by Sam Carlisle

Sam Carlisle goes pigeon shooting with Will Garfit in Cambridgeshire and finds the key to success is thinking more like a pigeon. This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of 'My Countryside' magazine.

To me the view was typical, if pretty, Cambridgeshire countryside: a yellow blaze of oil seed rape stretched in front of us, with a wood at the end of the field. A belt of poplars ran along the left hand edge, and at one corner there was a small spinney. A delightful landscape, with the odd wood pigeon fluttering by, boding well for the afternoon of shooting that lay ahead. The man standing next to me, Will Garfit, analysed the scene entirely differently. Every gap in the trees was a potential escape route, each tall tree an observation platform, telegraph wires became an inviting perch, the neighbouring field an unwelcome distraction, and the wind direction, so subtle that I’d barely noticed it, as influential as air traffic control, dictating the pigeon’s landing patterns. “You’ve got to learn to think like a pigeon. That is the key to consistent success,” he said. While Will analysed every nuance, my mind remained firmly human. 

The farmers of Cambridgeshire are lucky to have a man like Will protecting their crops. An enthusiastic amateur pigeon shot, rather than professional, Will routinely shoots between 5,000 and 9,000 pigeons a year, which is the most enormous amount of crop damage if left unchecked. While this may sound like a high figure, the British Trust of Ornithology estimates that wood pigeon populations in the UK have grown by 79 per cent in the last 25 years with a UK population that is now more than five million breeding pairs. Defra’s current estimates are that pigeons do £75 million of damage each year to oil seed rape alone. When you add in other favourite foods such as spring drillings of peas, beans and a myriad of more niche crops like sunflower seeds or maize, the scale of pigeon damage is clear. They are our premier avian agricultural pest. 

“The addictive thing about pigeon decoying is that, through reconnaissance and field craft, you make your own shooting. You have to understand exactly what is happening in your surroundings in order to be successful; it appeals to the heart of the hunter.” If Will is unsure about something, he is more than happy to sit and watch the field for a couple of hours before he even sets up. “Too many people make the mistake of rushing in. If only they’d wait and watch, they’d make much better decisions. It is far better to be in the right place for two hours than the wrong one for four.” Peering through binoculars he studies the path of a couple of pigeons as they cross the field and land in a corner of the far wood. 

Soon enough Will lowers the binoculars and we’re off to set up our hide for the afternoon. This too is meticulous work. It is midsummer and decoying at this time of year is hard. “If you don’t have someone else shooting in another area, you need to do everything you can to ensure that the pigeons are funnelled in your direction.” Will explains that pigeons like to survey the field before they commit to feeding on it. Under instruction I park my car under the telegraph wires, to put the pigeons off using this as the vantage point. All along the poplar belt Will places huge white flags in the ground to deter the pigeons from landing there, and at the far corner of the wood, where most of the birds we’ve watched so far have been heading, he leaves his own car. The most obvious and undisturbed place for the pigeons to now flight to is the trees directly behind our hide. This approach, theoretically, enables us to get a shot both as the pigeons fly to their vantage points, and also as they decoy into the small area of laid crop in front of our hide. Had there been a nearby field that was an equally attractive plot of pigeon food, we would have set up some rope bangers to further push them in our direction.

With the hide camouflaged by cuttings of Alder and Ash, we settle in and wait for the birds. “Pigeon shooting has never been so popular, and with the increase in people shooting, the birds have become more educated and wary,” he says. “When I started pigeon shooting seriously, alongside my mentor Archie Coats, there was hardly anyone else doing it. The pigeons were na├»ve and came to the decoys more willingly.” But despite more people now shooting, the level of crop damage has not decreased. When, in April 2019, the government revoked the General Licences that allow the shooting of pigeons to prevent serious damage to crops, in response to a legal challenge from Wild Justice, it was catastrophic for farmers. Just at the time that spring rape, peas and beans were emerging and most appetising to pigeons, the only truly effective method of protecting crops was pulled from underneath their feet.

As the evening approaches pigeons begin to trickle overhead. Often considered one of the finest shots in the country, Will ensures that those that do flight by will no longer pose a threat to the farmer. He explains: “It’s days like these, where there aren’t masses of pigeons about, that field craft makes all the difference.” Looking at the process so far, it’s easy to understand how my haphazard efforts in the past have been so spectacularly barren. There might be enough pigeons in the area to shoot 100, and make a real difference to that crop’s yield, but if half land at the other end of the field, some go to a different field entirely, and those that do commit to your decoys have been observing from a distant tree, rather than from one within shot of your hide, or you are not quite concealed correctly, it is plain to see how 100 quickly shrinks to just a handful. And that is before any inaccurate shooting comes into it.

The wood pigeon is a remarkable creature. The millions that fill our skies have been more successful than any other bird in adapting to our changing landscape, equally happy in an ancient woodland as in a suburban garden. Recently, the ability to control pigeons has become a politically charged issue, with the losers being those who work so hard to produce our food. As quarry, they uniquely demand a true understanding of their habits. Knowledge of such a wild creature is not something that can be learned overnight; it is learnt through spending as much time as possible in the field, and mulling over the reasons for success and failure. As Will has demonstrated, success depends on relinquishing our human impatience and mimicking the observant intricacies of the pigeons themselves.

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