While you can't stop your birds exploring their territory, there are ways you can encourage them to stay close to home, says Liam Bell
Very often, it is the little things that make a difference and will keep your pheasants closer. This is never more accurate than when said in relation to the management of poults inside a release pen, and the area immediately outside. Attention to detail is so important, and little tweaks now when the poults are in and around the pens really will make a difference.
A large enough pen
If we start with the basics and assume the pen is large enough and has the correct mix of herb cover, shrubs and low roosting, then we should look at the pheasant feeding regime next and the feed itself.
Poults need to be on a dedicated game-grower ration when they first go in the pen. Poultry feed is a little cheaper but the compound is different and it won’t give them what they need. We keep our poults — the bulk of which are released in early July — on the pellets until October. We do change from a grower pellet to a covert pellet/poult pellet at about 14 to 16 weeks but don’t add any wheat until they are close to 20 weeks old. Then we have the wheat tested for mycotoxins and protein levels before we feed it. Mycotoxins are toxic compounds found in mould and they will affect the birds’ health negatively and, on occasion, actually kill them.
The protein levels are very important if we want fit, healthy birds. Levels in good wheat are measured as 10 or higher. The birds may well look healthy if the levels are lower but they won’t have the energy to fly. I am convinced some of the flying problems I have heard about in the past are down to low protein/energy levels in the wheat.
Having enough drinkers to go round is as important as having enough feeders. Crowding and competition lead to anti-social behaviour and create unwanted and unnecessary stress. Stress can give rise to disease challenges and if the competition for feeders and drinkers is too much, the birds at the bottom of the pecking order will do less well. In extreme cases birds may even desert the release pen and go off looking for somewhere more welcoming.
Stale feed won’t keep your pheasants
It goes without saying that the feed needs to be fresh. I doubt anyone would intentionally leave stale food in hoppers but I am continually surprised by how many people expect birds to enjoy and drink stale, tepid water.
Water needs to be fresh and clean and cool, and mains water piped direct to a header tank inside the pen is always far better than water standing in bulk tanks or drums outside it. It may cost a few quid to plumb in but if you can do it, it is most definitely worth the effort.
If you can’t get mains to your pens and have to use bulk tanks, they are best sited in the shade where it is cooler. You will need to put an additive in the water to keep it clean and stop it becoming discoloured and undrinkable.
It might all sound a bit of a fuss but I am a firm believer that in a dry year water holds birds better than feed or shelter, and if you want them to keep coming back it is important to get it right. Grit is another thing that I think important. People who rear their own birds generally put some grit in the runs or sprinkle it on the crumb when the birds are eating from chick trays, but I do wonder how many game farms do the same. Some do, I am sure, but for everyone who does there will be several who don’t.
Birds need grit to digest their feed and it is rare to have a release pen with enough natural grit in it to keep pheasants close and happy. This applies even more if the pen is a few years old.
We put a 25kg bag of flint grower grit out for every 500 birds we release. There is rarely any left, which sort of proves the point, because they obviously wouldn’t eat it if they didn’t need it.
There is also a theory that a lot of the birds you see on roads are only on there because they are looking for grit. There is a certain amount of truth in that and I do know people who have put grit out to try to reduce losses on the roads and say it works. But it is obviously not the only reason you see them on there.
Predation and unnecessary disturbance from people – and very often their dogs – are two other things that need keeping an eye on.
All manner of things will eat poults when they’re first released but the predation of poults older than 12 weeks is nearly always down to foxes. They have usually outgrown or got wise to everything else by then, but foxes will keep nailing them and it isn’t all down to poor roosting choices or birds sleeping on the ground. It is simply that foxes will always be foxes, and uneducated poults are an easy meal. Sit out with a rifle, have fox drives, lamp, use a thermal, set snares. Do whatever is easiest and suits you best, but keep at it for as long as you can.
My final bit of advice on improving how birds hold post-release is to monitor any disturbance caused by people and dogs, and to do everything in your power to reduce it.
Unwanted and unnecessary disturbance — and the effect it has on our poults and birds as they get older — are among those things that are blindingly obvious to most of us but difficult for those who don’t understand it to accept.
A combination of patient explanation and education will work wonders in most instances, more especially if the people responsible live or work locally and are likely to return.
Sadly, however, some simply refuse to accept that anything they or their dogs are doing will have any negative impact at all.
Signs work a little, being firm and putting people back on the paths and refusing to let mountain bikers, off-roaders and horse riders anywhere they are not entitled, will help. The latter three groups can be particularly militant. Keep working at it. Be firm, be consistent, be seen, remain professional and, above all else, never appear threatening.