Young in the field
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