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.

Feed­ing ac­tiv­ity

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.

Late pick-up

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!

Daunt­ing task

It of­ten gets dark be­fore Peter and Paul trun­dle off the field af­ter the daunt­ing task of pick­ing up

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