September is over and the precious small window of the golden fields disappear day by day as the Autumn stubbles are darkened again by the plough over the East Anglian landscape. For many it is only now that their thoughts turn to the gun and the pursuit of Autumn quarry. For over two months now the grouse have been falling into the purple heather of Northern England and beyond but this seems a distant land. Here in the intensive arable landscape of East Anglia, the massive combines drown with charf and dust blocking the sun as the last fields of wheat are cleared.
While so many rave about glories of the grouse which indeed I have been privileged enough to experience some extraordinary days sport, it is too easy to forget the incredible sport we have on our door step. The arable but so varied landscape of East Anglia is home to so many species which are here because of generations of farmers producing food on this fertile land.
Over the Summer I have been joined by friends on our usual corvid days; what sport! The quartering Carrion in full cry as it approaches the decoys almost anticipating your first move. The high planing rooks banking at the first sign of movement, not convinced by their lifeless friends on the ground. Jackdaws flocked jinking, twisting, diving but heading straight for the hide as is their defence strategy, which so often works. The Lesser Black backed Gull looking for any and every feeding opportunity, inquisitive but wary of the hide. And of course the passing Wood Pigeon.
Now September is here and Millie and I have had our first serious go at the Wood pigeons. This is a major relief to Millie my yellow lab as the Wood pigeon, although a bit feathery in the mouth is so much nicer than a sharp beaked Carrion Crow and the load of electric fences of our corvid shooting days.
The pigeons arrived steadily in the heat, although I set up early to avoid the worst of it. Although there were a good number already on the field at 6.45am, it took a while for them to return. The venue was a field of vetches as yet to be combined and the pigeons having lost interest in the rape stubble had now arrived. The birds were surprisingly wary of the combination of magnet and bouncers and the usual quandary of what and when to change occurred. However, as ever wood pigeons made some fantastic sport. Even in early September out on the fields, few of this yearâ€™s young squabs will be seen. Were they actually still here after this cold wet late spring and summer? Hopefully they are hidden away in the woods and hedges but time will tell.
The second week of September is our team event; our first of two Driven Pigeon Days. These involve little more pressure than going out on your own after a pigeon and all those who organise shooting know, the organisers worry that everyone has some sport. I was extremely sceptical that we would get anywhere near last yearâ€™s two hundred and two. This was after a beautiful summer watching squabs mature successfully throughout June, July and August a far cry from this summer!
This year we would be thirteen guns, handpicked for their field craft and shooting ability, all good friends and serious shooting enthusiasts. They also have some idea where they going round the estate, so should not get lost!
Our plan is to split into three teams; a central team of standing and two teams of 4/5 walking and squeezing the ground to the guns standing in the middle. Our first drive would incorporate a fifty acre block of woodland and decoy ponds, where we would hope to catch a duck or two as a bonus. Forty five minutes later we rallied with a dozen or so pigeons, two teal, one mallard and a very alive Pintail destined for my waterfowl collection ( incidentally pinioned and feeding on hand thrown pellets a day later)
Next we took in a two hundred acre block which included a valley; woodland strips the reservoir as well as some stubbles to three standing guns. One and half hours later we stopped for a well earned coffee and sticky buns. We had bagged two partridges, five tufted ducks, crow, magpie and twenty or so pigeons, for as usual rather a lot of shots but our team were finding form learning to relax and really read the lead needed for the high pigeon that twisted and turned. On the other hand, we were getting the hang of snap shooting the pigeon as they flushed, jinked and disappeared into the safety of the free canopy. Oh for the game birds later on in the season that fly straight and true, rarely too high and totally ignoring you as you stand in the middle of a field with a white dog. But would it be as much fun?
After one briefer sortie of fields, belts and open arable land with positioned guns on flight lines, it was lunch. We had approximately sixty in the bag. All of us had had some shooting and I was quietly confident that the afternoon would produce more.
As ever lunch is eaten outside whether it be September or January .It is a casual affair of pooled resources including pies, rolls, cakes, juices. Guests being asked to bring supplies of some sort and then help yourself from the picnic tables.
The first drive after lunch would be 250 acres of stubbles, small woods, another reservoir a woodland belt and some ponds, we call it The Corvid Drive. I would start shooting approximately one mile from the eastern team but in contact by radio. The birds will move back and forth over the central guns positioned in woodland blocks between the two driving teams. The secret of the drive is to keep squeezing the ground without losing the pigeons or letting them settle between the two walking teams.
One and half hours later and our team struggled back to the gun bus with over fifty pigeons plus various, and tall stories of ridiculously long pigeons killed. Few mentioned the box of cartridges fired for very little! However everyone knows this is not a days shooting to concern yourself in the slightest regarding shots to kills. In fact quite simply, the more shots you fire, the more the pigeons are kept moving and the more sport the rest of the team enjoys.
We had now moved the bulk of the pigeons to 400 acres bordered by a large estuary which few would want to cross. The first drive would be the Park; fifty acres fronted by the estuary and the remainder bordered by a brick wall and belted with mature Beech, Laurel and Oak. The Park was ringed with guns standing behind the Park boundary belt, to ambush the birds as they left. Wing guns against the estuary opened up the shooting, sending pigeons back and forth to meet the standing guns. A quick drive but everyone had had shooting and most carried quarry back to the bus.
It was now 4 pm and time for tea and the finish of any of the remaining cake. Overlooking the estuary, we discussed the positioning and routes for the next drive. Four guns would squeeze seventy acres of stubbles and a central belt to a valley where another five guns would stand concealed in a ride. The remaining four would be dropped over a mile away to flush pigeons from a forty acre wood down into the same small valley. The whole drive would be bordered by the estuary which would help keep the pigeons from straying.
Shooting was fairly continuous as the birds lifted from the stubbles back to the woods, to face the concealed guns, and then flushed back again onto the open ground. They then split to mill around over the woodland areas, where the unlucky ones would fall to the shots though the canopy. In the fresh breeze, birds seemed quite happy to continue moving but conscious of the time, we continued to move in on the standing gun position. The pile of pigeons grew quickly as the guns returned and thankfully on the last drive of the day we had lost nobody.
We returned to the meeting point by 6.45pm, to sort the final bag and retrieve birds lost in the ten foot high brambles and sea of sugar beet.
The total bag was;
232 Wood pigeons
6 Feral Pigeons
4 Carrion Crows
1 Pintail (picked but not killed!)
5 Tufted Duck
2 Red legged Partridges
I walked back into the house at 10 pm having returned the gun bus and taken the birds to the game dealer, secure in the knowledge that everyone had thoroughly enjoyed themselves; and the pigeons had in fact had a pretty good year!