Recalling the warm summer and continuing high temperatures during September and October, many keepers throughout the country seemed concerned about the prospects for the season ? ?My birds are everywhere? being the common cry. With little appetite and, in places, good amounts of beechmast and acorns, pheasants left the release pens for surrounding countryside, leaving keepers with little control over their movement. No doubt many a keeper was dreaming of a cold, hard winter to instil in the birds some enthusiasm for and discipline to the feed hopper. If the warmest winter since 1916 had been predicted, in many areas without any significant frosts, many would have feared a poor and disappointing season, but for many shoots the exact opposite seems to have been the case ? recovery rates on released game have on the whole been good and, for some, ?the best season ever.?
What, then, might lie behind this? When traditional wisdom suggests that gameshooting benefits from a cold, hard winter, what factors can explain this paradox? In many areas, at least part of the answer seems to lie in gamecrops.
To many involved in gameshooting, particularly those whose primary involvement is at the end of a gun, gamecrops are something birds fly from on the shooting day. What is perhaps less obvious is the important function they perform between shooting days and even before the season has begun: the provision of attractive holding covers to absorb and hold the released birds. Of course, many shoots today tend to have more of them. The huge changes in arable support, the introduction of Single Farm Payments and agri-environment schemes have, on the great majority of shoots, made it easier to access ? and pay for ? additional larger covers. Thus, compared to 10 years ago, most shoots have more gamecrop or other rough holding cover to ?entertain? and hold game before and during the season. In this respect, the reasons behind the good season probably began last summer, one of high temperatures and sufficient rain to allow crops, particularly maize, millet and sorghum, to grow well. Subsequently, the lack of snow and serious frosts through the season allowed the crops to maintain their structure and many keepers have remarked that maize, in particular, held birds better than they could remember. Some keepers have also suggested that the mild conditions meant that the rooks, crows and other scavengers that can so quickly trash crops, especially maize, seemed occupied with other food sources and left the gamecrops relatively unscathed.
A frequent comment on the season from most areas related to how well birds flew. Settled periods of windless high pressure were few and the weather was dominated by frequent, sometimes severe, Atlantic depressions. While in some areas the gales caused problems, resulting in the cancellation of days, the general effect was conditions that allowed birds to be presented well and to provide testing shooting.
Perhaps more predictably, the impact of the extraordinarily mild winter had less desirable effects on woodcock, snipe and wildfowl. In fact, a number of shoots in the Midlands speak of one of the poorest seasons for many years. Like other parts of the country, two factors probably lie behind this. Just as in the UK, and notably during the first half of the winter, southern Scandinavia and parts of the near Continent had similarly mild temperatures, which seem likely to have suppressed the westerly migration. In addition, that other feature of the winter ? heavy rain and extensive flooding ? meant that wildfowl had an abundance of habitat to exploit and were more difficult to concentrate on flightponds.
Ian McCall reports:
Northern Ireland has enjoyed another successful low ground game season. Most shoots rely on stocked game and the fine summer helped releasing, but many shoots found holding pheasants difficult in a mild autumn with abundant natural food.
Robert Luff, keeper at Glenarm, in County Antrim, reports an excellent return on birds that should end up at around the 45 per cent mark. Robert had to contend with a huge acorn
crop and attributes his success in holding and showing pheasants on his 18 driven and 10 walked-up days to constant dogging-in and strong gamecrops. By contrast, snipe and woodcock have been conspicuous by their near absence. Between 50 and 60 are usually bagged each season, compared with only two this year. The low numbers of woodcock arriving did so in December and most vanished after a week.
Martin Tickler reports:
Results were variable, but it has generally been a good season. A surplus of wild grey partridges on several shoots got the season off to a good start. Wild pheasants, nesting earlier, were hit by the cold, wet weather in May, resulting in the lowest autumn wild brood counts since 1996. On the best-managed wild bird shoots, stocks were sufficiently high to provide some good sport.
Reared pheasants have performed well. The warm winter made birds difficult to collect for many shoots, however the cold snap before Christmas helped concentrate birds in drives. January provided several windy, cloudy days, enabling many shoots to provide excellent sport.
Despite a cold early spring in Hertfordshire, Malcolm Brockless, keeper on the Game Conservancy Trust?s Grey Partridge Recovery Project, has experienced a productive season for wild pheasants and is optimistic about winter survival for wild greys. While some exposed areas suffered in the gales, mild conditions meant cereal crops continued to grow through much of the winter. Compared with a normal year, by late January these crops are providing higher cover for pairs. While this will make pair counting more difficult, it seems likely to provide better protection against predation, which is a key factor in late winter and early spring. From Malcolm comes one of the most unusual observations of the season ? a brimstone butterfly seen on the last day of the season. Global warming or what?
