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
As birds mature, they start to wander. Not necessarily because there is something badly wrong with where they are, nor because they are looking for something particular that their release wood can’t provide, but more because it is part of the natural maturing process of most wild things, pheasants and partridges included.
Getting things right at the release site certainly reduces it and makes them more inclined to stay local, but nothing will stop it completely. What we can do, though, is get things right in the areas of ground between the release pens and the drives, and in the drives themselves. If we can make these areas more attractive in late September and October, when the wandering is at its worst, it will help slow the whole process and hopefully keep more of our birds where we want them.
Strawing-down feed rides might seem a little old-fashioned, but it works. My old headkeeper used to swear by oat straw, because he thought that it was tougher than barley or wheat straw, but I don’t think it really makes much difference; straw is straw, and any straw is better than none.
Small bales are easiest, though they are getting harder to come by. Larger ones are OK, more so the round ones, as long as you have something or someone to drop them off.
When we straw-down a ride, we trail feed into it as well. It gives the birds something to scratch about for and keeps them amused when the initial freshness of the straw has worn off.
Straw is also an attractant. When the birds spot it, they will go across to investigate, notice a feeder or two, find a drinker and the trailed feed and hopefully decide to hang around instead of going off somewhere else.
Feeders and drinkers
Though birds eat and drink less in the autumn — preferring natural food, puddles and streams to the food and water we provide them — it is still important to have plenty of feeders and drinkers out. They need to be in easy-to-reach places, to avoid competition between the birds.
We don’t move our feeders into the centre of the drives until a couple of weeks before shooting begins, because the birds tend to wander about and spend more time on the edges of the game crops and woodland than they do in the drives. There is little point in putting a feeder under a tree in the middle of a wood in September if the cover is still up and the birds can’t find it. They will move into the drives as the weather gets rougher and the cover dies down but there is no great rush to get them there, as long as they are where they are supposed to be, and settled, a couple of weeks before your first day.
The final parts of the jigsaw are seeing the birds are undisturbed and the inevitable dogging-in. The negative effects of disturbance by predators, late-season farm activities such as maize harvesting and potato lifting, mountain bikers and horse riders who go where they want, and walkers with dogs off the footpaths should not be underestimated.
If the birds are to stay where we want them, they need to be left in peace and not be harassed and harried and pushed from place to place. The only harassment they get should be from us when we push them back home. Dogging-in can be a bit soul-destroying, especially when it appears to be having little or no effect, but it does work, it keeps them at home and thankfully it doesn’t go on forever.
Doing some or all of the above may improve your returns, but it is important to be realistic — a 40 per cent return is good, 45 per cent is very good, and anything above that is pretty special. Very few shoots return 50 per cent. Most are under 40 per cent.
Game crops soak up birds like sponges, but only if the birds can get into them and there is something to keep them amused once they are there. If there isn’t, they will walk on by.
A cover-only crop such as kale can be dark and uninviting in late summer. It is excellent in December when there is a wind blowing or a light covering of snow, but not so good in September when the sun is out and you are trying to get the birds to stay where they are.
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We open our kale crops up with a swipe to make them more attractive. Not a lot — just a ride here and there to channel the birds in and somewhere to trail a bit of feed. If your crops are on the small side, and you don’t want to start running a swipe through them, open them up in the odd place up the sides. It doesn’t have to be far. A dead end will lead the birds into the middle and once they find that they can hide under the canopy, and that it is drier among the stalks inside the crop than it is among the leaves on the outside, they will start to use it as a base.
Maize crops are more open at the bottom and poults are usually happy to just wander in, pick at stuff and dust-bathe. Feeders and drinkers round the edges, and the odd row swiped off or flattened with a quad bike so the birds can get at the cobs, helps home them in and again slows down the wandering.
We don’t do anything with our triticale and millet crops, other than add a few feeders and a drinker or two, because the birds can see and get at the seed themselves and don’t need any encouragement to push into the crops to get at it.