Yesterday I had my first taste of pigeon shooting, suggested by a friend and organised by the charming Will Beasley. It seemed the perfect time: it’s close season for game birds, and pigeon shooting has been in the news with proposed changes to the legislation under which they are shot in Britain. We’ve also just been basking in a fortnight of wonderfully warm spring weather, so I was really quite looking forward to a shooting Saturday spent in sunny Oxfordshire soaking up some vitamin D.
Anyway, here is what I learnt today:
1 – never trust the British weather – one swallow does not a summer make, and a spell of fine weather in early March will almost certain presage some ball-achingly cold weather as soon as you commit to sitting in a field all day. As the old saying should go: March comes in like a straw donkey and goes out like a an angry lion stuck in the polar bear enclosure at a zoo.
2 – invest in decent thermals – they’ll stand to you.
3 – invest in a decent thermos flask – as above.
4 – saving the most eye-catching point until last: beware the zombie pigeon.
While I cannot stress the importance of points 1 to 3 enough, I expect your attention will have snagged on the sneaky sensationalist ‘zombie pigeon’ tag. Fair enough; it was a deliberate gimmick, however it’s still worth noting as it was the one thing that really caught me on the hop (as is often the case with the unexpected appearance of the undead).
I had expected to be challenged and surprised by pigeon shooting in a number of ways. I’d heard the humble woodpigeon referred to as ‘poor man’s grouse’ and ‘blue grouse’ enough times by excellent shots to know that shooting them wouldn’t be easy. I was expecting all sorts of angles, limited visibility and the need for lightening quick reactions without losing focus, and, as I tried unsuccessfully to connect with the first few birds in my hide, I began to see what the fuss was all about. Or so I thought…
To my great delight, it all came together as an incoming bird swung towards me from the right. I rose from my seat, lined up the shot and ‘bang’ the pigeon folded up like a Brompton bicycle and thudded to the ground. This gave me a much needed confidence boost and I cracked on a hit a few more before lunch, though just as Will turned up at noon to see how I was getting on, I saw one of the birds I had hit get up and waddle off towards the trees.
I pointed it out to him that I thought there was a runner and, as Flynn the cocker spaniel was sent off to collect it, Will said, ‘Oh yeah, they do that sometimes.’ I thought little of it, until Flynn was unable to find the first bird I had shot. I had been pretty sure of its location – I’d noted where it fell and checked to make sure it was still there at intervals to pay tribute to it as my first pigeon. Flynn’s eager nose however could not pick it. I was puzzled. Will said not to worry and that it had probably just wandered off like the other one, saying they did that a out. I murmured that maybe this was the case and hoped that he didn’t think I was trying to exaggerate how many birds I’d shot, though I was thinking, ‘But it was dead?’
After a quick cheese and pickle sandwich, I had a couple of satisfying shots that brought the pigeon cleanly out of the air and onto the ground. Then came a blank patch. A few misses followed by a completely empty sky.
As I sat appreciating my thermals and sipping a cup of spiced tea from my thermos, something caught my eye through the camouflage netting of the hide Will had set up for me. It was a full second before I realised that it was just one of the decoys, bobbing in the wind. I was impressed how realistic it looked in this half light, but felt a fool.
Then another movement – another double take. One of the dead birds had got up and was walking calmly away from the pattern of decoys. Then it happened again. Then a third time. On each occasion I had thought the birds stone dead in the air.
It was rather demoralising and made me appreciate how lucky I have been to have shot with crack teams of pickets-up on hand. It was also a little unnerving to see these pigeon get up as if coming back from the dead. I had often joked to friends about London being full of one legged, one eyed pirate pigeons; perhaps these ‘zombie pigeon’ were Oxfordshire’s revenge?
Then, with an extra-icy gust of wind, one of the decoys blew off its stick and started to bobbly along the newly drilled earth. It sent a brief shiver of panic down my spine – were even the plastic ones possessed by unnatural forces?
Fortunately, Will was on hand to dispel all zombie fears. ‘Are you using fibre or plastic wads?’ He asked.
‘Fibre,’ I replied, and this turned out to be the source of the voodoo hex (though I suspect my less than perfect shooting had an effect too).
Will’s theory is that plastic wads keep the shot pattern more even and deliver a more effective punch when they hit the target, whereas a lot of standard fibre wads can pattern unevenly, leaving gaps. These are not as much of a problem for young pheasants and partridges but, Will added, wily old woodpigeon are a tougher type of cookie.
We packed up as the sun sank behind tall, still bare, trees where small squadrons of crows were already coming in to roost for the evening. I felt a distinct sense of relief that I hadn’t unwittingly unleashed an army of undead pigeon on Oxfordshire, and an equally clear sense of resolve to practice and get my shots spot on next time, just in case any zombie tendencies survive a change in cartridge.