the day? the feat is usu­ally pulled off in front of a cap­tive au­di­ence wait­ing for the first long tails to ap­pear through the tree­tops and is quickly for­got­ten amid the hurly-burly of a driven shoot day.

Al­though wood­pi­geons—to­gether with the ubiq­ui­tous rab­bit—are no longer the bread and but­ter of even the rough­est modern shoot, wood­ies can pro­vide su­perb sport over de­coys dur­ing spring and au­tumn and, on moor­land, grey raiders hug the high con­tours like driven grouse when flight­ing in to feed on pur­ple July bil­ber­ries.

Most sports­men sin­gle out Fe­bru­ary as their favourite month to chase wood­pi­geons, for game shoot­ing has fin­ished for an­other sea­son and thou­sands of hith­erto for­bid­den acres are sud­denly ac­ces­si­ble. At this time of year, huge flocks cause se­ri­ous dam­age to agri­cul­tural crops and, in hard weather, badly hit fields of oilseed rape look as if they’ve been rav­aged by a plague of lo­custs. Al­though some keen sports­men jump on an aero­plane to ex­tend their sea­son by shoot­ing doves in Cor­doba, oth­ers will have been wait­ing pa­tiently for this mo­ment through­out win­ter.

In my cor­ner of York­shire, shoot­ing pi­geons com­ing home to roost at dusk is a sport in its own right, with Fri­day af­ter­noons through­out Fe­bru­ary re­li­giously set aside for an ac­tiv­ity that ben­e­fits ev­ery arable farmer in the county. As lo­cal game­keeper Ge­orge thompson ex­plains, this is also an op­por­tu­nity for many to en­joy ex­cit­ing sport in a land­scape they have been closely in­volved with all sea­son. ‘Pi­geon shoot­ing of­fers a chance to re­pay those who’ve helped with the shoot dur­ing the year—not only the beat­ers and picker-up­pers, but also

‘On this first Fri­day in Fe­bru­ary, some­one with a gun is man­ning a wood for miles around

the lad that mends a punc­ture or drives a trac­tor. Ev­ery­one loves a Fri­day af­ter­noon at pi­geons,’ he en­thuses.

Pi­geons pre­fer to roost in woods that are both warm and shel­tered, with stands of thick green pines be­ing a favourite sanc­tu­ary. Ac­cord­ing to Ge­orge, ‘the best wood is a dark wood’, al­though the leaf­less canopies of ash and oak can be equally at­trac­tive if they oc­cupy a shel­tered po­si­tion. Strong west­erly winds pro­vide ideal con­di­tions, yet a gale from any quar­ter is prefer­able to still evenings when birds fly much higher and are con­sid­er­ably warier than in wild weather.

A small plan­ta­tion of dense pines within three fields of my home is a favourite roost­ing site—and not just for pi­geons. To stand at its edge on a blus­tery win­ter’s evening is to wit­ness wave af­ter wave of wood­ies ap­proach­ing low and fast along their reg­u­lar flight line above the course of a tiny beck. No sooner have they set­tled down for the night than half a dozen buz­zards soar quickly and silently into the pines on dark, pur­pose­ful wings. The ob­server must wait un­til last light for a grand fi­nale pre­sented by im­mense black trails of cack­ling jack­daws, crows and rooks that pour into the tree­tops with a hul­la­baloo to waken the dead.

The corvids would never be turned from their win­ter roost in­side Ings Plan­ta­tion. How­ever, un­less the wind is steady from the west, the pi­geons will find some­where else to sleep. Harome Whin, a 10-acre covert of mixed wood­land sur­rounded by arable farm­land at the Helm­s­ley end of the Sin­ning­ton Vale, is a likely al­ter­na­tive and I meet for­mer ter­ri­er­man, Keith Pre­ston, and farmer, Nick Mar­wood, there on an af­ter­noon when the wind cuts like a knife from the east.

The whin has been man­aged by the lo­cal hunt for as long as any­one can re­mem­ber, with Keith act­ing as its un­paid care­taker through­out the past half cen­tury. He lays thorns in spring, cuts out rides in sum­mer and keeps a watch­ful eye on this rarely dis­turbed wildlife haven.

We en­ter the covert through a hunt­ing gate made by re­tired joiner and Harome man Tange Pickard. I know this be­cause his trade­mark T, fash­ioned from the tin of a baked-bean can, has been fixed to the wooden top beam. We’re in good time, as pi­geons start to come in at least an hour be­fore the on­set of dark­ness. With a thick stand of ev­er­green pines be­hind us and a pro­tec­tive strip sev­eral trees wide along the western bound­ary, this is a warm and shel­tered wood, which also of­fers the ad­van­tage of open clear­ings be­tween tall trees of oak and sycamore that have es­caped the forester’s saw.

