The best laid plans sometimes don’t go as expected, and the first serious day I had planned to tackle the increasing number of pigeons that have found the 1200 acres of rape fields we have was a prime example. We don’t have huge numbers of pigeons in the area, but they are rising steadily and I’ve been seeing more and more around on shoot days. The farm wanted the pigeons shot. The gas guns were not stopping them from massing on the fields, as is often the case with gas guns, so I needed to get out and deal with the problem.

I have mentioned the buckwheat that has been drilled among the rape before; it’s a new method of keeping flea beetles off the rape. The theory is that the buckwheat is planted as a companion crop and grows very quickly, providing a perfect habitat for insects that will prey on the flea beetles, their eggs and larvae – such as ladybirds, hover flies and parasitic wasps. Unfortunately pigeons can’t seem to get enough of the small kernels of wheat that stand proud of the young rape plants.

Although the farm had seen quite a few pigeons moving around in large flocks on the rape fields and had understandably jumped to the conclusion that they were feeding on the crop, I was fairly sure that they weren’t actually attacking the rape yet. I figured they were on the buckwheat and my theory was confirmed on one of our game-shoot days.

A couple of pigeons were shot that day, and when I opened their crops they were stuffed with buckwheat and a small amount of rape.

All in the timing

The heads of buckwheat are far smaller than conventional wheat, so it was only a matter of time before they cleared it and started on the rape – I was pretty sure they had reached that point just before Christmas. So what I had planned was a day out in the hide to get a few birds in the bag so that I’d be able to see just what they were now feeding on.

My plan was that if the first few birds had enough rape in their crops, I’d continue shooting for as long as I was getting some traffic. If they were still mainly on buckwheat, I thought it would make more sense to leave them alone for a while and set up a day with some of my mates. We could then spread ourselves around the farm and keep the large flocks that are now in ‘rape mode’ moving and we’d be sure to get a far bigger bag than I would by myself in a hide in one location.

You know how it is decoying in the winter over rape – the flocks are huge and move around in one massive lump, so finding a good spot under a flightline can be tricky and extremely frustrating. With three or four hides and guns out you just get far more opportunities, and if you’re lucky the large flocks can sometimes split up with the disturbance. Then you stand a fair chance of thinning out a good number of pigeons.

All change

However, the plan soon changed. I introduced you to my new Labrador puppy Tweed in the previous issue. She’s showing a lot of promise and her training has been going well, which is really encouraging.

The morning before the planned trip out decoying, I’d done a bit of training with her before setting off to run a shoot-day.

I’m just starting to introduce her to the lead and she’s fine while we’re walking around in the house, but still a bit nervous when we’re outside. I was just finishing training and I had her on the lead to take her out to the kennel. As we left the house she must have tripped on the steps and landed awkwardly. She started to bounce all over the place yelping. It took me a moment to realise what had happened, but she was clearly in pain and couldn’t put weight on one of her hind legs. So off to the vet we went.

An x-ray showed that she’d managed to fracture her femur. She’s had a metal plate added to help the fracture heal, which will have to be removed in a month or so as she’s still not fully grown. The good news is that she’s predicted to make a full recovery as she’s so young, but the bad news is that it’s cost me four thousand five hundred pounds and counting! Not what you want just before Christmas!

The following morning I had to go and pick Tweed up from the vet. By the time I’d got back home, settled her down and made her comfortable it was lunchtime. As you’ve probably noticed, just before Christmas it’s dark by 4pm and you can guarantee that the pigeons will

have fed and be tucked up in a warm wood by 3.30pm. It was certainly not going to be a full day’s decoying but I decided that I would spend a couple of hours in a hide by the side of one of the roosting woods.

Buckwheat or rape?

This particular wood had been full of pigeons on the last shoot day, so it seemed a fair bet for some action. I’d be able to watch the flightlines and work out the most popular fields that the birds were feeding on, and I’d also be able to open the crops of any pigeons I shot to see if they’d moved over from the buckwheat to the rape. All good recon for another day when I could arrange to have two or three others out shooting as well.

The wood I’d chosen is at the top of a hill and you can see for some distance across the motorway and the farm. As I arrived there was a pretty decent flock there already and they lifted as I drove past. I drove to the far end of the wood down a track and sat and watched for 10 minutes or so. Spending a little time just watching for movement is never wasted and I was able to pick out three distinct flightlines that were being used by pigeons that had fed and were returning home to sit and digest their meal. There was also a decent flock feeding on the rape one field away.

The best of the lines was right by the road, so that wasn’t an option, but the next best line was perfect for what I needed. There was a strong breeze on my back and the sun was low and off to my right. The pigeons returning to the wood were coming in low to stay under the wind and I could see them a fair way off. I set up my hide right next to the wood in front of a hawthorn bush and placed my plastic decoys out in on the low rape about 20yd away. I didn’t expect any birds to decoy, but returning birds seeing the decoys on the ground would bring them in close enough for a shot as they came in to roost. That was the plan, anyway.

It didn’t take long for the first customers to lumber over the motorway, which was about 700yd away. They lifted over the traffic, hit the wind and immediately dropped down and worked their way up the field towards me. The decoys stood out really well in the low rape and did their job brilliantly. I had some lovely crossing birds and plenty lifted up from their low flightline as they came in to land in the trees.

You wouldn’t call it a really busy couple of hours, but it was enjoyable, and I did get some birds. It also told me a great deal about where the popular feeding spots are at the moment. I know this land well because I’ve worked and shot over it for many years. If I see a pigeon coming back to the wood from a certain direction, I have a pretty good Idea where it has been feeding and that information is invaluable for my next outing.

With the flightlines dried up and the birds gathered, I had a moment to open the crops of some of them. It was exactly as I thought and the crops were filled with roughly half rape and half buckwheat. Over the next week or two they will have cleared the buckwheat and will be causing serious damage to the rape. The pressure will be on then to reduce their numbers, which should be fun and an opportunity to get my friends out as well.

Rape Recon