Young in the field

The Field - - Front Page -

Suit­ably mounted with a new pi­geon mo­bile, Dorothy, Jonathan Young heads over the rape fields af­ter the grey crop raiders. But where are they?

SEC­OND only to the whoomph of a bridge go­ing up in flames be­hind you, the hap­pi­est sound is the death groan of a dy­ing car that’s sur­vived too many MOTS. The an­cient P-reg Toy­ota Corolla, famed for its turquoise and al­gae fin­ish, fi­nally splut­tered its last due to a punc­tured some­thing or other, leav­ing space for a new pi­geon mo­bile. But what? The old TC was such a banger it had the hire-car virtue of be­ing all ter­rain, any prang­ing merely adding to its bat­tle scars. The new ma­chine had to be a proper four-wheel drive.

The lo­cal petrol­head went through the list of run­ners. The old boxy Isuzu, of course, but now scarcer than a tee­to­taller at a hunt ball. The neigh­bour’s Nis­san X-trail? First class apart from oil in­con­ti­nence. Land Rover? Now a col­lec­tor’s item. Fi­nally, we agreed upon the picker-up’s favourite, the Suzuki Jimny.

You will have seen them on the shoot­ing field. They’re the Landies some­one has put through the boil wash and shrunk, their dinky stature al­low­ing them to skate over mud while oth­ers do the warthog wal­low. Prac­ti­cal, then, but also wor­ry­ingly cute, bor­der­ing on the camp. “I bet there’s a Suzuki Jimny Club,” warned the petrol­head. “And, worse, you’ll have other own­ers wav­ing at you.”

Un­de­terred, I trawled ebay and even­tu­ally found one near home in a vi­brant shade of elec­tric blue. It wasn’t ex­actly rugsy-tugsy, more a ve­hic­u­lar em­bod­i­ment of syn­chro­nised swim­ming. “Had 32 phone en­quiries al­ready,” said the fore­court sales­man, some­what un­nec­es­sar­ily, as I was smit­ten.

Dorothy, as she’s been chris­tened (she has lots of friends), had her first armed con­tact a few weeks ago. Hav­ing un­sport­ingly cut his win­ter bar­ley early and cul­ti­vated while I was abroad, a lo­cal son of soil texted me that he had “plenty of pidge on the rape stub­ble need­ing some lead”.

Now, farm­ers have a broad in­ter­pre­ta­tion of “plenty”. I’ve driven for an hour to be con­fronted with an ex­cited landowner whose “grey hordes” at­tack­ing his wheat ac­tu­ally con­sisted of six pi­geon and their aunts. This time, though, the in­tel was cor­rect. I drove over to the field and some 150 acres were smoth­ered with busy birds.

A fly-fish­ing junkie told me he’d given up pi­geon-shoot­ing be­cause it was too akin to carp chas­ing. “There’s so much bloody kit,” he lamented. “I started out with a gun and a box of shells and ended up need­ing a mule train.” I re­called his words as I hefted the car­tridge bag, slab of squibs, de­coys, hide poles, whirler, flap­pers, cra­dles, bat­ter­ies, nets, seats, fly spray and all the other es­sen­tials for a day’s de­coy­ing. I’d cheer­fully lose half of it but when you’re try­ing to per­suade birds to choose your dop­pel­gangers over hun­dreds of the real deals you need more whirring and whizzing than Dita Von Teese’s bo­som tas­sels.

I dragged the Boy from his pit – such was the ex­pec­ta­tion – and had him in the car with a cof­fee be­fore he’d re­alised fully the game plan. Ar­riv­ing at the field 20 min­utes later, the Boy’s men­tis was suf­fi­ciently com­pos not to men­tion the bleedin’ ob­vi­ous: the field was about as lively as a road­kill badger. “Don’t worry,” I re­as­sured him. “They’ll come. No-one’s cut any corn round here since yes­ter­day, this is the only rape stub­ble and it was heav­ing with birds yes­ter­day. We’ll set up shop by the oak on the head­land, on the flight­line yes­ter­day.”

Ah, yes­ter­day. Is there a word more ir­ri­tat­ing in the field­sports’ lex­i­con? For an hour noth­ing specked the sky, then a trickle of pi­geon started flow­ing along what had seemed the sec­ondary flight­line. Af­ter 30 min­utes we de­cided to dis­man­tle the hide, pick up the de­coys and move 200 yards to our right.

Now we were right un­der the flight­line but the pi­geon kept high, ig­nor­ing the de­coys and speed­ing down­wind like grouse over the ghylls. A few puffs of white feath­ers showed we were both shoot­ing be­hind at first but then set­tled into the sort of sport that makes the pi­geon such a fab­u­lous quarry.

All too soon, it was time for the Boy to leave but he killed a cracker be­fore traips­ing back across the stub­ble to meet a friend. It had been a won­der­ful few hours but where were the birds that had ap­peared in such lo­cust num­bers the pre­vi­ous day?

At 3pm on the dot, they started land­ing with Heathrow reg­u­lar­ity. In­stead of zap­ping past, they folded their wings and pa­per-darted into the de­coys with a baby’s guile, ig­nor­ing the up­turned bod­ies of their brethren.

By 5pm it was all over and I started pop­ping the bag into a large fer­tiliser sack and load­ing it into Dorothy. We trun­dled past the game dealer, now of­fer­ing 25p a bird, and back home where a small­ish gar­den party, div­ing into a jug of Pimm’s, shied away from my blood-and-feath­ers em­brace.

As ever with wild quarry, the day left a ques­tion. Why had the birds been so res­o­lute in their re­fusal to de­coy ear­lier but so will­ing to play in the late af­ter­noon? I spot­ted the cu­cum­ber sand­wiches, hoovered up the lot and re­mem­bered Jack Buchanan’s crackly ditty: You re­mem­ber Cleopa­tra

Had a date to meet Mark Antony at three

When he came an hour late she said

“You’ll have to wait”

For ev­ery­thing stops for tea.

To at­tract the pi­geon you need more whirring than Dita Von Teese’s bo­som tas­sels

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