roost shooting

Provenance and Pigeons

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Christmas is always a bit barren for me in hunting terms. Not due to family commitments or work. I to tend to volunteer to work across the break as I prefer to take my holiday days in fairer seasons. The main reason, however, is that it is often the one time of the year my landowners would often rather not see me! On the lead-in to the traditional Boxing Day shoot, they have been busy dogging-in game-birds and topping up the feeders to keep the birds close in the coverts. The last thing they want is me creeping around the spinneys and pushing the birds away, much as they appreciate my efforts earlier in the year. One landowner always hosts the local Harrier pack on the land just prior to Christmas too, so I make myself scarce. These are small prices to pay for the freedom to roam with gun and dog for the rest of the year.

This morning, two weeks into the New Year but with the pheasant season still live, I slid from the seat of the motor into an unusually warm Westerly breeze. I had parked alongside a high log-pile and the miserable grey cast to the sky foretold another damp and squalid day ahead. As I loaded my two magazines with Webley Accupells, the sterling fodder of my little BSA Ultra SE, a haunting sound grew in volume and I looked toward the pollarded willows bordering the flooded water meadows. A huge skein of greylag geese came beating over the tree-line. An avian blitzkrieg, their huge wings beating a down-draught that could topple cathedrals. They wheeled about, en-masse, then descended legs akimbo into the splashes on the meadow beyond my view. Their vocabulary drowned out all other sound … even the inland gulls that so annoy me with their presence. Xenophobia? You bet.

Staring along the track towards my intended venue, I smiled as a couple of cock pheasants broke from cover noisily. I tipped my cap to this seasons Boxing Day survivors. As I moved along the muddy trail, my own quarry broke cover consistently. The clatter of branch and the flash of grey, violet and white … darting out across the winter stubbles. Again I could afford to smile. They would be back later. My plan was a walk-about and then a session at the ‘elevenses’. ‘Elevenses?’, I hear you ask. These are the woodpigeons that come to a late-morning roost while they digest their early morning plunder. I paused on my walk to check the rifles zero using one of the tiny paper targets I carry in my bag. The thirty yard zero was fine. I moved on. My activity had disturbed one of the local buzzards. It came sweeping over to protest. How would you describe a buzzards call? Scribes of old called it ‘mewling‘ and I can find no better description. The bird swept low over the wood, it’s complete contempt at my presence paying compliment to its lack of persecution in these parts.

I had already marked a spot, at the woods edge and with a cover of pines to use as my personal backdrop. No kit, no decoys, no frills today. Just a solid, dark curtain of cover at my back and an open view of the bare sitty trees to my front. As I crept into position I could see dozens of woodies and corvids way out on the stubbles and in the trees half a mile away. Had I picked the wrong spot? We would see.

This quiet retreat (for an hour or two in a wood) is pure indulgence. This my church, my temple, my mosque, my synagogue … my space. Nature is my ‘deity’. And Nature demands no subservience from bird or beast or tree or flower. We human hunters are simply beasts of a higher order and must still bow to Nature. We are feral. Our eyes, ears, nose and instincts are tuned into a dimension that few of our associates understand, often even our direct kin. We don’t hear a crow ‘croak’ like most. We hear it speak. It’s call will tell us it’s state of mind .. alert, relaxed, warning, courting? We can smell where the fox passed an hour earlier. We can sense that we’re being watched intensely and will stop in our tracks until we identify the ‘watcher’. The more time we spend in the wild, the more we understand and identify with the wild. And what many fail to realise is that until you ‘kill’, you can never recognise the value of life and the importance of the provenance brought through death. That is too deep a thought for many to face.

Having put a few birds in the bag from the morning roost, I decided to go walk-about. It was evident that Old Brock has clearly been plundering the buried squirrel caches and sign of their nocturnal meandering was all over the wood. The badger is definitely becoming the dominant creature in the coverts, even to the extent of evicting foxes from their dens to expand their social housing projects.

