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Releasing birds into the wild

It is well known that released pheasants that survive the shooting season do not enjoy great breeding success in the wild. Ongoing research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) states that juvenile released birds produce only one or two chicks for every 10 produced by genuinely wild birds.

To discover why, the GWCT?s head of lowland game research, Dr Rufus Sage, launched the Released Pheasant Appeal last year. ?The project?s overall aim is to provide information on how release-based shoots might try to encourage some wild breeding among the surviving released birds. It?s not about stopping releasing or developing a wild population alongside a released one. The idea that there might be a few wild birds mingled in with the releases on a shoot day is a powerful one,? said Rufus.

Encouraging released hens to breed in the wild is beneficial to shoots. From a keeper?s point of view, wild poults cost nothing to buy, are less susceptible to disease, are hardier in winter and broaden the available gene pool. From a Gun?s perspective, wild birds fly far higher and faster than their reared cousins.

Guns On Pegs regularly donates to the Released Pheasant Appeal through its Fieldsports Club. Director Chris Horne explained that £15 of each membership fee is directed to the appeal. ?At the end of the season more than one million released hens will try to breed. Most will not succeed ? but what if they did? As game Shots ourselves, we would like to see more wild birds on release-based shoots as it would make shooting more sustainable.?

The National Gamekeepers? Organisation echoed Chris?s sentiments. A spokesman explained that promotion of this concept would also enhance the public?s perception of shooting: ?From a PR standpoint, game management is more defendable when it seeks to work positively for all wildlife, including gamebirds.?

So why do reared gamebirds find it so difficult to procreate in the wild? GWCT ecologists have found that behavioural differences in reared birds caused by poor genetic make-up, the unnatural rearing environment, or physiological deficiencies such as susceptibility to parasites and disease, may all play a part in an increased mortality rate compared with wild birds. Dr Sage explained that though improving some aspects of pheasant husbandry can have a positive influence on the breeding success of reared hens, it is not an exact science. ?We have a reasonable understanding of the factors involved in poorly breeding juvenile pheasants but more research is needed.?

The rule of three

Many believe that to help reared pheasants breed, the ?three-legged stool? rule must be adhered to. Originally identified by the GWCT, it sums up the need to provide predator control, a good nesting and brood-rearing habitat and the correct availability of feed. BASC?s head of game and gamekeeping, Tom Blades, pointed out that time invested in breeding from reared hens is highly advantageous in the long run: ?Shoots that endeavour to provide the correct balance of this management plan will be giving both wild and released birds the best chance of success. Every hen pheasant left at the end of the season has the potential to breed and thus the potential to contribute to the overall stock of the shoot.?

Tom added that it would be naive to think that all reared hens will produce young that will survive to the start of the following shooting season. ?While reared hens may not have the best reputation as mothers, every chick they produce will be a wild bird itself, and subsequent generations the same.?

Effective predator control is crucial to the survival of reared hens and their broods. In six different radio-tracking studies, the GWCT documented losses of released hens to predators during the breeding season, from February until July. Around 35 per cent of hens were lost where predator control was regularly undertaken, but where predator control was less strong, losses of between 50 and 70 per cent were recorded. ?Time spent on predator control is never wasted,? said Tom Blades at BASC. ?Study what type of vermin you need to focus on. If eggs are being taken by crows, up your corvid control. If hens are being snatched from their nests then target foxes.?

Providing the right nesting and brood-rearing habitat will also significantly influence the hatch rates of nests. GWCT research has shown that released birds are far more likely to abandon nests than wild ones. It is thought that 40 per cent of reared hens incubating nests desert them, while only six per cent of wild hens desert theirs.

Keepers looking to re-establish wild pheasant populations have experimented with a number of techniques to try to encourage the natural maternal instinct of released hens. Tom explained that one way is to rear pheasants under bantams before the poults and bantams are all released to wood. ?The release of these poults is offset by the more conventional release of cock birds for shooting. In this semi-wild system hens are not shot and it is hoped that, having been brought up by another bird, they will teach their young how to look for and find food in the coming spring. This system is only as successful as the suitability of the habitat and feed provided and the ability of the keepers to protect the stock from predation.?

The correct availability of food is the last key ingredient to success. In fact, keeping feeding going until spring is required by the Code of Good Shooting Practice. Dr Sage explained that released birds are vulnerable to poor nutrition as they try to accumulate reserves for egg-laying and incubation at a time of year when seeds and grain are scarce. Similarly, providing an insect-rich environment is essential for young pheasant chicks.
Most covercrop manufacturers have seed mixes that are tailored for wild birds. ?Sewing a brood-rearing mix that contains chicory and triticale is ideal,? advised Tom Blades, adding that wide grass margins in fields are equally beneficial. ?However, avoid certain types of grasses such as cocksfoot which are too dense for chicks to move through.? Gamekeepers should also spread hoppers as far apart as possible, without being impractical. ?This will stop territorial cock birds from monopolising them. Locate the hoppers on woodland edges and along hedge lines but keep them away from each other.?

Wild or hand-reared?

So is it actually possible to achieve tangible results breeding released hens? Suffolk-based gamekeeper Bob Hammond has spent the past 12 years establishing wild-bird stocks on a private 1,500-acre estate. ?A quarter of the birds we shoot are wild, so it is possible. The shoot is held over flat land ? we do not have any hills or valleys to take advantage of. To achieve truly sporting birds we have no choice but to nurture the wild birds and rely on their ability to fly well.?

Bob feels that attitudes towards breeding wild birds have changed. ?Once upon a time, reared birds were released to supplement the wild stock. When mass rearing was introduced in the 1960s the balance changed, however. Nowadays it is the wild birds that supplement the reared stock.?

According to Bob this method of keeping gamebirds is shortsighted. ?Not only do wild birds cost far less to keep, but they fly stronger and are hardier in winter. It might be a controversial thing to say but, in my opinion, only focusing on reared birds is lazy gamekeeping. To harvest wild birds successfully takes a lot more work and skill ? it is not an exact science and it takes years to perfect.?

Bob stressed that to achieve results vermin control is vital. ?Around half of by working day is dedicated to predator control. There?s little point in investing time in improving wild poult numbers if they are all taken by predators,? he said, adding that monitoring nests is also imperative. ?At the height of the breeding season I will know where up to 150 nests are on the estate. Making sure eggs are cared for and not being eaten by predators will give the birds the best possible chance.?

Keepers are only able to do so much to help hand-reared hens breed in the wild. If the weather is foul in the spring then all your hard work can come undone. Tom Blades confessed that rearing chicks can be frustrating. ?Pheasant chicks can stand a bit of wet and cold, but not the two together. Ultimately, your success can be down more to luck than anything else.?

To donate to the Released Pheasant Appeal, visit: