A well-thought out pheasant pen is key to the success of your shoot. Here's how to get the space, habitat and construction right.

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The conventional view is that pheasants will always regard a pheasant pen as home.

They may but they don’t have to. Be assured that if the habitat of the pen is poor, offering only cramped and badly sited living quarters, the pheasants will make their feelings clear and decamp en masse.

Where to put the perfect pheasant pen

You might think it a good idea to site the pheasant pen in the bottom of a valley so that you can show the birds back from the surrounding high points. This works sometimes but on the other hand the birds could decide to glide downhill back to the pen, and still turn out to be low over the Guns.

You’re on surer ground if you consider a location on high ground with places to show birds from across the other side of the valley.

If the surrounding country is flat locate the home wood/pen far enough from the drives that the pheasants are forced to try hard to fly back home. A distance of three to four hundred metres is likely to be about right.

rearing pheasants

Pheasant poults in the run

Creating a safe environment

Newly released pheasant poults need plenty of low cover to dive into when danger threatens. They also need to learn to roost off the ground so low to mid height cover, perhaps four or five metres high, is essential.

The young poults also need a bit of sunshine so use the rule of thirds. The perfect pheasant pen should have a third each of open spaces, low escape cover and roosting area. This should be mixed over the whole pen area to encourage the poults to use the whole pen evenly and avoid crowding into small parts where they are at greater risk of passing on any illnesses, as well as being more vulnerable to predation.

Trees aren’t always good

Pheasants don’t appreciate large trees as much as is thought. Too much tree canopy (particularly mature beech )tends to starve the woodland floor of light and so discourages ground cover.

A thick canopy won’t effectively hide the birds from buzzards and other birds of prey either.  They have keen eyesight and will spot your poults on the bare woodland floor the minute you release them. Doing a slalom between mature tree trunks to snatch up a succulent poult presents no challenge at all.

Try to avoid taking the pheasant fence outside the wood. These open spaces are particularly easy for raptors to hunt, and they also often contain a delicate mix of flora and fauna which are easily damaged by crowds of poults. Get the chainsaw out to create some sun in the perfect pheasant pen.

Late spring and early summer are ideal times for a bit of local management in and around the pens and main release areas.

The perfect pheasant pen will be a mixture of: small trees such as thorns or elderberry, which provide some low roosting; larger trees for the birds to spend the night in once they’ve been in the pen a few weeks; shrub and herb (grass/nettles) cover for them to spend the day in; and some hard cover such as bramble where they can hide if they feel threatened by raptors.

Pheasant poult in release pen

Pheasant poult in release pen

Room to roam

Don’t overcrowd your pheasants. The perfect pheasant pen offers plenty of room. If you cram your pheasants in together you will crease their stress levels, reduce their resistance to disease and make them easier to predate. You may also cause habitat damage.

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has carried out detailed scientific investigations into the effect of varying release densities on woodland habitat over the past 30 years which has shown that densities of up to 1,000 poults per hectare of pen are unlikely to do any significant lasting damage to woodland flora.

Ancient semi-natural woodlands are a special case. These last remnants of what was once a large part of the British landscape can be particularly sensitive. So, wherever possible, it is best to avoid siting pheasant pens on them. This is fine when you have plenty of options, but not so good if you only have this type of woodland. In this case, as a precaution, the GWCT recommends that you reduce the density to no more than 700 per hectare. All of this guidance, and the research behind it, is summed in the GWCT’s guidelines for sustainable gamebird releasing.

Expert advice from the GWCT

The GWCT has more than 60 years of experience in advising on creating pheasant pens. Here is the essence of its advice.

  • To hold on to your poults by protecting them from ground predators you need a fence that is about 2 to 2.1m high, with about 30cm buried below ground or turned out and pegged down to stop predators from digging in. A further 30cm should be turned out at the top to hold back predators that try to jump or climb in.
  • Wire netting was once only considered good enough, but these days extruded black plastic is of good quality, and fine for the top part of the pen. Indeed, its lighter weight makes it easier to hang, and it is much less visible than galvanised steel wire. Be warned that if you go all the way to the ground there is too much risk of rats chewing holes that can let more serious predators in. So for the bottom part, always use 25mm of wire netting.
  • Putting up a good fence and leaving an easy climbing frame is a big mistake, so always clear a 4m wide track for your pen perimeter, and site the fence in the middle, removing any overhanging branches, inside or out, to a height of 4m. You also need to account for the stupidity of poults that fly out but do not know how to fly back in by having re-entry funnels every 50m or so. These should be protected with a GWCT-pattern anti-fox grid.  Ensure that your own gates fit well and have the protective fringe above and below, and that there are no tight corners where your birds could be trapped.
  • An electric fence outside the pen is considered essential by most keepers. They work best when the animal concerned has all four feet firmly earthed. Two strands of wire about 15 and 30cm high, and 40 to 50 cm out from the pen seems to work best to deter foxes.
Water supply in perfect pheasant pen

Hat covers prevent the water in bell drinkers from becoming “fouled”

Food and drink

Newly released pheasants can easily get lost in a big pen, so make sure it has a good ride network leading in and out of all corners.

A feeder for every 50 birds is a good minimum, and make sure they are well distributed with one in each corner.

Automatic water systems are best, but put a few simple drinkers in the out-of-the-way places too for the first few days.

Keep everything clean. Moving feeders and drinkers to avoid muddy spots is good practice, and do wear clean boots, which you should dip in disinfectant in and out. These little bits of extra care really do pay off in strong and well-grown birds the following season.

Some more tips and advice

  • More birds are lost in the first month of release than at any other time of the year.
  • The perfect pheasant pen should be made as large as materials and space will allow (without becoming so big that the poults get lost once released).
  • Put the pen in a place that the pheasants will love and will want to come back to.

Liam Bell, chairman of the National Gamekeepers Organisation recommends releasing poults at seven weeks. He says: “Keeping birds back on a rearing field until they’re eight weeks old may check their growth unless they have lots of room, especially in a wet year. It is far better to get them out to the pen once they’re ready.”

He adds: “Try to pick a spell of dry, settled weather for releasing the poults. If it’s wet or blowing a gale the birds will spend less time eating, drinking and getting to know their surroundings. Ours are released first thing in the morning, which gives them the whole day to settle down.

“Once the poults are in, let them settle. Walking around the inside of the pen will only disturb them or move them off the food and water they’ve found”

Birds should be checked at least three times a day. If this isn’t possible, twice is the bare minimum. The first time early in the morning and the second in the evening, before they settle.

“The first thing I do when I get to a pen is to listen and see what the poults are doing. If they’re sat in the sun, dusting and pottering about, eating and drinking, then all is well. But, if they’re nowhere to be seen or they’re standing and chirping with their heads up, or jumping up in little groups, then there is probably a predator around. This is why an electric fence, a few snares and a couple of tunnel traps are necessary.

“The number of birds on the wrong side of the fence will steadily increase as the weeks pass. As they do, start putting feeders and drinkers outside the pen to encourage them to hang about. When ours have had four weeks in and around the pen, we open the doors in the mornings, close them at night and run any in which are against the fence. Lots will have started roosting on the outside by then and won’t be using the pen at all. Leaving the pen is a natural progression.”

Dark rides can be used to your advantage. If there is a particular direction in which you want your birds to go when they start getting out, open up the rides on that side of the pen so they pull towards the light. Leave the rides on the less-favoured side dark and gloomy. The birds will pull to the more open side and hopefully start to head in the direction you want them to go.