For centuries they have been regarded as a pest species in Britain; yet now bureaucratic manoeuvring in Brussels has thrown doubt on their status, and in an attempt to clarify matters the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), the largest shooting organisation in the country, has launched a major survey among 5,000 of its members.
The immediate aim of the exercise is to gain an accurate idea of the number of birds being shot every year. Participants are being asked to keep detailed records of their bags: they are required to send in a return every two months, giving the number of pigeons killed, the total of cartridges fired, the site, the type of crop on which the birds were feeding, and so on.
The project is being run in conjunction with the Game Conservancy, and is funded by the Duke of Westminster, who happens to be the president of both organisations. At the same time, the BASC has asked the British Trust for Ornithology, the government body which carries out regular counts of other species, to focus attention on the pigeon and work out a figure for the national population.
The spur for all this activity has been the uncertainty engendered by the EEC bird directive of 1979. The aim of that measure was to protect endangered and migratory species: it recognised pigeons as game birds, and laid down a nine-month close-season during which they could not be shot.
British farmers were appalled at the idea that one of their main adversaries should be so pampered, and in 1981, after vociferous lobbying, the British government passed the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which declared the wood pigeon a pest species, in defiance of the 1979 directive.
Until 1990 the bureaucrats of the EC seemed to pay little attention; but in September that year, under pressure from Brussels, our own Department of the Environment proposed a nine-month close-season, to bring us into line with Europe. Once again, intensive lobbying persuaded the Minister for the Environment to give up the idea, and instead to place pigeon-shooting under a 'general licence'. This has made no difference to the man in the field, who can carry on as before; but what it has done is give Brussels the right to monitor the status of wood pigeons in this country. The BASC feels that, to be on firm ground in the future, it must be in possession of authoritative statistics - hence its present drive for information.
Much depends on the question of whether or not British pigeons migrate seasonally. Those of continental Europe certainly do: when the weather turns cold in late autumn, they fly southwards from Scandinavia and head down into Italy, Spain and Africa. Yet the climate of the British Isles is so temperate that our birds seem to remain here all year. There is some local movement, from the north and east coasts to the warmer central areas of the country; but British pigeons seem on the whole to be sedentary - and if this basic fact is correct, it sets them apart from their continental neighbours.
This was certainly the conclusion of the late Dr R K Murton, whose authoritative monograph The Wood Pigeon came out in the Collins New Naturalist series almost 30 years ago. Working under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture on a 2,600-acre study area at Carlton, Cambridgeshire, during the Fifties and Sixties, Dr Murton estimated the national population at up to 10 million birds.
Not the least fascinating part of his book was the evidence he amassed to show that the pigeon is no modern menace, but has been regarded as a pest for hundreds of years. It was recorded as a 'serious evil to farmers' in Inverness-shire during the 1790s, and in 1862 the United East Lothian and Agricultural Society offered one penny for every pigeon's head handed in. Over the next eight years, 130,440 were presented for payment.
Excellent as Dr Murton's work was, many of his conclusions were rendered obsolete by a fundamental change that swept over British farmland during the Seventies. This was the introduction of oil-seed rape: a crop planted in autumn, standing through the winter months, and delicious to pigeons - an unprecedented new source of food in a period that had always been lean.
Until then, once the autumn harvest had gone, pigeons had been forced to subsist on natural fruits such as beech mast, acorns and berries, and on fields of clover and turnips. Now suddenly they had unlimited food all winter - and the effect, according to latter-day experts, was twofold. First, it removed any residual need that pigeons might have felt to migrate to warmer climes, confirming their sedentary status; and second, it brought about a huge increase in the pigeon population.
In the view of John Batley - a member of the BASC working party, and a leading pigeon shooter - the population may now easily have reached 20 million birds. Ironically, the oil-seed rape that boosted numbers has also made life more difficult for professionals such as he. In the old days, he could be sure of finding pigeons on the relatively few fields of clover that farmers planted as winter grazing for stock. As he says, 'the birds had to eat every day or die'. Now, with rape ubiquitious, pigeons are much more spread out: one shot, and they push off to somewhere more peaceful.
If Mr Batley is right, overall numbers are still creeping up, in spite of a large annual cull and high natural mortality. In due course the BASC census will reveal how many birds are being shot every year. The total is certainly several million - and a great many are also killed by hawks. It is a curious fact that one finds very few remains about the countryside: often a patch of feathers marks the spot where a pigeon has been knocked down by a sparrowhawk or peregrine, but after the killer has eaten the best of the meat, the carcass simply disappears, into the stomach of fox, badger or cat.
Another small mystery - to me, at any rate - is that pigeons manage to breed at all, so casually do they set about the process. Unlike songbirds, many of which construct elaborate nests, they build only flat platforms of twigs, with neither any form of insulation nor any shaping to retain the contents. The result is that eggs are often lost overboard when the incubating bird leaves the nest in a hurry. A further disadvantage is that the eggs are bright, plain white, and as visible to predators like magpies and crows as any eggs can be.
In spite of these hazards, wood pigeons are manifestly flourishing. Born survivors, they are - in countrymen's' eyes - Public Enemy Number One. If shooting were banned, or limited to three months a year, there is little doubt that some farmers would take the law into their own hands and resort to poison, as they did in the Sixties, with results disastrous not only to the pigeons, but to birds of many other species as well.