Creating the perfect pheasant pen does take a bit of thought but it’s an essential part of establishing an exceptional shoot, says Mike Swan
Many a new pen will be going up over the next couple of months, so now is a good time to think about what makes a great place to release your pheasants and work on creating the perfect pheasant pen. It is one of the biggest investments for shoots and getting it right is key to success.
Siting the perfect pheasant pen
Choosing a site well away from the boundary is obvious, but do not be fooled by the widely held view that pheasants will regard their pen as ‘home’. They may well do, but a fenced enclosure in the woods has no special magic and there is no obligation for the birds to stay. If the habitat is horrible, the birds are very likely to decamp en masse once they ‘escape’.
To get high and testing birds, rather than choose a valley bottom, I like to find a site on high ground, with places to show birds back from the other side of the valley. Hilltop sites often have drier soil too and this can improve health by minimising disease risk.
High birds are possible in flat country. The key here is to flush far enough from home that they are forced to try hard to get back. Around 300m to 400m is about right.
Poults need lots of low cover to dive into when danger threatens. They will also need to learn to roost off the ground, so it helps to have plenty of bushes up to 4m or 5m high. Exactly which species you have is not important and is likely to be dictated by soil type anyway; it is the overall habitat structure that matters. (Read more on different pheasant species here.)
The other requirement for the perfect pheasant pen is sunshine. The rule of thumb is to have a third each of sunny spaces, low escape cover and roosting. This should be in an intimate mosaic, so that birds will use it evenly and avoid crowding into the only sunny spot, where they are at greater risk of passing on disease.
Many people think big trees are important, but this is not so. Too much tree canopy tends to starve the woodland floor of light, suppressing ground cover. Do not suppose that a dense canopy is good to hide your birds from buzzards and the like either. Having eyesight that far exceeds ours, they will quickly spot them on the bare woodland floor and a slalom between mature trees to snatch up a succulent poult is easy.
Also, try to avoid taking the fence outside the wood. Wood edges are particularly easy for raptors to hunt, and often have a delicate flora that is easily damaged by crowds of poults. The answer to lack of sun lies in wielding the chainsaw and cutting stuff down inside the wood.
Overcrowding increases stress, making birds more prone to parasites and disease, and thus easier for predators to pick off. Crowded poults also attract more predator attention, which builds the stress even further — a vicious circle. (Read more about how to keep predators out of your pheasant pen here.)
Excessive densities can also cause habitat damage. The GWCT has carried out detailed scientific investigations into this, showing that up to 1,000 poults per hectare of pen are unlikely to have any significant lasting impact on 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 using them. But if you need to, the GWCT suggests that you reduce numbers to no more than 700 per hectare. This guidance, and the research that underpins it, is summed up in the GWCT leaflet Guidelines for Sustainable Gamebird Releasing, enshrined in the Code of Good Shooting Practice.
70 years of experience
Forget any old-fashioned guidance about so much perimeter per bird. A long narrow pen encloses far less ground than a square or round one using the same length of fence. Also remember that a well-sited pen should last indefinitely if you maintain the habitat mosaic and do not make it unhealthy by overcrowding.
There is no one right way to build a pen, but what follows is the distillation of more than 70 years of refinement by the GWCT advisory team. It is based on the principle that you want to hold on to your poults in reasonable security from ground predators until the time comes when they disperse naturally — but remember that it is a release pen, not a prison.
Your fence should be 2m high, with 30cm turned out and buried or pegged down to stop predators from digging in. A further 30cm should be turned out at the top to hold back whatever tries to climb or jump over.
Time was when only wire netting was good enough, but modern extruded black plastic is fine for the top part of the pen. Its lighter weight makes it easier to hang, but if you go all the way to the ground there is too much risk of rats chewing holes; for the bottom, use 25mm wire netting.
Putting up a good fence and leaving an easy bridge over it is a big mistake, so always clear a 4m-wide track and site it 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. Please also make sure that your access gates fit neatly, continuing the protective fringe above and below. Finally, never have a corner tighter than 90 degrees, where poults can be trapped.
An electric fence outside is considered essential by most keepers and I agree. Two strands of wire about 15cm and 30cm high, and 40cm to 50cm out from the pen, seems to work best for deterring foxes. As pine martens recolonise in this country, I suspect that we will want to add extra strands to keep them out. They may be great climbers, but I am advised by those who know that they usually approach on the ground.
Newly released pheasants can get lost in a big pen, so make sure it has a good ride network leading back to the centre. A feeder for every 50 birds is a good minimum and make sure they are well distributed, including one in each corner. Automatic water systems are best, but I still like a few simple drinkers in the remote corners too, at least for the first few days.
With all this in place, everything should go swimmingly, but do not forget cleanliness. Move feeders and drinkers regularly to avoid muddy spots, wear clean boots and dip in disinfectant in and out. These little bits of extra care really pay off and you should be able to look forward to tremendous sport with strong and well-grown birds.