Technical pest management news

31 October 2022

How to professionally control wood pigeons – pest advice for professionals

TECHNICAL | PPC109 October 2022

What's up woodie?

Dave Archer is an expert on wildlife management and rural pest control. In this issue of PPC, he tells us all about his experience of dealing with wood pigeons. 

wood pigeon hero2

The wood pigeon, Columba Palumbus, is Britain’s largest and most prolific pigeon. While most urban pigeon problems occur in feral pigeon (Columba Livia Domestica) colonies, rural wood pigeons cause huge agricultural losses by means of their insatiable appetite for arable crops.

Yes, that big fella that raids your bird table and constantly picks a fight with his neighbours - him and his thousands of other comrades!

For urban situations, proofing against feral pigeon colonies is normally the preferred method of prevention. In rural situations, shooting wood pigeons over crops is the control method normally deployed.

In the mid 1970s, when I started pigeon shooting, the primary piece of pertinent legislation was the Protection of Birds Act 1967.

In those far off, halcyon days it was generally accepted that wood pigeons were an agricultural pest that could be shot by authorised persons at any time but this has now changed.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and particularly the General Licence (GL 43) allows for wood pigeon control in certain situations, as long as other methods have been considered (but not necessarily deployed). 

Briefly, it is up to the shooter to prove the birds are causing or are likely to cause a problem in the immediate area. It is no longer acceptable to shoot wood pigeons just for sport.


Why do we use scientific or Latin names?

You may notice that often, when a species of bird, animal or insect is the subject,  the author will use the Latin name for the particular species. 

There is a very good reason for this and it’s not the author being pedantic. If we were discussing feral pigeons you may call them town pigeons, I may call them ex-racers, someone else may call them street pigeons and so on.

They may be known by another term elsewhere in the world. Another broad term is ‘seagulls’; do we mean herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls, great black-backed gulls or black headed gulls? 

With those options, we begin to see the point of maintaining correct nomenclature. 

By using the Latin name specific to that species, we avoid confusion or doubt about the genus concerned.


First things first

So how does one go about shooting wood pigeons? Firstly, you must have the landowner’s permission (preferably in writing) and know the farm boundaries! 

A good knowledge of crops is essential. If you are asked to shoot over a field of feed beans but the only beans you know are in a blue tin with a ring pull, you need to learn about crops before you learn about pigeons.

A shotgun certificate is needed before you can obtain a shotgun. Any trawl of the internet’s shooting organisations will give all the information needed as the application process is quite complex.

Never consider any form of firearm use before training and mentoring. Many years ago I used to take keen novices out shooting and quietly place a watermelon on the ground around ten yards away. 

When the area was totally safe, I shot the watermelon with a shotgun and, in an instant, the fruit simply wasn’t there anymore. Pieces of it were some ten metres or so away with a hole left in the ground, and pieces of fruit floating raining back down. Salutary lesson indeed!

Reconnoitre and stage your arena

Wood pigeons can be shot at any time of year, but problems worsen during harvest or on winter crops (oilseed rape etc) when the birds are hungry and can devastate large swathes in a matter of a week or so, and also in summertime on ripening grain.

I have only just come back from a field of standing wheat that was nearly lost to pigeon predation.

As for shooting pigeons, without doubt the two best methods are decoying over crops, or shooting them coming into their favourite ‘sitty’ tree.

Look over any crops where pigeons are active and you will normally see them going to sit in the tallest tree on a hedge line to observe what their comrades are doing. All pigeons are social birds and they rely heavily on flock instinct.

The art and field craft of pigeon shooting is to mimic the feeding patterns of wood pigeons on the ground. Flock-covered plastic birds are laid in such a way as to fool other pigeons into coming in to feed.

I have only just come back from a field of standing wheat that was nearly lost to pigeon predation.

Dave Archer

Always lay the birds with their heads facing into the wind, as no bird likes to feed with a draught blowing up its backside! Also ensure some of the birds are placed head down as if feeding.

Pigeons are smart! If they see a regimented line of comrades, heads up instead of feeding, they will simply veer off before a chance of a shot is afforded.

A decoy pattern with twenty or so birds randomly spread at a range of around thirty metres from where you are shooting is ideal, but you must leave a gap in the middle for the birds to attempt to land.

The best time to shoot your bird is when it is braking just above the decoys coming in to land. 

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Take the shot

The go-to gun of choice for most pigeon shooters is either a twelve or twenty bore shotgun. I prefer a twelve-bore with a 32g load and fibre wad (no plastic these days please) as pigeon armoury is multi-layered and the feathers are very dense. 

Around twenty metres away is a good kill distance, as the shot has spread by this distance and only a few pellets will be in the bird itself. Much closer and it’s watermelon time again!

Actually pigeons are not (though they may seem) dumpy and overfed, but are quite lean. The appearance of being a podgy is due to the dense feather mass.

Never shoot above your limits and range, as the desired effect is to kill the bird as it is flying into the decoy pattern.

Pigeons are expert at detecting movement and you need to be totally concealed when shooting. A well-built hide in a hedge is ideal.

It takes years of experience to put the theory and field craft into practice, but when it does and you get known to local farmers, your efforts can be well rewarded.

Don’t get carried away shooting woodies thinking they are the only visitors to your pattern; you may find stock doves (Columba oneas) amongst the woodies and, as you should know, they are legally protected. 

Also, you may shoot certain corvids under GL 43 but not magpies!

Top gun tips

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  • Make sure you wear ear protection when shooting. Shotguns are loud and will cause irreparable damage if you don’t take care.
  • Take a drink, and a bit of bread and cheese, if you are out for the whole day. You don’t want to be thinking of your grumbling stomach rather than the shooting.
  • Ensure that you have enough clothing to suit the elements and these garments are of a drab colour.
  • A good gun dog is a wonderful ally on shooting forays, as they can retrieve many birds that fall in standing crops and would otherwise be lost to the combine or foxes.

Public relations

The British countryside can be overcrowded in places. I am currently shooting wood pigeons over crops where a footpath meanders around the field headland. Dog walkers and ramblers occasionally pass by – if questioned it is worth spending time explaining what you are doing and why.

Once you have explained why you are controlling pigeons, most people understand the reason why control is needed.

As professionals we need to explain that the crops the pigeons are devouring are the contents of the food that should be ending up on their table. This normally swings their opinion in your favour!

Fair game

So what of the birds that you shoot? To me, it would be unthinkable not to use the breast meat. Either take them off to the game dealers or treat yourself to a wood pigeon breast roasted with a few vegetables, accompanied by a good red wine on a winter evening or flash fried on a warm leaf salad with balsamic vinegar in the summer.  

Finally, if you supply any form of wild meat, even in fur or feather, you must be registered with your local authority as a primary producer.


If you're a BPCA member and you'd like to talk to our technical team about controlling wood pigeons, get in touch.

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