The home of Shooting Times and Sporting Gun

Wild birds: is this the way ahead for shoots?

Liam Bell explains how shoots can insulate themselves against further disruption in gamebird supply by reducing their reliance on reared birds

wild birds

Hen pheasants favour the dead grass at the bottom of hedges for their nests

When shoots were more reliant on wild birds, more self-sufficient and less dependent on gamefarms, it was common practice for them to shoot ‘cocks only’ for the second half of January. In a poor year for wild birds, the gamekeeper and shoot owner would get together, count up what they thought they had and decide whether the ‘cocks only’ rule should be brought in even earlier. Hens were treasured and no keeper or owner worth their salt would risk over-shooting them.

Fast forward 50 years or so and we have, with a few notable exceptions, become rather complacent about the production of wild game and have come to rely on reared birds for the bulk of our shooting. I do wonder, though, whether concerns over a repeat of last season’s supply problems might turn the clock back and bring the production of wild birds to the fore once again. For some shoots, at least in the short term, it could be their only option; for others — those less worried about the ongoing impact of bird flu — a way of hedging their bets. (Read more on rearing your own birds.)

feeding pheasants

Well-fed hens will lay more eggs, so ensure you provide sufficient food

To produce wild birds you obviously need hens, and every hen is important. Hence the ‘cocks only’ rule. The cock birds, which will provide the bulk of your shooting if your shoot decides to go wild, are marginally less important because you don’t need as many, but again you don’t want to shoot them out. The hens, though, are key. This is why you need to hold back on shooting them if you are thinking of releasing fewer or no birds next season, and move to cocks-only days for the rest of January. (The rules you must follow when rearing gamebirds.)

Healthy wild birds

A hen bird needs to be fit and healthy if she is going to produce a decent number of eggs, and the only way to keep her in tip-top condition is to feed her. If she is fit and carrying a little fat going into the spring, she will lay more eggs. The eggs from a well-fed hen are of better quality, more fertile and more likely to hatch than those from a hen that has had to scratch a living and is underweight. She will also be better placed to withstand the worst of the weather and less likely to abandon her nest if we have a late fall of snow or a series of cold, wet days. Furthermore, should her first clutch of eggs be predated, she will come back into lay quicker and again lay more eggs than the hens that have been left to their own devices.

(Read how to keep predators out of your pheasant pen.)

Pheasants and partridges, whether they are truly wild or were released as poults last summer, need to be fed until the weather improves and they no longer need or want it. This is a lot later into the year than you might think. April and May can be warm and dry, but there is still precious little for them to eat until the beginning of June. (More on feeding tips for your shoot.)

Leave hedge bottoms uncut

When they do come into lay, a favourite place to make their nests is in the dead grass at the bottom of hedges. This is one of the reasons that we ask our tractor drivers to leave the bottom of our hedges uncut. Cutting the tops and the sides is fine, more especially if the sides are being cut in rotation, but the bottoms are better left. They provide nesting habitat for game, shelter for small mammals and reptiles, and overwintering cover for many of our under-pressure insects. Insects are a great source of protein for pheasant chicks and the only thing grey partridge chicks will eat until they are 10 to 12 days old.

Brood-rearing cover

When the eggs hatch, the hen bird will move the chicks to a place where she can brood them and hopefully find enough food to keep them fed. There are options for planting insect-rich habitat, which will double up as brood-rearing cover and provide most of what the chicks will need in their first few weeks, under current and planned stewardship schemes. The tricky part is persuading your landlord, or the tenant farmers or company that manage the land, to plant them.

(Mike Swan on grey partridge nesting – what makes the perfect habitat.) .)

Another useful option under stewardship is the conservation headland. This is the outer edge of a conventionally planted and managed arable field, which is managed differently to the rest of the field post-planting. There are a few different options, all of which are designed to boost insect numbers and increase the diversity of plants. They are easily managed, as they can be moved and redrilled elsewhere if the headland becomes overgrown with pernicious weeds. The only downside to them is a small reduction in yields.

fox control

Fox control is an essential piece of the wild bird jigsaw

Predation control for wild birds

The final part of the wild bird jigsaw is predation control. Controlling and reducing predation is vitally important but arguably no less so than habitat management and the provision of food. And all three do, of course, benefit a whole host of other farmland birds.

Where time is limited, efforts should be concentrated on foxes and the predation of eggs in spring and early summer. Foxes can be a perpetual problem, although it must be said that most of the damage they do occurs in spring. Hen birds are taken off nests, eggs are predated and chicks and poults are snaffled by them at any and every opportunity they get. If you are lucky enough to have wild partridges on your ground, year-round fox control is essential. If you only have pheasants, you can ease off the foxes in late autumn, by which time any youngstock should be roosting and out of harm’s way.

Eggs are chiefly predated by members of the crow family and rats. The rules covering the use of general licences to control corvids have been updated, differ between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and may change again. It is therefore essential that the person in charge of any Larsen trapping and crow control understands their conditions of use before setting them. Rats can be tunnel trapped and poisoned, but it is worth remembering that only trained operatives can use anticoagulant rodenticides outdoors and that there are a number of regulations in place related to its use.

Running a wild bird shoot won’t suit everybody, and there will be times when there is little to shoot, but it can be hugely satisfying and the days no less fun for shooting fewer birds.