Many game shoots are facing the dilemma of what to do with leftover birds, says Liam Bell
With the ever-tightening COVID-19 restrictions in operation in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is little hope for those of us longing for a return to driven shooting. It seems pretty certain that most of us will have more leftover pheasants on the ground at the end of this season than at the end of any other that we can remember.
Fitting in an extra day or two, or upping the bag on the days already in the diary for December, was quite doable after the November lockdowns. Trying to fit all the newly cancelled and postponed days into an already busy January was proving difficult before the latest lockdown was announced.
The question now is: what do you do with the birds you have left? Traditionally, hens were caught for laying pens and cocks were swapped with neighbours to change bloodlines and to avoid inbreeding.
The number of shoots with laying pens and rearing fields is much reduced now and, as far as DIY and self-run shoots are concerned, the cost of setting both up, plus the hours needed to manage a laying flock and rearing field, means it rarely fits in. Poult suppliers may be looking for hen birds and it might be worth catching some up, but it has to be done during the shooting season to be legal. Of course, they may have enough already if they run a shoot themselves and haven’t managed to shoot all their days.
Prices have been hovering at £4 to £5 per caught-up hen for a number of years and I am guessing that, this year, with more birds available due to the number of cancelled days and a possible reduction in orders, game farms are going to be offering a lot less. This then begs the question of whether catching-up is going to be a good use of your time if you are only going to get a couple of pounds for each bird.
A combination of these issues will leave most of us with a larger-than-normal number of hens on the ground. They will need feeding and looking after if we are to get the best out of them and hopefully help them produce a poult or two to grow on for next season.
Pheasants and partridges, in common with all species of bird, need several things if they are to breed successfully in the wild. They need suitable habitat, they need food and they need to be able to lay their eggs, incubate them and rear the chicks without either them or the adult birds being predated.
Habitat creation and maintenance is always ongoing and, for this year, it is probably too late to do anything that will make much difference. The exception to this is the hedge bottoms that have so far escaped the flail mower and that are on the cutting list. They can be left long and untouched.
We have moved across to rotational hedge-cutting on our in-hand land and, in addition, only cut the hedge bottoms if they become overgrown with bramble or are overrun with thistles. If they are predominantly grass, they are simply left.
The old grasses are a favourite nesting spot for both pheasants and partridges, and they are also used by farmland birds such as yellowhammers for both nesting and brood rearing.
Leaving them uncut makes sense as it not only provides useful habitat, but it also reduces costs and saves time. The difficult part is convincing the hedging contractor to leave the base uncut (and to their eye untidy), if they have been used to doing something a particular way.
The birds will need to be fed until late spring/early summer. A well- fed bird lays more eggs, spends less time off the nest when incubating and produces healthier, stronger chicks. They will also wander less come spring if they have food provided for them.
Wheat is fine. You can add other grains if you feel the need or have them in stock, but they will be OK on straight wheat. For now, I would stay with hoppers, reduce the trailed feed and aim for them to be hopper-fed only by the end of the month. Too much trail-feeding attracts rats and corvids, and ends up sustaining overly large populations of the very things we want to discourage.
As the weather breaks and the birds spread out naturally, the feed hoppers will need to be moved out with them. Field margins, rough corners and bits of cover that will shoot up as the weather warms are all good places for hoppers, but ultimately you will be guided by the birds themselves.
We move our hoppers as the birds move, but don’t rush to get them out as the pheasants will pull back to the woods if the weather turns and the partridges will re-form rough coveys and stay in the crops until it improves.
Feed for as long as you need to. It will certainly be until the end of April and may well be a lot longer, depending on how much food the birds can find themselves. Fill the hoppers less as the food intake reduces and aim to have them empty or close to empty by the beginning of June, by which time most of the birds should have laid and be sitting.
As far as predation control is concerned, concentrate on reducing the numbers of foxes, rats, carrion crows and magpies.
Remember, carrion crows and magpies, which predate both pheasant and partridge eggs and chicks, can now only be controlled to protect the eggs and chicks of endangered red- or amber-listed birds under the new general licence (GL40) that came into force on 1 January). Pheasants and red-legged partridges are green listed.
If you want to control them solely to protect the eggs and chicks of pheasants and red-legged partridges, you will have to apply for an individual licence, as many of us did at the beginning of 2020.