An iconic el­e­ment of the great Bri­tish land­scape and an es­sen­tial food source for wild crea­tures, the oak can, when the tim­ing is right, pro­vide some great pi­geon shoot­ing

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - WITH ANDY CROW

The fruit of the oak leads us to the birds’ ta­ble

Late au­tumn is a time that lifts the spir­its of many a shooter. The game sea­son is in full swing, the coun­try­side looks mag­nif­i­cent in its red and gold fin­ery and for Andy Crow, this is prime time for pi­geon shoot­ing.

“This time of year, es­pe­cially on a cold, clear morning, we get thou­sands of birds mov­ing through – some al­most cer­tainly mi­grat­ing to warmer climes, some prob­a­bly just head­ing south for richer pick­ings as the weather turns colder,” Andy says. “On some days I see lit­er­ally tens of thou­sands of birds. It’s an amaz­ing sight.

“One of the key things that will at­tract birds to this area and hold some of the pass­ing birds, is acorns. There is no guar­an­tee that any given year will be a good one – as a late frost or two can re­ally af­fect them – but this year has seen a belt­ing crop of acorns and here in the south east we have a lot of de­cid­u­ous wood­land where oaks thrive and that means lit­er­ally tonnes of acorns.

“Ob­vi­ously squir­rels love ‘em. The deer do, too (although in high quan­ti­ties they can be toxic) and so do the pi­geons.”

So with thou­sands of new birds in the lo­cale and a mas­sive food sup­ply on hand, surely this is a guar­an­tee of pi­geon shoot­ing suc­cess? “Well it’s not quite that easy,” he says. Of course it isn’t… We are set­ting up a hide on the fringes of a rape field. The pheas­ants and pi­geons have stunted the growth around a woody shaw brim­ming with oaks leav­ing a belt of clear-ish ground ex­tend­ing 15-20 yards into the field. There are mounds of acorns, even af­ter the at­ten­tions of the birds for the past few weeks. Andy uses bracken fronds to adorn his net­ting and the ef­fect is amaz­ing – the hide just melts into the land­scape, with the green/gold leaves pro­vid­ing su­perb cam­ou­flage.

Next he sets out a pat­tern of de­coys on the clearer patches of earth. “Pi­geons tend to feed in high con­cen­tra­tions on acorns,” he ob­serves. “Ob­vi­ously, the food sup­ply is only avail­able im­me­di­ately un­der the trees, so you of­ten see patches that are absolutely blue with birds. The prob­lem when there is a glut is to keep them in one place. There were, I swear, over a thou­sand birds here a few hours ago. Now? Thirty maybe when we turned up. There were over a thou­sand up the drive to the farm the other morning. Two hours later – gone. There are acorns every­where just now so it’s much harder to tar­get them.

“So I am plan­ning to shoot this to­mor­row (a Satur­day). Firstly, it is a strong flight­line any­way and early in the morning there will be plenty of birds flight­ing past. It’s also thick with acorns and the pi­geons have been stop­ping here in big num­bers pe­ri­od­i­cally.

“But the main thing is this: there will be pheas­ant shoots go­ing on there, there, there and there on Satur­day,” Andy ges­tures to all points of the com­pass. That means the woods else­where will be full of beat­ers and dogs, the val­leys echo­ing to the sound of gun­fire. So the pi­geons will be kept mov­ing, max­imis­ing Andy’s prospects of a de­cent bag.

“If you have a load of pi­geon shoot­ing pals it is of­ten worth co-or­di­nat­ing ef­forts to get the best pos­si­ble re­sult. Not only is it good to share suc­cess but some­times it is the only way to

‘Andy uses bracken fronds to adorn his net­ting and the hide just melts into the land­scape, the gold leaves pro­vid­ing su­perb cam­ou­flage’

se­cure a de­cent day.”

Andy will usu­ally utilise a cou­ple of flap­pers in his pat­tern for acorns, on ei­ther side, to give some move­ment and to sim­u­late the way the pi­geons move while feed­ing. “Be­cause they are quite tightly packed they of­ten fly over one an­other and the flap­per mim­ics this bet­ter than a whirly in my ex­pe­ri­ence.”

With the prepa­ra­tion in place for the morning, we re­sist the temp­ta­tion to pop at any pass­ing birds, giv­ing them peace to roost nearby. The beauty of acorns dur­ing a glut year, I learn, is that they can last well past Christ­mas and give op­por­tu­ni­ties to tar­get the birds when there are few other op­tions.

I have been shoot­ing with Andy in past years and wit­nessed the pro­lific vol­umes of birds pass­ing through at this time of year, at some al­ti­tude and gen­er­ally head­ing south. Flocks in the thou­sands. And yet some in­sist that mi­gra­tion is not part of pi­geon be­hav­iour. So, how does Andy see things?

“We know that pi­geons mi­grate from Scan­di­navia dur­ing the win­ter – and I know what I see with my own eyes,” he says. “My farm is only 30-odd miles north of the Chan­nel. I have plenty of mates who shoot fur­ther south and let me tell you, if they sud­denly had 30,000 birds pitch up on their per­mis­sions, I’d be hear­ing about it!

“Yes, the pi­geons do flock up at this time of year but I have spent the last 40-odd years watch­ing pi­geons and the only con­clu­sion I can draw is that they are headed some­where else. It as­tounds me that we still know so lit­tle about pi­geons to be hon­est!”

The other hot topic of con­ver­sa­tion in the pi­geon shoot­ing world, as with the rest of the shoot­ing com­mu­nity, is the un­will­ing­ness of game deal­ers to take birds. “Pi­geons are one of the best wild meats you can wish to eat. It is absolutely adored by top chefs and yet I hear more and more that game deal­ers aren’t tak­ing pi­geons in. I hope that is not the case or that it is linked to pro­cess­ing ca­pac­ity at this time when the game deal­ers are so busy. One thing is for cer­tain though. I won’t ever throw a wood pi­geon away. If I have to process the birds my­self or dis­trib­ute di­rectly to friends then so be it. “In the mean­time, I think we should all be do­ing the best we can to pro­mote game meat and I know my mate Keith Wat­son has had great suc­cess on so­cial me­dia with his new Face­book ven­ture called Game for the Ta­ble. It shows how many of us love eat­ing the game that we shoot and I am sure that we could all con­vert a few more peo­ple with a favourite recipe or two over the Christ­mas pe­riod. I’ll be knock­ing up some ba­con-wrapped pi­geon nuggets in­spired by my re­cent trip to Ar­gentina!”

Andy sets up a hide on the fringes of a rape field

A pat­tern of de­coys are set up on the clearer patches of earth

This year has pro­duced a bumper crop of acorns

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