Every shoot has a signature drive ? the keeper?s favourite, the one the beaters boast of, the one the Guns hope the host mentions in the order of the day. Our shoot has just such a drive, planted in the mid-19th century, solely for the holding and showing of game. This drive used to show the highest and, in the early 1900s, the most birds. Big bags aren?t a modern phenomenon, though many people seem to think so. In those days, six or seven Guns shot between 400 and 500 birds on this drive alone. These days we?re happy to shoot a tenth of this number and quality has become more important than quantity.
Over the past five or six years, while the number of birds that the wood holds has stayed roughly the same, the number flying well across the line has noticeably declined. I?d love to be able to say there was an easy and obvious explanation, but there isn?t. Our first step was to look at the stock. The release pen that feeds this drive also fills three others and, as the birds from these drives were all flying strongly, we ruled out any possible health problems or weaknesses in the strain of pheasant.
I?ve seen drives where the birds fly low and without purpose because they can no longer see the Guns. This wasn?t the case with our drive as the valley is open, and the scrub and poorer trees along the one side were removed for firewood a few years ago. The Guns can be seen by anything flying over or coming out of the wood. The wood was driven in much the same way in its heyday, and now has a good gamecrop on the top, as well as plenty of ground cover, including box and privet, in the right places. The all-important flushing point at the end allows the birds plenty of space to rise up above the trees without tiring themselves out battling through branches.
It took a while to work out the mystery, and I didn?t do it on my own. I asked a few friends what they thought just in case I was missing something, though I did have an inkling what the problem might be. A few years ago, the mature Douglas firs and some of the larch in the release wood were thinned. The upside to the felling and thinning was improved ground cover and more light, but the wood had become colder, especially when it came to roosting areas.
While the release wood was getting colder, the wood we drove was warming up as a result of previous planting.
Pheasants need a warm roosting area or they?ll move, and ours had started doing just that. They deserted the release wood when it became too cold and decided to roost somewhere else. Because they now lived, fed and roosted in the wood we drove, most of the birds no longer had any incentive to fly back to the wood from which they were released. Some did, but they did not show the speed and determination they had done in the past. Some refused to leave the wood altogether, instead flying up and down it, rather than over the line.
The end-of-season assessment
Being aware of any changes in the wood is important and we try to look over it at the end of every season, when my employer and I get together and go over any planned work. I make a note of any thinning or felling due to take place, and we both make a few suggestions. In this instance I had underestimated the influence the thinning of the trees would have on the birds and how they would alter their roosting sites as well as what knock-on effect it would have on the drive.
Warming up a release wood is fairly straightforward: plant more trees if it lacks roosting; more shrubs if it needs ground cover. The trick is to decide where, how many and what sort to plant. Anything we did would take a few years to provide warm roosting, so we decided to try and improve the whole area while we were at it. In this way, when the remainder of the larch and Douglas firs were felled, there would already be trees to take their place. Non-native trees are a moot point at the moment, as there is money available for native woodland and the removal of laurels and rhododendrons; however, we?ve planted them as they are good for shooting. Grants for planting are increasingly focused on the hardwood species. I like conifers, not in big blocks or as the sole species in a wood, but as singles planted around the edges of coverts, as they keep the heat in, and a few in the middle of woods act as windbreaks. Pheasants like to use them as shelter from the wind while they spend the night on the branch of an adjacent ash or oak.
A new planting scheme
Though you can plant in autumn, we do all our woodland work in spring, because it causes less disturbance. Planting is very simple: the thorns are pushed in to a slit made by a spade, a spiral rabbit guard is wrapped around the plant and a bamboo cane pushed inside the tube to hold it up. With spruce, the planting method is the same, but we use square guards designed for shrubs. The laurel and box come as larger plants in pots. Dig a generously-sized hole, pop the plant in and use a shrub guard. It?s tempting to leave the guards off to save time and money, but in my experience to do so would be a waste of a plant. Even if they are at low densities, rabbits will find them and eat the lot.
The planting of trees, whole woods or even just a few shrubs as ground cover is worthwhile for the future and my employer and I will enjoy the benefits in a few years? time. What is also worth considering is that we will have put our stamp on the place ? in 50 years? time, someone else will stand in the bottom of the valley shooting pheasants flushed from our trees.