Mike Swan advises on feedings tips to avoid attracting unwanted pests and predators on to your shoot
With the pheasant release process well under way on most shoots, careful feeding of our growing poults is a main task for the majority of low-ground keepers as July turns into August. As the birds begin to spread, so the feeding programme needs to move with them, and how we manage that can have big conservation consequences — both positive and negative. So, to put things simply, everyone is happy when they see a yellowhammer picking up the pheasants’ leavings under a hopper, but no one much likes to see a rat helping itself.
When I started off as a trainee Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust advisor in the early 1980s, five-gallon metal drums were still widely and freely available, and most of those who fed with hoppers converted them to suit their needs. Much thought had gone into designs, and I was taught that the best plan was to knock three or four slots in the base with a hammer and chisel.
When such feeders are set up, the rain runs down the outside and sheds past the rim, leaving the contents dry. It is possible to adjust the width of the slots with a screwdriver (to open) or hammer (to close from the inside). This regulates the grain flow, so that the birds can peck out what they need, but there is minimum spillage. Today, there is a plethora of hopper attachments on offer. With the exception of a few that have been carefully designed to minimise waste, the majority are more easily raided by the likes of rats, rooks, pigeons and grey squirrels.
On the home shoot, I still use homemade hoppers with slots, even buying new drums if I am unable to source secondhand ones. (Whatever hopper you may use, you can minimise its impact on the landscape by painting it green or brown.) We have also taken to hanging our feeders from low branches, or from a tripod of posts, so rats and squirrels cannot climb up the supports and reach the food slots. I see precious few rat holes in the ground near my feeders, even after a long winter, while yellowhammers and other small birds are a satisfyingly common sight flushing away from underneath as I drive round topping up supplies.
Compared with a hopper with its grain continuously available, food that is scattered, by hand or from a spinner on the back of a vehicle, is only there for a relatively short time. This clearly means less opportunity for scavengers, but on the other hand there is no difficulty in collecting what is available. The old-time keepers would scatter on straw, partly because their charges love to scratch in it for their food, and partly because it made it harder for scavengers to find. However, straw is an issue too. Scattered in the wrong place it can easily form a “blanket” that swamps delicate natural vegetation such as orchid colonies and other sensitive wild flowers. Also, the combination of nutrient enrichment from the straw and pheasant droppings, plus weed seeds naturally present within it, can lead to rank weedy patches. Handfeeding on straw is perfectly appropriate in covercrops and rides in woodland plantations, where there is nothing to damage, but it is distinctly bad news in habitats such as ancient woods, natural scrub, chalk grassland and heather moorland.
Scattering food by hand and whistling up the pheasants offers little to most scavengers, because the aim is to provide no more than what the pheasants can clear up in 15 or 20 minutes. Spinning from the quad can be a different story. It can be fine if it is carried out in the same way as you would hand feed, but if it is done regularly at night — so the pheasants have something first thing in the morning, for example — then this will clearly greatly increase the potential to attract rats.
When we do the feeding job well, we keep our game in good condition and hold it well, at the same time as helping to support a range of other wildlife. However, there is plenty of scope to feed undesirable scavengers and serious pests, to the detriment of conservation and the irritation of other countryside interests.
Make no mistake, grey squirrels are a serious forestry pest and are not averse to a feed of birds’ eggs. Most foresters would probably be of the view that keepers help the squirrels through feeding, too, and it is hard to refute this. On the other hand, those who are on the ball can turn this to mutual advantage by using hopper sites to trap squirrels. This can be a particularly effective tactic when you move a hopper, or stop feeding, but the squirrels keep coming anyway.
As July turns to August, the home-bred duck begin their test flights and start exploring their local area, so now is the time to start feeding your flightponds to attract them. Here again, we have a potentially sensitive situation as there is little more damaging to the conservation interest of a pool than releasing and feeding large numbers of duck. The combination of pollution with duck droppings and erosion of banks by endless dabbling can be a very bad advertisement for shooting.
However, scattering a little bit of barley in the margins, and attracting a few truly wild duck, is unlikely to do any harm. The birds are usually only present at night and they come in much smaller numbers, so both nutrient enrichment and erosion are far less of an issue. However, it is important not to overfeed. Food that is left uneaten soon starts to ferment, and produce pollutants that will affect water quality. Take that a stage further and tip a trailer load of barley tailings into the margins of your pond, and the resulting decomposition will be devastating to the life of the pond, not to mention an attraction to yet more rats.
Reasons to avoid feeding rats
- Rats cost money to feed.
- They damage feeders and other kit.
- They carry disease to both people and game.
- They take nests and eggs whenever they can, including game.
- Money, time and effort are all required to control them.
- Rodenticide residues are widespread in our wildlife, and rat control by keepers must surely be a factor in this.