I stopped to indulge in a flask of tomato soup. Remember Barnett’s Laws? The minute you lay your gun against the tree trunk, your quarry will appear. A fat carrion crow lit on a high branch as I drank. I slid behind the tree trunk deftly, lowered the flask slowly to the deck and lifted the Ultra. I chambered a pellet and slid around the blind side of the tree. It was still there. Compensating for elevation, I slipped the pellet. The bird tumbled into the mulch. A small victory in the grand scheme of things … but that’s how Nature works. If things are balanced gently, with moderation and respect, she doesn’t have to unleash the fury she often does to restore her demanded equilibrium.

Keep the faith

Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2018

Norfolk Sniper

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I carry a pair of secateurs in my shooting bag all year around. Not only are they useful for cutting back vegetation when sniping with an air rifle but also for trimming off paws or tails when skinning out. At this time of year I also carry another useful tool, a Gerber folding saw. This helps me when I’m crafting natural hides and is handy for clearing minor tree-fall debris from paths and rides. During the winter months I do a fair bit of maintenance around my permissions to help keep clear, noise free progress before the spring vegetation shoots up and covers everything.
Natural hide building, for me, means adapting growing shrubbery to hide me, not cutting vegetation and piling it onto a frame. The latter ends up as a dead clump of litter that stands out like a sore thumb. An easy spot for a wary crow or passing wood-pigeon. The former is much more preferable and although it may mean using a bit of initiative (and the tools mentioned above) you end up with a permanent, year round living hide that you don’t have to carry or erect. 
I tend to look for copses and spinneys home to either pigeon roosts or used as transit points for corvids, which also have a spread of evergreen shrubbery. Ivy, mistletoe, azalea, laburnum, laurel and wild box all make superb cover. Old growth of the larger shrubs tends to spread high and wide and therefore often offers a natural ‘igloo’ in which to crouch or stand with a rifle. A bit of subtle engineering with the saw or the secateurs can open up shooting port-holes and give a view of the surrounding canopy.
I find this kind of hide-sniping one of the most relaxing shooting activities I undertake. Getting into place early, an hour or two before sunset, allows you to just sit and watch the wood settle as the diurnal creatures scratch the last morsels of a dying day. Tribes of magpies hop mischievously from spinney to spinney cackling like maniacs in the crowns of the bare beech and birch. Robins trill in the low cover, serenading the dropping sun. Rooks beat heavily, a disorganised mob with a common appointment at some far flung roost. The stoat snakes along the woods border, closing in on the rabbit warrens just as the conies are emerging to browse. The dark swoop of a silent shadow draws your breath and announces the awakening of the tawny owl. A solo crow lights on a bobbing twig at the woods edge and falls to the first shot even before the pigeon draw in. A death best hidden from the eyes of the grey flocks, so fast retrieved. 
Through the spindly boughs on the windward side of the copse, a full moon hangs in the cloudless sky. The bite of the Easterly might just hold off the hoar frost but if it falters, birds will freeze where they perch tonight, for sure. Suddenly, the white of the moon is scored by streaks of dark movement and you stiffen in anticipation, drawing back into the cover you carved for yourself earlier. Here they are. The pigeons. They circle low above the wood and you dare not move a muscle. They sweep away and turn to float in with their beaks into the wind. The clamour and crash of the landing woodie is an undignified affair, like the splashdown of the swan or the scuttle-stop of the gull. Now is the time for the shooter to hold firm and resist a pop at the first bird in sight. Let the wood settle for a few minutes and seek out your mark. Act too fast and you will empty the roost with your first shot … even with a silenced air rifle. Wait tool long and your quarry will disappear, one by one, into the deep cover of the ivy. The pigeons night chamber. Take the furthest bird you can range comfortably. This will give the impression that the danger is distant, not below, when it topples to the floor. Stay still. Allow the roost to settle for a few minutes before chancing another. If possible, change the direction of the target. If the first was North, look to the South. The birds will soon realise that they will need to change tonights venue but maximise your chances by de-centralising the danger. Make them huddle inwards before they finally panic and take flight.
An old crow and a hat-trick of pot-fillers were enough tonight, the latter collected while there was still good light. That stinging breeze and climbing moon were chilling my old bones already and the lure of a warm house, hot meal and a glass of blood-warming Merlot were too much. As I tramped back to the motor, the haunting croon of that tawny owl called time on this winter shooting shift.