Tayside, Fife and northern Scotland
Ian McCall reports:
The optimistic outlook in September proved largely accurate. Wild game bred well where it traditionally prospers and stocked game acclimatised to the wild in the hot summer, especially birds sourced from Scotland. Some heavy losses occurred to pheasants bought from southern England presumably the result of long, hot journeys and stress-related disease. Wild grey partridges enjoyed a big lift. At Tayfield, in Fife, William Berry had his best count for several years: more than 160 on the autumn stubble, but not enough to allow them on to their quarry list.
It was after Christmas before more than the odd frost arrived to assist woodland shoots, and the penultimate week of January before snow lay for more than a few hours. These mild conditions favoured small wood and gamecrop shoots. ?Extending? the game season forward with redlegs continues to increase in popularity. At Lindertis, in Angus, the establishment of strategically sited root crops on a few hundred acres of light, undulating ground has enabled headkeeper Bob Christie to develop an extra day?s driving. ?The partridges have held well to the cover and the new venture has given extra days, relieved early season pressure on our pheasants and increased variety,? he reports.
Woodcock have been scarce across most of northern Scotland. A young-to-old ratio of less than one-to-two suggests a poor breeding season. The cold snap from the third week of January did provide a better showing, particularly on the woodcock shoots of the Western Isles and far north counties such as Sutherland, where roughshooting enthusiasts enjoyed a lift to the end of their season.
Southern Scotland and the north of England
Hugo Straker reports:
We had a glimmer of hope for some hard weather at the end of the season, as many parts of Scotland and northern England received snow. The few woodcock became concentrated and pheasants returned to feed rides. It was shortlived, however, with the season closing on
a mild note and cock pheasants scattered along hedgerows. The wandering trait of the pheasant has been felt by many shoots. Some have struggled to make the desired bag and extra days were put on in January in the hope of catching up with birds absent from pre-Christmas shoots.
South-west Scotland and Cumbria were subjected to a colossal amount of rainfall, but it was strong, often gale-force winds that battered many a shoot ? on some days the wind proved dangerous for standing Guns and beaters. For birds rising into a gale, their flight often takes them over the shoot boundary, never to return. For some shoots, the wind helped keep birds, while on exposed ground with draughty coverts the wind has scattered them far and wide.
In spite of the mild weather and abundance of natural fruits, there are success stories. Glyn Jamieson, part-time keeper on three shoots near Cornhill-on-Tweed, in north Northumberland, reports a cracking season and believes his success is down to diligent feeding, the right amount of hoppers and good cover to site them in.
Elsewhere, in the Scottish Borders, near Stow, Alan Bell runs the renowned Cathpair shoot and has enjoyed a bumper season with pheasants and redleg partridges holding and flying well.
Ian Lindsay reports:
Like the west of England, the warm and, at times, moist summer saw good growth of gamecrops providing good holding cover through the season. In places the gales flattened a number of maize crops. A number of the larger, professionally-keepered shoots in the north had a good season.
Elsewhere smaller shoots, particularly those dominated by grassland and without the benefit of arable crops or gamecover, had a more difficult time holding birds in the mild conditions. For most areas the main feature of the winter was the disappointing woodcock and wildfowl. Other than the two limited periods of relatively colder weather just before Christmas and at the end of January, when a few made an appearance, the season was disappointing for most. Like the entire west of the UK, the winter was a wet one, with several periods of flooding, giving wildfowl plenty of attractive wet habitat to exploit ? attendance at many flightponds was poor.
Mike Swan reports:
The season was characterised by mild weather after one of the best natural food years in recent times. In October, keepers were all saying the same thing: ?My pheasants are all over the place and I can?t gather them up in the drives.? Despite this, most seem to have had a decent season, with good returns.
A few days were cancelled, but the wet and windy weather between November and January produced a bumper crop of spectacular days. Bill Brown, in Hampshire, gave the following verdict: ?A good season, with lots of smiling faces, though we did have to cancel on 18 January because of the gale. Several trees came down, and it would have been wrong to ask the beaters to go into the woods.?
Down in Devon, David May has had a good season, too: ?It has been a record season for us and I can?t quite understand why. With so much beechmast and acorn I expected the pheasants to leave my north-facing ground for more comfortable places, but they held well. I can only assume that our covercrops have made the difference, and I have been particularly impressed with dwarf sorghum. It has held birds well and given good flushing cover, with the birds showing in ones and twos rather than big groups.?
Back in November we all began to wonder where the woodcock were, and even at Christmas my contacts were reporting a shortage, but it seems that the cold snap at the end of the January has partly made up for this in some areas.