Liam Bell writes in Shooting Times
Poults start to wander three to four weeks after release. Not very far initially but, as they grow more confident, they wander further and further from their pen. It isn’t the same as the September and October wanderings of almost mature birds, but more the naive exploring of adolescents that need to be watched.
These birds need to be kept as close to home as possible for as long as possible. And, unless you have a huge acreage with birds and release sites everywhere, those poults that aren’t predated will keep wandering until they find something they like.
In many instances, this will be over the boundary or somewhere you can’t get at them.
Holding them back in the pen isn’t really an option either, as all that will do is delay the inevitable and quite possibly make things worse.
Poult pen problems
Poults should be getting themselves in and out of the pen fairly regularly after about a fortnight. If they are doing it sooner, there is probably something wrong. If the pen is too dark, they will fly out into the open in the mornings to warm up and dry off, and flap out over the wire towards the light in the evening as it starts to get dark. They will also do the same if there is nowhere for them to dry off after a wet night or a heavy shower.
Sometimes, there is very little you can do about it, especially if your hands are tied as far as woodland management goes. But if you are allowed to manage rides and create glades, get in with a chainsaw for a couple of hours before the birds go in and open up the pen a bit.
They will use the open areas inside the pen for drying off, start to roost in the scrub on its edges and use the rides for dusting, feeding and general pottering about.
Partridge poults are released from temporary pens and don’t need to be let back in because they are older when they are released and therefore stronger on the wing. Pheasant poults, on the other hand, need to be able to re-enter a pen when they have got out, which is why we have pop-holes.
How many pop-holes you will need will depend more on the shape and size of the pen and where it is positioned, rather than how many metres it is around the perimeter.
I have heard one pop-hole for every 50m of fence mentioned as an ideal, but as so few pens are exactly square or rectangular, and because most go over dips and bumps and take in awkward angles, it is almost impossible to put an exact figure on how many you need for a given size of pen.
We have them every 35m or so on the straight runs, but add extra ones on the ‘busy’ sides of the pens where most of the birds get out and where there are dips in the ground in which the birds gather as they pull back in.
It doesn’t matter how many you have, nor their design, as long as the birds are finding their way back into the pen. However, as it will only cost £15 to £20 for a fox grid and another couple of quid for some wire and a couple of stakes to hold the run-in up, you may as well keep adding them until you are doing next to no running-in yourself and the birds are doing it by themselves.
On the outside of the pen, you will need a couple of feeders and a drinker or two, but not too many, too soon. Enough to keep them happy, but not so many that they don’t want or need to go back into the pen for the first week or 10 days in which they are exploring.
It’s a tricky balance. They need to be able to get out and to start to find their way about, but you don’t want them to go too far until they are a bit older and wiser.
You want feeders and drinkers where they can get at them, somewhere to dust and sunbathe, some cover close by for them to dive into if they are harassed by raptors, and some peace and quiet. And they shouldn’t go too far.
If they are jumping out of the pen and refusing to hang around or appearing up tracks and field edges hundreds of yards away, there is something wrong. True, they will be doing it in a month or so anyway, when they are more mature, there is more to eat and they simply want to get out and about. But for now, they should be happy enough with the area immediately outside the pen.
If they aren’t happy or they are on their toes as soon as they hit the floor in the mornings, have a sit with them for an hour or so from first light to try to work out what it is that is unsettling them, or why they are heading off into the distance instead of hanging around the pen.
It usually boils down to one of three things: someone or something is harassing them; the pen is too small for the number of birds; or the pen is too cold, dark and draughty for them to want to stay.
If people are the cause of the disturbance, speak to them, put them back on the path and explain firmly and politely why they need to stick to it. If the disturbance is being caused by raptors, scare them off with flags and scarecrows and make a mental note to improve the cover in time for next year’s batch of birds.
If the pen is too dark and dreary and the birds are leaving and heading for the light, get in there with the chainsaw next spring and open it up.
A work party or two will improve things no end and make holding the birds so much easier. ‘‘“They need to start to find their way about, but not go too far until they are a bit older