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Wildgame prospects

What a summer. Writing in mild and dry September weather, it is easy to forget the amazing contrasts that 2007 has brought, with unprecedented cold, wet spells and serious floods in some regions. Right now, there is new uncertainty, too, with foot-and-mouth ? and just when we thought we were out of the woods. By the time these words are published we will probably know more about whether this is likely to affect the shooting season seriously. It’s time to keep fingers crossed and keep biosecurity up.

Northern Scotland

Ian McCall reports: One of the best springs on record gave wild game enthusiasts hope. Birds were in excellent condition and undergrowth grew away quickly to cover eggs and sitting hens. On the rearing field, pheasant egg production was good until the end of May, then the wind swung to the north, temperatures plummeted and the rain increased in frequency and severity, falling as snow on the high hills.

Surprisingly, it hasn’t been a total washout for wild game. At Aberbothrie, in Perthshire, George Fleming continues his father’s passion for grey partridges through game-friendly farming. George has seen some barren pairs, and some adult partridges were lost during the so-called summer. Equally, in some places there are some big early coveys, the best numbering 12, with more in the six to seven range. George has already decided there aren’t enough to shoot, but hopes production has been adequate to maintain a breeding stock. He deliberately leaves extra to compensate for the increasing number of partridges he has found killed by raptors.

The bulk of Scottish lowland gameshooting is still at stocked pheasants. While there were horror stories of flooded rearing fields and washed out release pens, the north may have escaped the worst. Alan Twatt, whose Mains of Balmaud shoot, in Aberdeenshire, majors on showing challenging birds, tells me he had few problems on the rearing field. His poults feathered well in the rain and look well now. Coccidiosis and gapes have been prevalent in pheasant release pens. Treating either with water soluble products has been futile because of pools or streams of natural water available. Despite these difficulties many shoots in northern Scotland seem to have survived the challenges of the wettest July on record.

Northern Ireland

Ian McCall reports: Most lowground gameshooting in the Province relies on reared birds and most Game Conservancy Advisory clients report a similar picture to that of northern Scotland. Robert Scott, estates manager at Baronscourt, in County Tyrone, is both relieved and pleased how well their recently installed rearing unit fared in the cold and wet summer. Release resulted in far greater challenges with some disease-induced losses. “We had water everywhere and flooding in the lower pen, but the poults have grown away well and we are hoping for another good season,” he said.

Southern Scotland and the North of England

Hugo Straker reports: Never before has there been more of a mixed bag in terms of season’s prospects. The wheat in East Lothian is finally being cut, revealing more wild game than hoped for. While early pheasant broods are obvious by their absence, I am seeing some well-grown broods of around four to five weeks old as well as a number of small, just-hatched clutches. Grey partridges have fared surprisingly well considering the amount of rain which has fallen during the vulnerable periods.

John Gray, who farms near North Berwick, claims it is the best grey partridge chick survival he remembers. His report comes with his own concern that all the environmental good that has been achieved through stewardship and set-aside will be lost in the absence of follow-on schemes and with a zero rate set-aside. These concerns have been strongly echoed by the Game Conservancy Trust in Scotland in a robust letter to the minister of environment.

Johnny Warrender, owner of the Minuntion pheasant shoot in the Stinchar Valley, highlights the difficulties arising through the doubling of wheat prices. “Our let day charges were set at the start of the year. Since then, wheat prices have gone through the roof, coupled with an increase in beaters’ wages. Our Guns will have a good deal this year!” Gamecrops at Minuntion suffered during July, prompting a consideration of using bracken more as gamecover. As with the majority of lowground shoots in southern Scotland, growth of ground cover within the woods (light permitting) has been explosive, demanding extra effort from strimmers.

I recently spoke with Wyne Bennett, headkeeper at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, to find out how progress was being made with their conversion to wild game. Wyne reports that wild pheasants over the estate have bred much better than expected, though it is far from a vintage year and the grey partridges have succumbed to the endless rains.

