I have just received an invitation from a gamekeeper friend to go roost shooting. In February every year game keepers up and down the country open up the woods on their shoots to teams of guns – usually beaters who have served them loyally throughout the season – to shoot wood pigeons. The first of these Saturdays in February is called National Pigeon Shooting Day. Shooting continues each Saturday throughout the month and can account for over one million woodies nationally.
Before you start complaining there are two things you need to know. Firstly, wood pigeons (columba palumbus) are a major agricultural pest in the UK. They are flock feeders and chomp their way through fields of expensive crops such as rape, sprouts, cabbages, peas and grain. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) there are somewhere between 2.6 million and 3.2 million breeding pairs in the UK. They can also breed more than once a year. That’s a lot of birds and a lot of damage, so the need for their control is apparent.
The second point to remember is that they are very good to eat and provide a healthy and plentiful source of protein. There is wealth of recipes to be found online. Take a look at The Wild Meat Company for some tasty inspiration. Meat such as pigeon breast is becoming popular again as it features in the books and TV shows of chefs like Valentine Warner (What to Eat Now) and Jamie Oliver. Some of the birds shot during the month will end up in the shooters’ pot. Some will be on sale in local butchers and farm shops and yet more will be found in good quality restaurants and gastro pubs. The meat is rich, dark and delicious.
Standing in the woods in late afternoon listening to the breeze rattle the branches of the trees, scanning the darkening sky waiting for the pigeons to fly in to roost is a pleasure in itself. It’s a time for reflection and a peaceful commune with the natural world – forgetting for a moment that this environment is carefully managed. As the winter sun begins to set, bathing the woods in its fading orange glow, pheasants chortle as they come into the woods to roost – safe from the hunter’s gun for another nine months or so. Hares lollop through the moss and leaf litter, ears pricked, ready to speed away at the slightest movement – aware of what does not belong in the wood.
As the shooters position themselves at the edges of the woods, canny old stagers will already have claimed their favourite spots – roosting signs like droppings under the trees committed to memory days and weeks in advance during the shooting season. Carefully organised teams of two cover each of the woods on the shoot. Everyone knows where everyone else is. Hopefully the wind will get up, bringing the birds in lower over the tree tops. A light breeze, or worse none at all, will mean that the woodies will fly in quickly out of range of all but the most tightly choked barrels.
A clatter of wings and a commotion in the branches above signals the first arrivals and shots ring out, echoing across the fields as the first of the woodies fall. Others will veer away to circle and return. The shooting continues until the dusk when it is too dark to see. Shot birds will be gathered up and carried off in game bags either to be sold to a game dealer, given away or taken home for the pot.