As pigeons start their annual raids on winter oilseed rape, Andrew Blake relays a defence strategy
Pigeon control merits as much planning as other crop protection programmes, says the National Pigeon and Pest Control* administrator who has little faith in gas bangers.
“The woodie is an extremely intelligent bird and knows the difference between a gas gun and a shotgun,” says John Shooter. “I believe gas guns actually attract pigeons.”
Oilseed rape is particularly at risk this winter, he warns. Delayed sowing means many crops are much smaller than normal and so more vulnerable.
“Far less swathing and delayed harvesting also means there were fewer opportunities for shooting pigeons last summer,” he adds. “So the population going into winter is bigger than usual. Even in summer a single pigeon consumes 50g of food a day. In winter it’s a lot more and backward crops especially can be decimated by flocks.”
Ideally NPPC members can best help control the pests earlier, he says. “Winter months are the hardest in which to shoot large numbers. The easiest time is over fresh drillings (other than rape), lodged cereals, growing peas and spring rape, linseed, swathed rape and any stubbles.
“So when you plan your rotation it’s worth telling your shooters when you’re likely to be drilling. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be allowed to help control the woodpigeon population then rather than later.”
Nevertheless the NPPC still holds the trump card when it comes to tackling the pests in winter, he says. “We can deploy several shooters over a large area on the same day, forcing the birds to stay on the move and hopefully returning more often to the waiting guns. That’s why it’s an advantage to have permission to shoot over adjoining farms and estates.”
The NPPC was formed the mid-1980s for the mutual benefit of its shooting members and farmers. Since then it has expanded to cover an area from Northamptonshire to Cleveland.
“We aim to provide a reliable, continuous crop protection service second to none,” says Mr Shooter. “The system’s easy to administer and very effective.”
Each year a field list is drawn up showing every type of crop likely to be visited by woodpigeons. It gives the grid reference, names the type of crop and includes any special instructions that farmers may request, he explains. “That’s circulated to our members who can then recce at every opportunity.
“When pigeon activity is spotted, either by our members or the farmer, a ‘phone call to HQ secures a mutually agreed booking and the shooters turn up on their allocated day with their kit – hide, decoys, guns and cartridges – to carry out the business.”
They carry a picture ID card, display a valid NPPC sticker on their vehicles, and must follow strict rules and procedure. For example, they must have a portable hide and shoot only from that, and all spent cartridges must be removed.
“Some farmers are reluctant to have outsiders on their farms before they see they have a pigeon problem,” says Mr Shooter, who admits gamekeepers, particularly those on southern estates, often resist the idea.
Others who hope to charge for the privilege are impossible to recruit, he adds. “But we get on famously with some keepers who recognise the need for pigeon control and how we can help.”
A case in point
Roger Heygate, who farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable at Creaton, Northamptonshire, has had NPPC members protecting his crops for eight years without incident.
“It’s just another tool in our armoury,” he says. Their guns have been particularly useful for controlling crows attacking newly sown beans.
Now that Mr Shooter knows the land, Mr Heygate leaves the operation entirely to him. “We’ve had no problems and it generally works very well. We see the stickers on the cars so we know who’s about.”
Mark Sampson, who runs his own shoot over 325ha (800 acres) at Bedale, North Yorkshire, also endorses the NPPC. Its members have visited his land since the late 1980s shooting mainly over his oilseed rape and peas.
“It doesn’t interfere with our shoot, and it’s very efficient. It’s only a phone call away.”
Mass county or even countrywide shoots, as sometimes advocated as the best way of reducing pigeon numbers, are fine in theory but impractical, says Mr Shooter.
“It’s impossible to get enough people out to cover all the potential roosting places, let alone those who can shoot well.”
* www.nppc.co.uk. Tel: 01423 711 489 & 07702 012 700