Geoff Garrod has made no secret of his affinity with the Eley Hawk brand, and today he’s out with Eley’s Andy Norris to protect a rape crop, writes James Marchington
Essex gamekeeper Geoff Garrod has been planning today’s assault on the pigeons for a while now. Day after day, he’s watched them feeding on this field of oilseed rape. The farmer has tried scarecrows and gas bangers to no avail. Now, in the hope of salvaging something of the crop, he has called in Geoff.
Geoff did his reconnaissance, watching through binoculars from his truck. He has worked out the regular flightlines, the times when the birds feed, and the part of the field that they prefer. He planned where he would build his hide, and ten days ago dropped off a trailer full of straw bales in the right spot, so the birds will get used them.
There are no guarantees with pigeons, but Geoff is as confident as he can be of a reasonable day’s sport. He’s crossing all his fingers and toes, because today he has invited the man from Eley Hawk, gun trade stalwart Andy Norris, to share his hide. Geoff is keen to impress Andy. He always shoots Eley shells, and now there’s talk of teaming up with them to develop a new pigeon cartridge. At least the forecast looks good, with light cloud and a stiff breeze.
As we arrive a small flock of around 50 pigeons rises from the crop near the straw bales. That’s promising. It seems Geoff’s reconnaissance was spot-on. The damage to the crop is plain to see: while the main crop is growing tall and green, large patches are stunted and ragged, the leaves torn to shreds by the ravenous hordes of pigeons.
Geoff gets stuck in building the hide, and Andy lends a hand. He has brought several large fenceposts and a post-driver to bang them in. The posts will support the bales stacked three high in an open U-shape which will form the back of the hide, also serving as a welcome windbreak. The front of the hide will be desert pattern camouflage netting, two layers thick, draped between Geoff’s regular hide poles.
Next Geoff needs to set out his decoys. He always prefers dead birds to plastic decoys, and he has brought along a dozen from a recent outing. He picked smart-looking, undamaged birds, and stacked them neatly in a plastic game tray to keep their plumage pristine.
Browning Maxus: £900
Deerhunter Recon coat: £259.99
Oakley Radar Path glasses: £145
Howard Leight Impact Sport: £99
Eley Hawk Pigeon 32 gram fibre wad: £210 per 1000
Today’s shoot has the purpose of protecting a valuable crop, but Geoff and Andy are in lively mood as they look forward to some exciting sport. The leg-pulling begins even before they start. “Nice decoys, they look like the real thing. Who makes those then?” asks Andy, indicating the dead birds. “I made them myself,” Geoff counters drily.
Geoff sets out the decoys in front of the hide, some on the ground as if feeding, others on floater sticks with wings outstretched. Then he steps back and assesses his pattern, making a couple of adjustments before he’s happy. Two floaters on long poles bounce high above the crop, pointing the way for any approaching pigeon. At last the stage is set.
Andy slips his gun from the sleeve and Geoff nods approvingly. It’s a Browning Maxus semi-auto, identical to his own favourite pigeon gun. Geoff swears by his Maxus. Being a semi-auto, it loads underneath the receiver, so he can keep it stoked up without ever bringing the muzzle into the hide – a major safety advantage over a break-barrel gun in the close confines of a hide.
With Andy being the Eley man, it’s no surprise that both shooters are using Eley ammo today. Eley Pigeon is the cartridge of choice, loaded with 32gram No. 6.5 lead shot and a fibre wad. Each man has a slab of shells at his feet, so that’s 500 shots between them.
Geoff drives off to park the pick-up at the far end of the field, where it will act as a bird-scarer to discourage the pigeons from dropping in beyond our reach. He is barely out of sight before the first birds appear, and make straight for the pattern. Andy spots them some way off and is ready as they begin their final approach, making a little height before setting their wings and stooping down into the centre of the pattern. His first shot goes wide of the mark but he corrects and the second connects, the bird exploding with a satisfying puff of feathers as it falls headlong into the crop.
Across the field we can see Geoff heading back down a tramline, but he is still too far away to worry the next group of pigeons. They follow what is proving to be a busy flightline across the valley, spot our decoys and turn head-to-wind, beating low over the crop up the slope towards the hide. Andy is finding his stride, and this time two birds fall to earth in a tidy right-and-left.
“Nice of you to drop by,” Andy jokes as Geoff ducks through the camo netting. “I’m afraid I shot all the pigeons already.” That’s something of an overstatement, but he does have half a dozen on the floor now – and there are plenty more where those came from.
Andy and Geoff take it in turns to shoot. Andy hasn’t shot pigeons for a good few years, and Geoff spots that his lack of experience is costing him birds. He is popping up from behind the camo net too early, while the pigeons are still at extreme range. “If they’re still coming towards you, let them come,” advises Geoff. “Don’t show yourself until they’re right on top of the decoys. Then you have an easy first shot, and the second bird has nowhere to go, so you stand a better chance of getting that one too.”
The birds continue to flow into the decoys steadily, and the banter continues as the pile of empty cartridges grows. “Not a bad shot for you,” says Andy as Geoff downs a long one. Quick as a flash Geoff responds: “Yes, I occasionally pull one out of the bag.”
Every now and again Geoff nips out to pick up the fallen birds and add them to the pattern. It’s important not to have dead birds lying on their backs, as they will scare off approaching pigeons – plus the larger pattern proves an even more effective draw.
Gradually we realise that the flow of birds is slowing to a trickle. The gaps in the action grow longer. There’s nothing wrong with our set-up. When birds do appear they still decoy well, it’s simply that they aren’t moving about like they were earlier.
There’s a brief flurry towards the end of the afternoon and then a sudden hailstorm brings proceedings to a halt. At this point, the pigeons dry up altogether, and Geoff’s experience tells him that’s it for the day.
In the end the bag is just short of the magic 100, with a total of 94. “I’m very pleased with that,” says Geoff. “At the beginning of the day the pigeons were coming in an absolute dream, and we both shot well all day. It’s a little bit frustrating not to make the hundred, but in the circumstances it’s a good bag, especially on rape at this time of year.”
Andy is equally happy with the day, with the added satisfaction of knowing their success was achieved with the help of Eley shells.
Location: First, Geoff observed where the crop had suffered the most damage. Due to the location of the field, bordered by public footpaths and a motorway, he couldn’t set up a hide against a hedge, he needed a free standing bale-hide. The birds acclimatised to the bales left in the field over ten days, so when the hide went up, they paid it no mind. Sited at the top of an incline, the hide afforded Geoff a good vantage point, overseeing the whole field and drawing the birds immediately to the very prominent decoys.
Wind direction: With the wind blowing right to left, Geoff set his decoys up facing into the wind. The birds needed to climb the incline against the breeze, giving them control when landing, but also allowing Geoff the greater advantage to shoot from the hide.
Pattern: Without the limitation of a hedge or tree, Geoff was able to set his decoys around the bale-hide, even behind it, using a rough block pattern. This meant he enjoyed a 270-degree field of shooting, instead of the usual 180-degree area when bordered by a hedge.