Keith and Nick have been shoot­ing to­gether for more than 20 years and each man falls quickly and qui­etly to his favourite po­si­tion, with their backs to the cold east­erly as, like most other birds, pi­geon pre­fer to land into the wind. Keith cra­dles an old English shot­gun that was left to him by the late Fa­ther Wal­ter Maxwell-stu­art of Am­ple­forth fame—dur­ing his time at the school, gen­er­a­tions of pupils shot roost­ing pi­geons in this very wood.

The wood­land floor is a soft tawny mess, splat­tered with ran­dom pale

drop­pings be­neath the favoured roosts. Bram­bles sprout en­er­get­i­cally through the de­bris to twist and turn into prickly nets that trapped and held flimsy brown leaves when they flut­tered earth­wards be­fore Christ­mas. Else­where, clumps of green bracken stand as tes­ta­ment to a mild win­ter and huge pines bow low in def­er­ence to the pre­vail­ing west­er­lies—some have their fall bro­ken by the boughs of mighty oak, oth­ers have top­pled over al­to­gether to lie like skele­tons on the for­est floor with bleached brit­tle branches for ribs.

It’s 3.45pm and we can hear fluid notes of bird­song from the un­der­growth, then the sud­den shrill and un­ex­pected hoot of an early tawny owl. Jack­daws are cack­ling bois­ter­ously from the far side of the wood and a crow caws harshly from an un­seen tree­top be­fore van­ish­ing. Given half a chance, ei­ther man would have shot the mur­der­ous preda­tor ahead of any pi­geon.

The first wood­ies ar­rive soon af­ter the crow’s de­par­ture, some in large flocks that fly high and pur­pose­fully on faint whin­ing wing beats to­wards an­other bed for the night, but oth­ers cir­cle like flight­ing duck be­fore fold­ing their wings and plum­met­ing into the tree­tops. The guns are busy now, ei­ther wait­ing to shoot birds just be­fore they land among the branches or swing­ing through grey mis­siles slid­ing across the win­dow of watery sky above their heads. A few tum­ble earth­wards to bounce in a shower of white feath­ers, but many more jink sharply and fly on un­mo­lested.

Dur­ing the flight’s peak, 40 min­utes be­fore dark, sev­eral birds swoop into their perches with­out be­ing spot­ted by ei­ther gun, only to clat­ter nois­ily away at the next shot. Al­though dressed in drab cloth­ing, nei­ther man be­lieves it’s nec­es­sary to don cam­ou­flage or build elab­o­rate hides to avoid de­tec­tion. ‘The se­cret is to stand com­pletely still un­til you’re ready to fire, prefer­ably with your back to a thick tree trunk,’ ex­plains Keith. ‘They won’t see you that way.’

Sev­eral shots ring out from a nearby thicket to keep birds on the move and re­mind us that, on this first Fri­day in Fe­bru­ary, ev­ery wood for miles around is manned by some­one with a gun.

We draw stumps on the evening 20 min­utes be­fore night­fall, by which time a steady flow of birds has re­duced to a small trickle, and gather up the bag be­fore it’s too dark to find them. Pulling out early al­lows the late ar­rivals to set­tle undis­turbed, for there are fur­ther out­ings planned be­fore roost shoot­ing is done for an­other year. The bag and spent car­tridge cases are counted out­side the wood: 80 shots for a dozen grey ma­raud­ers whose crops are ei­ther full of hard green ivy berries or soft shred­ded rape leaves.

An av­er­age of more than six shots per pi­geon is no slur on the stan­dard of shoot­ing—i’ve seen enough of Keith this evening to re­alise he’s a wasted tal­ent in the beat­ing line— but rather an en­dorse­ment of the sport­ing qual­i­ties of a bird that many find much harder to hit than the high £40 pheas­ant.

Fac­ing page: Ge­orge Thompson takes aim. Above: A ‘grey raider’ in full flight. Below: Nick Mar­wood waits pa­tiently

A tough bird to crack: al­though not seen as valu­able game any­more, wood­pi­geons are still no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to shoot

Top left: Joiner Tange Pickard’s trade­mark T. Above and top right: In win­ter, large flocks can cause se­ri­ous dam­age to crops such as rape. Below: Nick Mar­wood (left) and Keith Pre­ston with the evening’s bag

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