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The importance of building the perfect pen

Nearly every shoot in the UK — the exceptions being the few that rely on wild birds — will have a release pen. Where that pen is sited, how it’s constructed and what the habitat is like inside it are key to a successful season.

In an ideal world there would be a couple of decent release woods in the centre of every shoot; in reality, most of us have to make the best of what we’ve got. Most of the pens on my shoot are away from the boundaries, which reduces the amount of dogging-in we have to do when the poults start to move. They’re all out of sight of the road and away from houses, which also reduces potential problems, and where we can, we put them in patches of wood that we don’t drive on shoot days.

Releasing birds in a wood that isn’t shot, and then drawing them out and flying them back on shoot days isn’t always possible, but we do it where we can. The main advantage of releasing in a wood that isn’t driven is that the birds tend to treat it as home and, because they’re seldom disturbed (except by the odd picker-up on shoot days), they settle down quicker when they’ve been driven than if they’d landed in another drive and been pushed around by beaters or headed out to an area of the shoot where they feel exposed. The sooner they settle down, the sooner they will be back on the feed and in the drives.

Drive-in gates

Our pens are much the same as they were when I started here. We’ve built a couple of new ones, some have been re-sited, and most of the old ones have now got 10ft gates in them. Drive-in gates make a huge difference, even on a relatively small pen, as being able to get a tractor and swipe inside to cut the rides, or a trailer full of poults, has saved us lots of time. We can even drive the truck in with a load of food on top and fill the feeders as we go, which is a lot quicker than having to carry them across the pen one bag at a time.

Once we’ve decided on a site for a new pen, we cut a ride around the proposed perimeter wide enough to drive a tractor and post-rammer on. If there are a lot of posts to be erected, a post rammer makes the job much quicker and easier, and though we’ve never managed to get all the posts pushed in fully, every one the machine does is one less to do by hand.

Having a decent ride around the outside of the pen also helps once the birds are released. I’ve found they pull back to the pen a lot better when they’re outside and find the pop-holes more quickly if there is a 5ft or 6ft gap between the side of the pen and the nearest cover. If the cover’s too close to the fence, the birds that are outside will try to settle down in it when it starts to get dark, instead of pushing back into the pen.

Our posts are peeled and pressure-treated with a wood preservative, which makes them last three or four times longer than the old-fashioned unpeeled, untreated ones. Also, when we put up a new fence (or replace an old one that is rusting), we’ve started using Jumbo game netting on top of the conventional 3ft roll of galvanised rabbit netting. It’s made of plastic but will last as long as, or possibly even longer than, wire netting so long as it’s not in direct contact with the floor. If it touches the ground, it’ll have holes chewed through it, even on modern pens with electric fences. As well as being cheaper, plastic netting is lighter and easier to put up.

The importance of habitat

Having a well-made, well-positioned, vermin-proof pen is only half the battle, however, because if the habitat in and around the pen isn’t to the birds’ liking, they won’t hang around. Ideally, pens 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.

Open spaces are equally important, as birds need both somewhere they can dry off if it has been raining and somewhere to sunbathe when the weather is good. A good network of rides helps distribute the birds evenly around the pen and will stop them getting lost if they’re linked up to a main ride somewhere near the centre of the pen. Rides and open spaces also give you somewhere to put your feeders and drinkers, as well as being somewhere that you can see your birds, check on their progress and look out for disease without having to stomp about in the cover disturbing things.

Stocking densities will affect the way birds hold in a pen as well. If there are too many birds, they will either start getting out before they have properly settled down and homed in on the pen, or start antisocial behaviour such as tail pecking. It’s difficult to give precise dimensions for the ideal size of a release pen for any set number of birds because much depends on the cover inside the pen. The old rule of thumb used to be to allow a yard of perimeter for every bird, i.e. a pen measuring 100 yards by 100 yards would be big enough for 400 birds. If you’re unsure, look at an existing pen that is similar in size and holding capacity to the one you’re thinking of building — if it looks okay, build one of the same size; if looks a bit tired and worn, build yours bigger. As far as release pens are concerned, size does matter.