Tom Payne was just eight years old when he killed his first woodpigeon. “See that oak?” He gestures over my shoulder, towards a field of sheep, waving his cigarette. “I was standing beneath it with my father and the bird was flying left to right.”
That afternoon, as the boy pulled the trigger, he was taking his first step on a journey that would eventually see him join the modest ranks of Britain’s professional pigeon shooters. Turning back round, I see that the cigarette has now become the pigeon and Tom is manoeuvring it gracefully through the muggy morning air, apparently reliving the sacred memory.
As well as buds and berries, woodpigeons devour seeds and crops, making them a considerable burden on the agricultural sector
Almost three decades later, predominantly over rich arable country around East Anglia and the home counties, Tom aims to shoot something in the region of 20,000 every year. The figure sounds vast but he tells me there are estimated to be more than 5 million breeding pairs in the UK. As well as buds and berries, woodpigeons devour seeds and crops, making them a considerable burden on the agricultural sector. It is difficult to work out just how much damage they do but in 2014 it was estimated that, purely in terms of oil seed rape, that brilliant yellow brassica, they consume crop worth £75 million every year.
But Tom is keen to give me a more micro example: “My friend Jack Coleman, farmer over Essex way, last year during the general licence fiasco, he estimated £6,000 of pigeon damage on just 300 acres.” The fiasco he’s referring to happened when a group of activists, calling themselves Wild Justice, took legal action that effectively forced the government to ban pigeon shooting. The hiatus made it clear that an inability to control the birds would be ruinous for many agricultural enterprises and the licence which permits pigeons to be shot was reinstated two months later.
After Tom has smoked a third cigarette we climb up into his Land Rover to head over to a neighbouring farm where a newly-sowed eld of barley is reportedly being ravaged by Hertfordshire’s pigeons. As soon as we arrive a swirling mass of bluish grey takes flight and drifts towards the woods. The most effective form of pigeon control is decoying, which capitalises on the species’ flocking instinct. Spreading plastic replica birds over the ground, the shooter creates a situation that looks like a feeding frenzy to a passing pigeon.
“Always chuck,” Tom tells me as he throws the decoys out across the field. “It was Major Archie Coats who taught me that. If you place the pattern too carefully, it just doesn’t look natural.” Coats, who wrote the 1963 classic, Pigeon Shooting, is seen as the spiritual father of the sport in its modern iteration. When Tom was a boy he met the great man, and sensing that the lad had talent, Coats took him under his wing and taught him the finer points of the art of pigeon control.
Half an hour later when we’re hidden away in a hide, built out of old webbing, the first bird appears on the horizon. Placing his flask of tea at his feet, Tom picks up his gun and crouches. “That’s the way,” he whispers, “wait till it’s got its landing gear down.” Thirty yards out, the bird sets its wings and curls into the westerly breeze. In one smooth movement, Tom stands like a boxer, pulls the gun into his shoulder and sends the creature tumbling down onto the drilling. Over the next hour he drinks two cups of tea, smokes three fags, and shoots another 14 birds.
During a lull, Tom tells me that the pay varies considerably. Some farmers only reimburse his expenses while others give him something for each bird he shoots, but where he makes most of his money is selling the pigeons to gastropubs and game dealers. “It’s become a very popular meat in expensive restaurants,” he continues, “and I can get up to £1.25 a carcass.”
By mid-afternoon there are 60 laid out carefully in the shade. “If you don’t respect them” he tells me, “you’ll never be a good pigeon shooter. You’ve got to study them. You’ve got to know their habits. If you don’t understand how they feed and how their behaviour changes throughout year, you wouldn’t be able to put yourself in the right place to build a bag.”
A couple of hours later and all of a sudden, the birds stop coming. “See how they’re flying. They’re going home to roost for the night. Not stopping for anything,” he says, as he watches three pigeons powering through the sky, some 100 yards up. I gather up the kit, while Tom collects the fallen in an old breadbasket. “It’s protecting a food by creating another food. Doesn’t come fairer than that,” he shouts as he lifts the basket into the back of the Land Rover. I smile — I’m sure it’s not the first time he has used that line. As we drive back towards the gate he reaches behind him, passes me a brace of birds, and tells me he’ll send over old Archie Coats’s favourite recipe.
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