Considering the amount of planning, effort and expense involved in planting gamecrops, it?s not surprising that we can become a bit obsessive about how they?re growing, and get annoyed when creatures start eating those we?ve just planted. Whether it?s something tiny nibbling at a seed or new shoot, or a group of fallow bucks trashing a maize crop, the sooner the damage is spotted, the culprit identified and something done about it, the better it will be.
Checking your gamecrops daily isn?t practical or probably even necessary, but doing it just once a week isn?t enough. Keep looking, and if you find a problem, get on it as soon as you can ? it?ll make all the difference.
Rabbits and hares
Rabbits seemingly eat anything and everything. They usually wait until the new shoots have greened up, and then keep eating them until the shoots get too tall for them to manage.
A friend of mine does a bit of ferreting around the gamecrops once we?ve finished shooting, and I try to pick off a few with the .22 as I do my rounds, but most of the rabbits we shoot are shot off a quad bike in the lamp.
There are a few places where it?s not safe to shoot with a rifle, because there are houses or roads in the background, or public footpaths running up one side of the crop, so we have invested some money in putting up a few lengths of permanent rabbit fencing. Though this is a little expensive, it will last for years and makes a real difference. You can get electric rabbit fencing, which is also good, and this may be a better option if you want birds to be able to access the crop from all sides.
Hares cause us the odd problem ? usually when the maize is about 1ft high, as they go along the rows felling the plants like trees ? but we don?t have many, so we tend to leave them alone. However, they?d be fairly easy to control if we had to.
The big brown or black slugs are not so much of a problem, but the little grey field slugs can cause huge difficulties before the seeds have even started to grow. They will hollow out seeds and eat the shoot as it starts to push up through the soil, and then eat anything that manages to make it to the top.
Most of our slug problems occur on ground where we?ve kept a kale crop for a second year. Slugs lay their eggs in the stalks of this second-year kale. The eggs that survive the winter are spread around the gamecrop when the covers are swiped the following spring, and then hatch and cause us problems when we drill the new seed.
To try to reduce the risk of a major slug attack, we use slug pellets at a low rate on all of the second-year patches before we drill, and then reassess the situation once it?s planted. Slugs can appear on any crop at any time, so keep an eye out for shredded leaves and plant stems until the plants are about 1ft tall and thus out of harm?s way.
If you?re not sure whether you have a slug problem, try setting slug traps ? 10in-wide pieces of plastic weighed down with a stone on each corner, with a handful of breeder or grower pellets underneath. Check them the morning after, and if there are more than a couple of slugs under each, this indicates that you will have a problem if you don?t act immediately.
Pigeon love kale ? they pull up the seedlings as they start to poke through. As the plants get bigger, pigeon strip the leaves until they are too high for them to reach and start to taste bitter.
Damage by pigeon can be the difference between a decent crop (and a successful drive the following season) and a failure. Gas guns, rope bangers, flags and scarecrows all help, but the best way of deterring them is with a few decoys and a bag of cartridges.
Corvids and cock pheasants
Our maize usually comes up in about 10 days. Any triticale and spring corn that we put in take about the same amount of time, while kale starts to sho
in as little as a week. Rooks, jackdaws, carrion crows and cock pheasants make a nuisance of themselves just as these new shoots start to poke through the ground. They pull at the stalks to get at the seed underneath, either snapping the new shoot off or managing to pull the seed up and eating it. They follow the rows of crops, and in little time just a few birds can cause a lot of damage, especially on small plots.
Drilling the seed as deep as you dare and going over it afterwards with a Cambridge roller to firm up the ground reduces the risk of the birds pulling the plants up, though it doesn?t stop this altogether. The birds tend to leave the plants alone once the shoots have turned from white to green and have managed to get a decent root down, but they will need keeping off them until this stage.
Deer and farm stock
Once our crops are a couple of feet high, we don?t need to worry about creatures eating them, with two exceptions: deer and farm stock. Both need keeping an eye on because they?re so big, eat so much and usually feed in groups.
Where we have stock next to a crop, we always check the fences and make sure all the gates are tied up ? even if they?ve got a working catch and if we?ve not been through them, as someone else may have.
Deer are impossible to keep out with fencing, so the only real way to prevent them damaging crops is by shooting them. If you can shoot the odd deer from a high seat next to the crop, others will soon get the message and learn to keep away.