I once asked my headkeeper what made a good pheasant. His answer? ?A good egg?. Keeper Green, as everyone called him, was a man of few words. As he was my boss and I didn?t want to appear to be clueless, I didn?t question him further. It took some time before I understood what he meant, and how right he was.

The only bird capable of producing a decent egg is a healthy one. The same is true for cock birds and fertility. Caught up birds should be disease-free and have performed well over the season. You won?t get first-class eggs from second-rate stock. I know of one or two shoots that have, after a disappointing year, bought-in all the hens or the eggs they needed from a reliable source and started from scratch. It may be expensive, but it is a faster and more reliable way of ensuring good flying stock for the next season, rather than only changing the cocks or persevering with the hens they had and hoping for the best.

Bird ratios

The ratio of the cocks to hens in the laying pen depends on the pen size, the strain of bird and the preference of the person looking after them. We put ours in at a ratio of eight to one. A friend who uses 10ft x 10ft pens, made from pen sections, for all his laying stock, puts six hens and a cock bird in each unit and has high fertility and no problems with cocks fighting, hens getting bullied or egg-eating. The downside to having lots of small pens is the time it takes him to manage a relatively small number of hens. At the other end of the scale, a local gamefarm has its laying stock in large pens similar to ours and have their birds stocked at a ratio of 10-to-one.

There?s no hard-and-fast rule, providing there are enough cocks to cover the hens, but not so many that they end up competing with each other (which means the cocks spend more of their time pushing each other off the hens than fertilizing eggs). This is usually somewhere between six-to-one and 10-to-one.

Working out how many hens we need is quite easy. Each hen lays 40 or so eggs. Roughly 70 per cent of these will produce decent chicks. Therefore, 100 hens will produce 4,000 eggs which will mean that there are 2,800 chicks. These are only rough figures, but they provide a guide.

Brailing birds

Once we?ve caught our hens (something that has to be done before the end of the shooting season, to stay within the letter of the law) we ?brail? them to stop them flying, and put them into the pen. Brailing means placing a ribbon across one wing. The brail prevents the wing from being fully extended, and stops the bird flying off. Some people prefer to clip the flight feathers. I?m not a fan of clipping breeders, as the feathers might not have grown back by the time you want to put them back out on the shoot. This would mean delaying their release by a few weeks when they?d be better off out of the pen than in it. We net our pens to prevent crows pinching eggs, but we don?t put the nets on until the danger of late snow has passed, and need some way of keeping the hens in the pen from mid-January until the end of March.

With good stock, a decent pen, plenty of feeders, drinkers and proper food, the first eggs should appear towards the end of March. Even now, I find this period exciting, though I must admit that the novelty does tend to wear off after a while ? especially if it is raining.