Last weekend saw the end of the game shooting season. But don’t be surprised if today (Sat Feb 7) and in the weekends that follow, the woods across parts of the Westcountry are still echoing to a fusillade of gunshots.
If October 1 to February 1 marks the pheasant shooting season then the rest of February and into March is, by tradition, the month when teams of guns set out after a quarry that is, in the view of many, even more difficult to hit and, when plucked, butchered and cooked, even more delicious than the pheasant.
The woodpigeon, Columba palumbus is a beautiful, fast-flying and plentiful bird. It is also, with the rabbit, one of Britain’s most voracious agricultural pests that can be shot all year round, under the terms of Defra’s General Licence that allows for crop protection.
Yet today (Sat Feb 7)and on every subsequent Saturday through February and into March, it is the woods rather than the farmers’ fields where the pigeon will be targeted. From pigeon shooting clubs that shoot on every Saturday throughout the winter to less formal short-term arrangements between groups of game-shooters, the tactics are the same: spread the guns through the woods from early afternoon onwards and as the birds fly over, looking for a place to roost, take your chances to bag a woodie or two.
If this seems ‘cruel’ or unnecessary – and there will those who cannot approve of any sort of shooting involving live quarry – bear in mind that some estimates put the UK woodpigeon population at 15 million and that an adult bird can consume the equivalent of enough wheat every six days to make a loaf or bread or enough barley every day to make a pint of beer. They also do significant damage to fruit crops, brassicas, peas and that staple of modern day arable farming, oil seed rape. And they quickly learn to ignore the banging of gas guns or the scarecrows.
From the mid 1950s until 1965 the problem of woodpigeon damage was deemed serious enough to warrant the distribution by the Ministry of Agriculture of half-price shotgun cartridges to recognised pigeon shooting clubs. It was abandoned when the shooting – at taxpayers’ expensive – appeared to be making little difference to the pigeon population. In fact, later research claimed to show that roost shoots were the least effective way to control pigeons and that lone pigeon shooters, or guns working in pairs, decoying birds from a fixed hide over the crop that was being attacked, was far more effective. In such situations lone guns have killed pigeons by the hundred – and continue to do so to this day.