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
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