The start of good bags
By mid-May the flow of pigeons had dried up since the last of the spring drillings, but laid barley heralds the start of good bags for the next four months
Writing this in the middle of May, we in the south-eastern part of the country are experiencing near drought-like weather, with barely measurable rainfall over the past two months. The flow of pigeons has also dried up since the last of the spring drillings six weeks ago. My local gamedealer’s cold store was rammed with trays of woodpigeons just eight weeks ago, but now it is as though the species has been wiped from the face of the Earth, so few am I seeing.
Of course, both Paul and I are doing our usual scouting trips and waiting for things to change for the better, as they surely will, but where the hell are they? I know I predicted an exodus from my patch before Christmas, purely because 90 per cent of the rape crops failed to germinate due to tinder dry seedbeds. We had some good bags on rape on Paul's ground, but even these birds appear to have vanished. Things were much the same last year, but the crop that really set the ball rolling was winter barley, and now is when you should start checking the fields on your territory, particularly after any summer thunderstorms. Winter barley offers pigeons their first opportunity to get at protein rich grain since last harvest, but, because the stalks are not as stiff as winter wheat, pigeons have to wait for laid patches to appear before they can access it. Farmers tend not to grow a big percentage of winter barley, sometimes only one or two fields, so all the ingredients are there for really huge bags – pigeons’ keen to get a first taste of grain and usually just a few areas to find it.
Our tactics on this crop are fairly straightforward, starting with identifying what part of the field is most popular with the birds and then setting up as close to this area as possible. It doesn’t matter if that area is in the middle of the field, following a tramline will always get you where you need to be. We will try to pick the largest flattened area to set the decoys on, purely to make picking-up as easy as possible, although we’ll still be prepared to lose up to 20 per cent of shot birds that either drop into standing corn, or drop out
“My gamedealer’s cold store is as though the woodpigeon has been wiped from Earth”
of sight through the tangled stems.
It is not fair to expect a dog to work for long in hot conditions, and you run a real risk of a barley awn entering its ear or eye. It is a choice that every decoyer must make, executing the farmer’s wishes to shoot the birds knowing you are not going to retrieve them all, or refusing to go at all and run the risk of losing the permission. Paul even had a farmer last year, who was so keen for us to protect his crop, that he let us drive our quad through the standing corn to reach the best spot. He was right to be concerned, because over the next three weeks we killed more than 1,200 birds from this one field alone!
When setting out the decoys, we make sure that everything is up on canes or cradles because flighting pigeons are looking for any movement that might indicate where their pals are feeding. Flappers work well in these situations, but more often than not we rely on two rotaries placed well upwind of the killing zone. The beauty of setting up in the middle of the field means we can employ our deadly “two hides, one set of decoys” setup, usually with our backs to the wind. Anything that decoys “into the hole” rarely escapes the crossfire, though we are, of course, extremely vigilant how we take our shots. Pigeons generally decoy well on laid barley, so we can often minimise losses by only shooting at birds over the laid bits.
To clean up or not?
The next thing to consider is whether to pick up shot birds as you go, or leave them where they lay until the end. On big days we usually have a couple of pick ups early on just to thicken the layout with fresh colour, and then leave the rest until we have finished. It is remarkable how incoming birds ignore shot pigeons lying upside down, on top of each other, or only a couple of feet apart. It goes against everything all the experts tell you, but we have proved it time and time again that constantly leaving your hide to pick shot birds deters the flightline far more than an untidy pattern. It also proves that there is no such thing as a “killing pattern” that pundits insist you must create for success. On some of our bumper days we have had as many as 500 dead birds strewn within a 50-yard radius of our hide, and it has not made the slightest difference to flighting pigeons.
Though the height of feeding activity is usually in the afternoon and early evening, we like to arrive mid-morning to catch the start of the flight. Prior reconnaissance will have told us where the best spot is likely to be, so it is usually just a question of watching a few birds arrive to confirm this. Occasionally pigeons will switch areas on the day, but this is often when they have eaten out patches that they have been feeding on for a couple of days, so it pays to check if this is the case. A thousand pigeons eat a lot of grain in a day, and they probably spill a lot more, but it is easy to spot an exhausted area because the stalks just stand up with nothing on the end of them. Expect to still be shooting as late as 7.30pm as pigeons will keep trying to get in during the longest days of the year.
The only thing now is to face the daunting task of picking up and transporting everything back to the vehicle, it often gets dark before we finally trundle off the field, exhausted. Even so, it is essential to get the birds into the game dealer's cold storage if you do not have one of your own. Nothing is more disappointing than leaving this task until the next day only to find the birds crawling with maggots.
Laid barley heralds the start of good bags for the next four months. I can’t wait!
It often gets dark before Peter and Paul trundle off the field after the daunting task of picking up