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Planning the perfect pen

The release pen ? and what goes on inside it once the poults are in ? is the most important part of any shoot that relies on reared birds to provide the bulk of its shooting. Building a new pen can be expensive, so making sure the construction, siting and the habitat inside the pen are correct is essential. Your efforts will be repaid many times over with better returns and fitter, stronger birds.

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

There is an old rule of thumb regarding release pens that says they should be evenly divided three ways into open space, cover, and shrubs and trees. This may not always be possible, but it?s still worth bearing in mind when building your release pen or extending an existing one.

Our poults go out at seven weeks old ? they can be released at six weeks, but I think that is a bit early, while eight weeks is a bit late. 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 such as this one. It is far better to get them out to the pen once they?re ready.

The week before release, we turn the electric fence on and get the rides swiped or strimmed. Our rides go from one side of the pen to the other, up and down and side to side. These will help the birds find their way around the pen and, hopefully, prevent any getting lost. They also provide places that will be dry when it has been raining, and somewhere for the poults to sit in the sun.

We place feeders ? the same type as the ones used on the rearing field ? along the rides. The birds recognise them and can start to feed straight away. As well as having plenty of feeders, we trail a few bags on the floor just in case any poults are in areas not covered by feeders. Plenty of drinkers and a good supply of fresh, clean water are a must. For a few birds, handfilled drinkers will be enough, but if you?ve got more than 200, get some automatic drinkers and run them off a 40-gallon tank stacked on a few empty pallets or placed on a high point outside the pen. This should give the tank enough height to gravity-feed the drinkers.

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. We place our crates on a ride with a good number of feeders and drinkers and let them walk out in their own time. If the pen is small, place the crates on the edge of some light cover so they can pop in ? this will stop them flying up and over the wire.

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 just found. It is far better to check the outside of the pen for any that have flapped over the top, and then come back a couple of hours later and quietly walk around the inside.

Our birds are checked at least three times a day. If, due to work or other commitments, this isn?t possible, twice should be the bare minimum ? the first time as early as possible and the second time in the evening, before they settle down for the night.

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.

Keep an eye out for birds that are hunched up or have a slow, stilted walk. These, as well as loose or frothy, bright-coloured droppings are sure signs of a disease outbreak. Don?t ignore this, hoping it?ll go away ? it won?t. Take a few of the sickest-looking to the vet right away for diagnosis, along with any dead ones for a post-mortem. Treating them with medicines left over from the previous year is inadvisable, as the birds may have similar symptoms but a different problem requiring different treatment. Routine worming is also a good idea ? ours are done about 10 days after release.

As well as feeding, watering, controlling predators and looking for signs of disease, lots of time is spent running the birds back into the pen through the pop holes. First thing in the morning, when they?ve just come off roost, and at evening time, when any outside need to be ushered into the safety of the pen, are key times, though there should be relatively few outside in the first fortnight after release. 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.

If the poults have got food, water, good cover, warm roosting and peace and quiet, hopefully they will have settled in, which will make the next few months of holding them a whole lot easier.