First bit of bar­ley

Sporting Gun - - GEAR -

It was a case of now or never! With the field due to be cul­ti­vated in a day or so there was noth­ing to be lost, and I couldn’t think of a bet­ter way of spend­ing a boil­ing hot af­ter­noon than re­lax­ing in a shady hedge over­look­ing a small flock of pi­geon de­coys on the very first bit of bar­ley stub­ble.

Within sight of my work­shop win­dow, a few wood­ies had been work­ing the stub­ble dur­ing the af­ter­noons, but though 15 or 20 birds might be my lot – or worse – giv­ing it a whirl would pro­vide a few fresh pi­geon breasts for the bar­bie, and a sup­ply of car­cases for use as de­coys to start off the stub­ble sea­son. And be­sides, I re­ally felt like hav­ing a shot or two.

Dif­fi­cult set-up

The set-up wasn’t sim­ple. A foot­path runs di­rectly along one side of the small field, putting half of it out of bounds. The an­noy­ing thing was that it was cur­rently the main feed­ing area where the flight­lines first en­tered the field. The prob­lem was solved by fix­ing a cou­ple of white bags rather strate­gi­cally in the hedge; not to scare any­thing off, merely to chan­nel them along to­wards a re­cep­tion at the far end.

Driv­ing up the rise to a handy oak, a team of half-shells were set promi­nently down­wind within easy range of its leafy branches. These would do for a start, as my last breasted out car­cases had been com­pletely drenched in a sud­den down­pour. By the time they were staked out, the flap­per added, I built a com­fort­able net hide among the bracken and safely parked the truck. The sweat was al­ready trick­ling down my back as I set­tled in to ar­range the gear in or­der, in­clud­ing plenty of cold drink. Though well-shaded from the sun, it was al­most air­less in­side the hide with thick un­der­growth block­ing a nice breeze com­ing from the rear.

Favourite place

I love shoot­ing over the first bit of open stub­ble. Af­ter weeks of at­tempt­ing to drop shot birds close by or in light cover that could be searched with­out dam­age, it’s great to be able to take on all in­com­ers in the knowl­edge that most will fall on open ground and be eas­ily gath­ered.

Very lit­tle fell at first, or even moved, though it was still quite early and things would hope­fully im­prove as the day wore on. The view from the hide was very fa­mil­iar; the house where I was born nes­tled be­low me in the val­ley bot­tom at one end of the ham­let with, less than 100 yards away, my present abode at the other. It’s one of my favourite places “at home”, and this par­tic­u­lar site has been used scores of times over the years, in­clud­ing on the odd red-let­ter oc­ca­sion.

But noth­ing looked too promis­ing to­day. The first high floater didn’t like the de­coys at all. Though at­tracted, it no­ticed some­thing wrong and veered off wide as did the sec­ond, which took an ob­vi­ous dis­like to the flap­per. Re­mov­ing it un­til there were at least a few dead birds to sup­ple­ment the de­coy pat­tern had an im­me­di­ate ef­fect as a high bird ar­rived just as I crawled back in the hide. Mak­ing straight for the branches above, it gave an easy start and was soon joined by an­other which spot­ted the de­coys, gave a lit­tle twitch of its tail to al­ter its course and came hurtling down to join them.

Shoot­ing un­der par

Only a few turned up over the first cou­ple of hours, of­fer­ing lit­tle bet­ter than an oc­ca­sional long shot while head­ing for the trees to my left. To be fair, it was the hottest part of the day, al­most air­less, and with that heavy at­mos­phere that makes any­thing re­luc­tant to move far. I was feel­ing lethar­gic my­self and shoot­ing un­der par. Sev­eral times I needed the sec­ond bar­rel when one should have done, partly due to their re­luc­tance to come in, partly frus­tra­tion,

but the re­sult was me clam­ber­ing in and out of the hide, and chas­ing around af­ter winged birds. It’s the last thing you need in such tem­per­a­tures, and adding to the dis­com­fort, the first waves of lit­tle black har­vest bugs had started to emerge – set­tling every­where on bare skin and mak­ing me itch like mad. These thun­der­bugs can be a real pain, hatch­ing out in huge swarms dur­ing pe­ri­ods of hot, hu­mid weather right at har­vest time.

