The season may be well under way, but I?m writing this on the evening before our first shoot. In times past, driven shoot days were a big occasion, with only two or three days over the same ground in a season on most shoots. Being a mainly wild bird shoot, we still have to operate within the constraints of what nature provides, and after a cold and wet summer, our pheasant stock is not high.
Seeing a slight increase in the number of birds over the past couple of weeks, it appears we have acquired one or two wanderers. Some of them will be from the nature reserves and unshot farms nearby ? birds that find our habitat management and winter feeding to their liking. In fairness, I also recognise that we will have won a few birds from neighbouring shoots that release pheasants and redlegs too, and this season in particular I am especially grateful for them.
But a reality check at count time meant we decided to cancel all further planned dates after our fi rst shoot. Later on I?m sure we will fix a couple of impromptu days in pursuit of cocks, and we can always hope for a woodcock or two to brighten those events, too.
There is also a plan for a shoot share with another wild bird shoot just before Christmas. It has little woodland but some wonderful water meadows, so the day?s plan will be a morning after cocks and woodcock in our woods, and an afternoon sloshing about the flood plain for snipe and teal ? I can?t wait!
The straw trick
With our first shoot day being our biggest event for the season, I have been hard at work trying to pull our birds together where we want them. As I have said before, I am a great believer in using straw to attract and hold pheasants.
This year there were a few broken big bales that could not be loaded up and taken away. So, over the past few weeks I have been using an old dung fork to load the straw progressively into my trailer and then scatter it around my key feeding places. It seems like a lot of effort for just one main day and a few skirmishes, but I am sure it?ll be worth it.
We do not have the time to follow the time-honoured routine of hand feeding, where wheat is scattered on the straw at much the same time each day. But it is usually possible for us to throw a few handfuls at each site once or twice a week. This is an effective way to maintain the birds? interest, and it is easy to see where they have been scratching around to gather up this corn.
We also have plenty of hoppers, and these have been kept topped up with wheat since harvest time. Most of them are widely scattered across the shoot, because our armed nature rambling approach means that we are always pleased to fl ush a pheasant wherever we are. However, there are odd places where we can show a more challenging bird, so we will plan to try to box a few birds into these. This is where the straw comes into play, but we also try to ensure that there is a feeding station with several hoppers at each of these spots, so that there is always plenty of food around.
Our scheme to have just one serious shoot day is not just because there is not enough game to make extra days worthwhile. It is also because we are anxious not to overshoot our breeding stock. We have thought long and hard about whether to shoot any hens, but decided to allow them to stay on the menu. Experience dictates that if we say ?cocks only? our little drives will show mainly hens, and the cocks are bound to be lower and less exciting, too. However, we will ask everyone to be selective, and I hope that we will have two cocks for every hen in the bag at the end of the day. On that basis, I am confident that we will not be doing any significant damage.
To help reduce the pressure on the pheasants, and at the same time to create variety and interest on the day, we will be looking to exploit all the other possibilities on the shoot. We are lucky to have some attractive woodcock areas ? I have seen a bird or two at flight times lately ? so I have high hopes that we will bump into one or two. The fact that we have waited until the leaf is mostly off will be helpful for seeing them, too. This will also mean that we can walk our biggest wood through for our final manoeuvre before tea ? experience suggests that everyone will pop away at pigeon coming to roost as we do so. The usual result is that most are missed, but the steady rattle of gunfire ends the day on a high note.