Pigeon-shooting from November till February is very good fun. To enjoy it to any extent you must have the right to enter and shoot in woods large or small. Large woods are far better for this pursuit, as they contain a bigger head of birds, and when acorns are abundant, as was the case in 1900—in 1901 and 1902 the acorn crop failed, and the birds were for the most part in the fields till the roosting hour—they contain great flocks and small parties of birds during the day as well as the night. But in small woods, too, there are usually some pigeons to be shot by the careful stalker.
To get shots at pigeons in the daytime, it is better to be alone, and you need no dog. The plan is to walk along the woodland paths, ready at any moment to get the gun up at a bird as it dashes out of a tree within a distance of from fifteen to thirty or thirty-five yards, or rises from the ground where it has been feeding on acorns, etc. As a rule the pigeon will be going straight away from you through the trees; broadside shots at pigeons, unless you are hidden and lying in wait for them, are less usual.
Fairly on the wing, the wood-pigeon flies strongly and fast, and, unless one of its wings is disabled, it is by no means always stopped when struck at a distance of forty or forty-five yards; the skin is thick, the plumage is thick and firm, and the bird itself is able sometimes to carry off shot to a surprising extent.
These shots at pigeons from the woodland paths are generally snapshots ; if you wait, the bird is the other side of a tree and out of danger. I should call it hard snap-shooting. But there is this in the gunner's favour : the pigeon makes a good deal of noise in starting from its tree or from the ground ; it does not steal away as some woodland birds will. It is rather a blunderer at first, and this favours the gunner. The worst of these snapshots at pigeons among the trees is that one is apt to wing birds : they never run when winged, and by reason of their colour, which does not assimilate with the ground, are easily found in the thickest coverts ; but one wants mercifully to kill one's game outright. A broadside shot at a pigeon is more likely to kill outright, and still more so is the shot at a wood-pigeon coming straight towards and over the gun.
Pigeons with crops full of acorns or green food from the fields, or later on ivy berries, are more easily approached, being comparatively sluggish ; but it is not so satisfactory to get them thus, at a disadvantage.
Towards night, or on a December day as early as about four in the afternoon, the pigeons begin to settle on their sleeping quarters, which they shift according to where the wind sits. If there is a path under spruces or larches or dark pines, where you shoot, you may often get a shot a little before dusk by walking underneath those trees. A pigeon that dashes off from the topmost boughs of a towering fir is hard to hit : I should say that the gunner who can bring down stone dead two out of three such pigeons, may take rank as a fine performer.
Another and a favourite way of shooting wood-pigeons is to crouch against a tree, round about and on which, there is reason to believe, the birds roost in numbers. You wait perfectly still for the pigeons to come in, getting, it may be, a shot presently at several clustered on a branch they have alit upon. This is potting your pigeon. It is of course not half so good as getting him on the wing, though there was a time presumably when they made a point of potting their pigeons. In a book full of quaint maxims, called " Some Fruits of Solitude," written by William Penn, and printed first in 1693, we are told that " To Shoot well Flying is well ; but to Chose it, has more of Vanity than Judgment." In those times firing a gun was a matter to be dwelt upon much more than it is to-day. It took time to load ; it was comparatively quite a weighty business. Now you just open the gun at the breech, fling away the empty cartridge-case—or let the extractor do it for you—slip in a fresh one, snap the gun together, and you are ready for the next. No wonder we go in for shots which, in the cautious Quaker's view, argued vanity rather than good judgment. And then, it may be, they really wanted the things to cook and eat more than we ordinarily do to-day. You will note that in Walton's " Compleat Angler " there is a good deal about how to cook and serve up the fishes as well as about how to catch them.
At any rate you may quite safely begin by shooting wood-pigeons not flying, just as you will begin by shooting rabbits not running, though you must not pot pheasants or partridges. I have more than once, when I have wanted a pigeon, and have not seen how to get him in any other way, tried a pot shot. And, take my word for it, you will not get every pigeon you shoot at in a tree with thick branches, if he is forty or more yards off.
Besides the ring-dove or wood-pigeon, there is the stock-dove, which I have heard described by some country folk as the " blue rock" : he now and then joins the pigeon parties in hard weather. This is a considerably smaller bird than the ringdove, and has not the beautiful white feathers on the side of the neck, but metallic green ones instead. Both birds are richly clad with iridescent feathers. Even in winter, when the ring-dove is not at its brightest, it is a beautiful bird, gleaming and shimmering in colour. When the winter passes, and the ring-doves break up their flocks and parties and pair off, you must desist from the gun so far as they are concerned. They lose then their winter wildness, and are therefore no longer creatures keenly to be stalked by the sportsman. Stay your hand when the ring-dove pairs, and wait till the coming of the autumn.
Ferreting is a favourite method of rabbit-shooting. Its chief drawback is that the ferret, instead of making the rabbit bolt, may kill it in the burrow, and "lie up" there for an hour or more. This probably occurs less often when one is shooting ferreted rabbits than when one is netting the holes. Moving about and setting the nets will cause a certain amount of sound, especially where the ground is honeycombed, and it is strange how averse from bolting rabbits are when they scent some vague danger without. They will sometimes push their heads against the end of a blind tunnel, and suffer the ferret to scrape them horribly; or they will perish in one of the main passages; anything rather than face the unknown foe above. However, on some days and from some burrows 1—the reasons for bolting and non-bolting days and burrows are obscure—rabbits bolt briskly. Though they seem so fearful of man's footfall and of the nets, and will run back often if they catch sight of the ferreter, the sound of the gun fired at one bolting rabbit does not necessarily prevent other rabbits in the burrow from coming out when hustled about by the ferret. And when the rabbits are bolting freely on a still day in the woods or hedgerows and hedgerow banks, the sport is lively. In ferreting burrows in covert, it is best when there is one gunner and one ferreter. The gunner, unless he is a cool and very experienced hand, should always stand close to the ferreter. This is the safe plan, and any plan that is not perfectly safe is utterly to be condemned. Several gunners and several ferreters or onlookers hanging about a burrow form a party which you will do well to shun, whether you carry a gun or not. The rabbit often comes out at the hole where you do not expect him, and he does not always, in his confusion at finding a company waiting for him above ground, make straight off from the mouth of the burrow. He may dodge about, and it may be hard to say which gun he belongs to. When there is only one gunner, and he stands a little in front of or close beside the ferreter (who, after taking the ferret out of the bag, and putting it into one of the holes, should step gently back and crouch behind or beside the gunner1), it is all plain sailing. The gunner then has a perfectly free hand.
1 The gamekeeper and the woodmen in the South of England speak of a rabbit's " burry," or "bury," and of a fox's "earth." A rabbit's "stop" is a single tunnel containing a doe rabbit's nest and young. When the mother goes out, she stops up this hole with earth.