No time to miss

Even­tu­ally there were about a dozen fresh birds set up. Grad­u­ally re­plac­ing the half shells, they were be­gin­ning to do the trick – a fact con­firmed as the lat­est sin­gle ap­proached, veered slightly sideways against the stiff­en­ing breeze and came right in. This was quickly fol­lowed by an­other sweep­ing over fast from be­hind, which curled back, lost height and took the same path in. Reload­ing, I was just in time to spot a dou­ble com­ing close in along the hedge, leav­ing only an in­stant to mount the gun, chuck it in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of the near­est and fire. It crashed heav­ily into the canopy of oak leaves, the sec­ond break­ing off sideways be­fore an­other in­stinc­tive shot sent it spi­ral­ing to the ground. Close be­hind, an­other small bunch pan­icked past – an­other fast dou­ble, and again no run­ners. There sim­ply wasn’t time to miss!

With con­fi­dence build­ing, soon I was pop­ping away mer­rily – al­most on au­topi­lot – drop­ping them in all di­rec­tions and tak­ing on al­most every­thing as if never ex­pect­ing to miss. And very few were as the breeze im­proved, the birds came in a more reg­u­lar fash­ion and most of them ac­tu­ally started de­coy­ing prop­erly. About time!

Though still boil­ing hot, as the wind im­proved the start of a no­tice­able flight­line be­gan. A trickle of birds first seen as dis­tant dots against an ex­panse of blue sky, way across the val­ley, ris­ing and fall­ing on the breeze and dif­fi­cult to fol­low when ap­proach­ing low against a back­ground of dis­tant wood­land trees. Though the line never re­ally got go­ing, there was enough to keep it in­ter­est­ing, sup­ple­mented by a bird or two still sneak­ing in tight along the hedge. Be­gin­ning to re­lax and re­ally en­joy my­self at last, all thoughts of in­dif­fer­ent shoot­ing were gone.

Back in busi­ness

Pe­ri­od­i­cally tidy­ing up, once the pat­tern was suf­fi­ciently built up the rest were stacked in a shady bracken clump in the hedge bot­tom, well out of sight and slightly less ac­ces­si­ble to a cloud of preg­nant blowflies ready to do their worst.

Even­tu­ally this dis­tant line all but dried up, but as that door closed an­other opened as a fresh line be­gan ar­riv­ing from the north-west, dip­ping in low over the nearby belt of ash trees and glid­ing lazily into range. Tweak­ing the hide al­lowed ear­lier sight­ing and I was soon back in busi­ness, tak­ing them on just af­ter curl­ing around the long glide in. Con­sid­er­ing how wary they had been ear­lier, it’s amaz­ing just how stupidly pi­geons can be­have when “to­tally on”. Of­ten af­ter drop­ping a bird or two, right on their tails and ig­nor­ing the shots, oth­ers fol­lowed them in as if noth­ing had hap­pened.

End of the day

I gave it un­til 5.30pm. By then the wind had died, lit­tle was mov­ing around, and there was still the job of searching the nearby hedgerow, where a bird or two had col­lapsed af­ter ap­pear­ing hard hit. In the end al­most every­thing was picked up, in­clud­ing three marked birds that had made it to the nearby ash clump, eas­ily found on clear ground be­neath the leafy canopy. A cou­ple had fallen in the ripe rape­seed be­hind, but these were left with­out ven­tur­ing into what is a frag­ile crop, ready to shed its tiny black seeds at the slight­est touch.

Once home, af­ter a pa­tient check for fly eggs, the bag of 80-odd were laid out to cool on the con­crete work­shop floor, and with the cooler evening tem­per­a­tures they were ready to freeze by bed­time.

WORDS & PIC­TURES RICHARD BRIGHAM

Feed­ing time Bar­ley can pro­duce all the in­gre­di­ents for big bags

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