So, here we are in the middle of the pheasant season and looking for the cream of the midwinter shooting in the next few weeks. But how are those pheasants performing? Have your birds flown well so far, or would you like to see them doing better?
Many people seem to think that it is almost inevitable that you have to put up with some ?skidders? in the early part of the season, but that it will get better later. There?s no doubt that birds need to be fully grown to give their best and it?s probably true to say that seeing a few days of action helps to make them try harder, too. However, if your birds are not going well by early December, you had better ask why, and try to do something about it.
In thinking this through, please remember a fundamental truth, which is that pheasants have limited flying capabilities. They may be capable of a tremendous power burst when they?re first flushed, but they do not have real stamina. If you watch carefully and time what happens, you will discover that the explosive burst of wing-flapping rarely lasts more than eight seconds. After that, your bird will set its wings and glide, with perhaps a few adjusting flaps to follow.
Once it lands, it needs at least an hour or so of rest before it can take on another serious flight.
The second part of the pheasant flying equation is the maximum angle of climb. The power burst may give rapid acceleration and lift, but it still only allows
a bird to rise at an angle of about 30°. If obstructions force it to climb more steeply, it will usually do so in a spiral and this seems to sap its energy, often shortening the period of eight seconds. Obstructions are a serious problem, too ? if the birds need to weave about, they tend to tire more quickly.
Above the tallest trees
Now is the moment for the real start of the ?covert? shooting. With the leaf off, we can fly birds within the woods, hopefully showing them over the tallest trees. For me, this is special stuff. They may not be ridiculously high, but the time they are in view is limited by the restricted visibility, and there is something rewarding about seeing a head go back as a well-shot bird comes tumbling down through the branches.
However, if you want to get them up there, you must ensure that they are fl ushed far enough back. Many shoots recognise this and use a line of sewelling to force them into the air well back from the Guns. What tends to get forgotten is what is in the way once they are airborne. Remember, you have a 30° climb to allow for when working out where to put the sewelling.
A gap in the canopy directly overhead is no help, because what the birds need to see is a route that leads them onwards and gently upwards into the clear sky above. So, go and have a look at your flushing points to see whether a bit of judicious thinning in front of the flushing line ? or even high pruning ? could ease the passage of your pheasants.
You may be nervous of disturbance in carrying out this work right now, but in practice, a few hours of chainsaw work should not be that disruptive, especially if carried out well before your next shoot day. Also, as when shooting, make sure you pack up well before roosting time, so that your birds can go to bed in peace. Making them try harder Remember that pheasants do not relish flying. Like all wildlife, they will do their best to conserve energy, and they will not use their full eight seconds if there is no need. So, ask yourself this question: could I get better flyers if I flushed them farther from home?
This applies particularly to showing birds from covercrops, where isolating them farther out may cause them to try harder and thus climb higher before the long glide to safety. Indeed, the ultimate version of this may be to turn your drive around and walk them away from home provided you have the confi dence to
know they will head back. If you are not sure about this, ask your local Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) advisor to visit your shoot ? no-one is better placed to advise you.
Drive and return?
Birds that have flown once need a reasonable recovery time. This means that it is rarely possible to return them straight away. If you are lucky enough to have the sort of situation in which birds will cross a valley in either direction, you will still need to do something else to fill in some time between the drives, if you expect your birds to give their best on the second drive. All things considered, it is usually much better to go elsewhere and do a different drive in the meantime, in order to give them a proper rest.
Use the wind
We all know that those wonderfully sunny and calm days of late autumn were not invented for driven shooting. It is great to be out on such a day, but the birds simply do not want to fly properly. In particular, it is well nigh impossible to fly birds into the sun. When they are dazzled in this way, they tend to try to fly beneath it, hugging any available cover. I suppose we must assume that they are instinctively afraid of what might come swooping out of the clear sky above.
Conversely, if it is grey and breezy, we can expect better things, though a ripping gale can pose problems if the birds refuse to face it. Getting the best out of windy conditions is still an underpractised art. Many shoots accept that things will go better, but never really wonder whether they could be better still.
We all know that birds will generally choose to take off into the wind, and that this gives them better lift. In the case of pheasants, the normal procedure then is to turn as necessary and head for home. So, if you are basically flying your birds with the wind, think about this: if they fly up between you and the Guns, they will turn as soon as they can and head off downwind. However, if you can lift them upwind of the beaters, they will surely try to rise higher before they turn downwind over your heads, thus almost inevitably being higher when they fly over the Guns.
In practice, whenever you can lift birds, at least obliquely, into a reasonable breeze, you will have a better chance of a decent climb. So, think about varying your exact flushing point to suit the conditions. It may even be that you can cut one or two new gaps in the canopy of a wood to give you different flushing options for what is basically the same drive.
Try a few tweaks
Do not be afraid to experiment a bit. Most teams of Guns are interested to see better birds, and a few tweaks to habitat and approach now could result in an altogether more satisfactory season in the end.
Here are two thoughts for next season. First, what strain of bird should you choose? There was a period in the 1990s that many Shooting Times readers will remember, when many shoots perceived a decline in pheasant flying ability. This resulted in a flurry of new strains being introduced, many of which proved beneficial. I think most people agree that this was a good thing and that, in particular, we all satisfied ourselves that catching up the leftovers to use as breeding stock was not a good idea. Whatever strain you use, breeding from the ones that would not or could not fly is hardly likely to lead to good performance in future generations.
Alongside this, the GWCT carried out some research to compare the flying ability of various strains. This study showed pretty conclusively that the best were a lot better than the worst, but it showed that drive design was critical, for even the best birds will be poor over the Guns if the drive is not well laid out.
The second essential point is to make sure that the birds are grown-up. It is widely agreed that pheasants are not fully mature until they are about 20 weeks old. However, pheasant growth rate is pretty flexible, and how well you feed your birds can have a significant impact. Final frame size is pretty much fixed in the genetics, but birds on a poor diet will take a lot longer to get there than those that are fed well. So, do not be in a rush to wean them from pellets to wheat. If you compromise their growth, you could end up with weaklings that will never go well.