The June, July and August rains caused outbreaks of coccidiosis and gapes in release pens, but once given space outside the pens, both pheasants and redlegs alike have grown well in recent weeks. Dogging-in birds is proving a crucial activity for many shoots as is, believe it or not, the provision of water. Many gamefarmers have had an “annus horribilis” and we should be grateful for all their hard work and endeavours to produce quality birds.

Eastern England

Martin Tickler reports: The really damaging weather in May seemed to come largely from the north, so the potentially good wild bird-producing counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk suffered big losses among both pheasant and partridge broods. North Norfolk took a pasting and Simon Lester, headkeeper on Holkham estate, reported some losses among adult hen pheasants and grey partridges, as well as losses of nests and chicks. Shooting days relying on wild birds have had to be cancelled. Further south, results for wild game are slightly better but chick survival is below average. The exception is wild mallard. Hatching early paid off, with big broods thriving in the April heatwave. The season for reared game
got off to a good start, with hens starting early and laying well. Chick rearing was not easy due to constant rain, which resulted in flooded rearing fields and an increased risk of disease. Gamecrops, particularly maize, struggled in the cool and wet conditions.

Malcolm Brockless, keeper on the Game Conservancy Trust’s Grey Partridge Recovery Project at Royston, reported that the year kicked off with prospects looking good for the season. “With more than 180 pairs of greys and a similar number of redlegs, all that was needed was a good spring and a reasonable summer. The driest April since 1853 gave the impression that it could be another bumper wild bird season, similar to 1976. Then along came May.

“Over the six farms where I do the predator control we had more than 150mm of rain over 13 days. Amazingly, some broods of early pheasants came through this, but it was too much for many of the partridge. Many gave up altogether, though quite a few made a successful second attempt at the beginning of June. On the whole June was a much better month, with only 55mm of rain here.”July was a mixture of sun and showers and by the end of the month 69 broods of pheasants were known to have hatched, along with 31 grey and 19 redleg broods. All grew well through early August and gave a final count of more than 1,800 wild gamebirds 836 greys, 542 redlegs and 469 pheasants.”

Wales and the West of England

Ian Lindsay reports: Like the rest of the country, this region suffered from cold and wet, but the feature that marked out 2007 was the huge contrast in rainfall and temperatures in places only a few miles apart. Blenheim headkeeper Graham Peck’s concern over poor growth of crops, especially maize and sorghum, was mirrored across the region. “Thank goodness for the warmth this month, which has seen a late growth spurt,” said Graham. Like others, Graham was also affected by flooding on the rearing field, with some huts washed away after 42mm of rain in 10 hours. As a result, losses were high, though Graham felt that it was mainly the weak birds that died. The silver lining is that harvest across the region is showing up rather more wild broods than many people had dared hope for.

Southern England

Mike Swan reports: In the south, a long wet summer followed a glorious spring. Everyone became increasingly despondent as depression after depression rolled in from the Atlantic. The glimmer of hope came in the announcement that June was warmer than average. What of wild broods? The 2004 Purdey Award winners Ian and Claire Smith, in Kent, said, “Not the complete washout we feared. There are some good, well-grown broods of pheasants, and even some reasonable coveys of greys. We may not shoot many, but I hope that there will be enough to maintain a reasonable breeding stock.” Ian’s view seems the norm in much of the south. Not a vintage season, but not a total washout.

On my own Dorset shoot, we have a few broods of both pheasants and partridges. They are smaller than average our biggest covey of greys has just nine young, but it is better than nothing. The further west, the poorer the picture, so while some shoots have been finding the odd brood, others are less fortunate. Ian Haddon, for example, who is serious about his wild pheasants in the hills of west Somerset, said, “I’ve looked hard and have failed to find a single young bird.”


So there you have it. Mixed reports, with some places that normally produce wild broods completely washed out. Hardly anyone will be having a vintage season at wild lowland game, but despite the horrid summer that most have experienced, there will be a bit of shooting. More importantly, those who have been working so hard for the recovery of grey partridges, should at least have enough birds to ensure a similar spring stock this year.