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Bringing birds back to the drives

October is one of my favourite months. The leaves start to fall, letting all-important light into the woods. The fallow commence rutting, the odd frost arrives, reminding you winter is round the corner, and the poults begin to look ? and behave ? like pheasants.

At the start of the month our birds are everywhere, hanging around the pens, in hedges halfway to drives, in drives, outside drives and even the other side of drives and on the boundaries. This isn?t good for shooting but allows them space to grow and mature. Now is the time to move them slowly to where we want them to be.

A lot of our outlying areas become cold and draughty once the leaves start dropping and we get a few days of autumn wind. This change in the weather, the disappearance of the stubbles, the cutting of hedges, the emergence of the winter drillings, the odd frost and continued dogging-in, all help to get them back to the home woods and into covercrops.

Feeding spots

As we feed out from our release woods to drives we don?t want our birds hanging around the pens (though there will always be a few). Over the course of the month we remove the remaining feeders and drinkers from the release areas and put them in the drives. We do the same for any we have had between drives, in field corners or rough patches of scrub. Sometime over the previous few weeks, the birds will have fed in the drives, so removing the feeders and drinkers moves the pheasants to another location where they know they will get fed ? as opposed to leaving them hungry and wandering about looking for something to eat.

There?s no real rush, but the birds will probably be better if they are settled and feeding in the drives a couple of weeks before shooting. If you are planning a couple of boundary or walked-up days to start the season off before getting into the main drives, these corners, ditches and rough patches are an ideal place to start. Any birds that haven?t left them for somewhere warmer, may decide to move once they have been shot at.

As we try to concentrate the birds in the drives we check the Gun rides, flushing points and flushing netting. We have a couple of drives where some of the Guns stand in woodland or among trees. While we try to do all the major work in spring when the leaves are off and the season just gone is fresh in our minds, there?s always a little bit of tidying up to be done.

If the Guns can?t see where they?re shooting, or can?t make out the birds until they?re already on top of them, it?s not much fun. Very often all that is required is a bit of pruning with a long-handled saw or a quick tidy-up with a chainsaw. The removal of the odd branch or stool of coppice in the immediate vicinity of the actual peg can make all the difference
to someone?s enjoyment of a drive.

Clearing flushing points

The same is true of the flushing points in wooded drives. If they look okay but you?re not quite sure, try getting down on the ground and looking at it from pheasant height.

There should be a clear flightpath through the trees from where the birds are flushed out to the open sky ? allow for the leaves, most of which will have fallen off in the next couple of weeks. The angle should not be much more than 30 degrees. If the birds have to battle through the branches, or the climb is too steep, they are going to tire and won?t be at their best when they are over the Guns.

We check even if we have had a go with the saws in the early part of the year just in case something has grown over or into the gaps we want the birds to fly through. While we?re there, we also run our eyes over the flushing netting and replace any broken posts or netting that is past its best. Again, if there?s only a little bit to get done, we get it done now before the birds are shot at and a bit wary. Once they?ve been shot at, they need peace and quiet and won?t want to be disturbed by men with chainsaws.

Fighting fit

The final, but possibly most important, thing we must be sure of at the start of the season is that our birds are fit and ready to shoot. The age at which pheasants can be shot isn?t set in stone. If they have had a good summer, didn?t have any significant disease challenges or a huge worm burden, and were put in a pen with plenty of room so they didn?t start anything anti-social, such as tail pecking, they might be ready to shoot at 20 weeks. If they have had problems they?re probably going to need a bit longer to finish colouring up and put some muscle on.

There?s not a lot anyone can do about the age of their birds this season because the dates are already out and everyone?s keen to start. But if you have recurring problems with the birds not being quite ready and if you generally start the same week each year, it might be an idea to order them a couple of weeks earlier next season. This will allow for anything unexpected that might affect their growth or the rate at which they mature. The extra weeks don?t add much more work and are worth it when everything flies well from day one.

To those making a start on your birds this month, stay safe, be sporting, have fun? and shoot them lightly. There?s a long way to go until the end of January.