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
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