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How to create an ideal pheasant drive

Not all existing woodland will work for pheasants but with the right knowledge you can create exactly what they like, says Richard Negus

coppicing in action

Coppicing thickens up cover, and creates areas of warmth. It also makes great habitat for nightingales

Tree planting is one of the Government’s key measures to achieve carbon net zero in the UK by 2030. This sounds as if it is great news for the pheasant. Our most popular gamebird is, after all, a creature of the woods. (Read more about the different types of pheasant here.)

However, the huge swathes of new plantings that are appearing in all their plastic-guarded glory across the country may be all well and good for carbon, but in many cases they are not actually that great for wildlife. This is because the pheasant, like most other woodland dwellers, is a solar-powered beast. They need the warmth of the sun to get them up and about in the morning. So here are some tips on how to create an ideal pheasant drive.

Pheasant drive

The newly planted rides at Flea Barn are curved and meandering, designed with gamebirds in mind

New woodland

When planting a new wood with a view to creating game habitat, simply digging in row after row of trees in neat blocks is not much of a boost to biodiversity. At Flea Barn, we set about increasing the farm’s woodland habitats. This was funded by the Forestry Commission’s woodland creation grant, while the planting was undertaken by Ed Nesling, who owns the farm, Richard Gould and me. (Read how to create the perfect pheasant pen.)

Designing the ideal pheasant drive

Before we began wielding spades in anger, Ross Guyton, from Oakbank’s woodland division, produced a design and planting plan. This planning stage is essential.

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The pheasant is, in truth, not a true woodlander. He is a doyen of the woodland edge. He does use the understorey as overhead cover from predators and as a shelter from the elements, and may roost in the lower branches of the trees. However, it is in the glades, rides and margins where he finds his sustenance. It is there where he recharges his batteries by the sun, claims his territory and woos his harem of hens.

Therefore, Ross’s designs maximised margins and edges for the pheasant drive. His rides meander, rather than run ruler straight, they bulge and then narrow. Hunting raptors cannot glibly glide along and snatch poults in this curvaceous world. It is more natural — after all, nothing in nature is ever straight. These curves and bends enable cock birds to more readily establish territories out of sight of their neighbours. It encourages more woodland flora to thrive in the wash of daylight. Natural regeneration occurs, thorn saplings sprout from seed spread about by bird guano, insects benefit from the nectar-rich flowering plants, birds feast on the insects, an ecosystem is created.

Four woods were planned and planted at Flea Barn, covering a little more than four hectares. Each was sited so that it was adjacent to existing woods or permanent cover, such as scrub. The species planted were largely deciduous broadleaf, varieties that are already present in this landscape.

A common mistake in woodland creation is to plant trees that are not suited to the soil type and weather conditions. In our instance, oak and beech, lime, hornbeam and cherry made up the primary species. To these, three different species of evergreen were added to boost diversity, and improve shelter and roosting cover.

Man planting trees

It is important to plant trees suited to the site’s soil type and weather

The edges of the plantations were filled by secondary species — hazel, crab apple, hawthorn, blackthorn and holly. These dense, shrubby plants provide a much-needed windbreak that ‘snugs’ up the cover. While pheasants adore sunlit rides, they hate a chill wind on their backs.

Trees were planted at 2m spacings. This may sound dense compared with prescriptions given by some, but the competition for light between trees will ensure that they grow up straight, with trunks that may in time have some commercial timber value, a benefit that Ed’s grandchildren will thank him for in the years to come.

coppicing in action

Coppicing thickens up cover, and creates areas of warmth. It also makes great habitat for nightingales

Managing woods

A curious thing about the Government’s love for tree planting is its notable lack of support — and therefore funding — for the management of existing woodland. Grants for planting trees are nothing new. Most shoots will have small woods and belts dotted about them, relics of the woodland planting grants of the 1980s and 90s. These woods are frequently too small to have a commercial timber value, so they have received scant management over the past three decades.

If you are to retain a stock of wild game in these woods, it is essential that they are cared for. Whatever the ardent ‘rewilder’ may say, a wood planted by man needs human intervention to maintain it.

The first thing to think about when managing a wood for game is to remember the pheasant’s core requirements — warmth from the sun, shelter from wind and rain, ample roosting areas, safe feeding zones and security from predators. There is another requirement that is sometimes forgotten in the rush to make a wood pheasant friendly — beaters actually have to be able to walk through the place.

Work on the principle that edges are the pheasants’ preferred habitat. If the wood does not have a ride or rides already in place, you must create them. Work out where north is and cut your rides so that you are opening them up to the morning sun, while taking care not to create a wind tunnel. A rule of thumb for ride width is to cut it roughly one-and-a-half times as wide as the height of the trees that border it. Obviously, this isn’t always possible in a narrow belt.

Once you have cut the rides, crouch down. Look at the wood from a pheasant’s height. If you can clearly see to the far side of the wood, you are lacking in understorey. This occurs when sunlight is excluded. To rectify this, thin trees so that the canopy of one no longer touches its neighbour. This is why we employed a tight planting distance and chose the varieties we did at Flea Barn.


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Thinning out

When the new woods are ready for thinning, we will focus our felling on the quick-growing cherry and lime, leaving plenty of oak, beech and hornbeam to remain and grow on.

Once the timber you have cut has been extracted, it pays to leave the residual brash in the wood, bunched together in beater-friendly rows to create ‘dead hedges’. These act as a nursery for the bramble and thorn that will spring up in the now light-dappled woodland floor. They also provide immediate cover for pheasants and, as they rot down, give a welcome home to invertebrates. All part of the perfect pheasant drive.

Thin out failing trees first, then take out those that are responsible for excluding the most light. Most of the ash trees are sadly doomed to succumb to ash dieback, so these make ideal candidates for the chop. Ash is a coppice species that, along with hazel, sweet chestnut, sycamore, willow, alder and hazel will bounce back, producing multiple new stems from their cut trunks.

Thinning is best undertaken in winter, but realistically can be done at any time of the year, bar August and September. It pays to divide the wood into ‘coups’, only working on one coup each year. Once you have created or improved the rides and thinned out the trees within one coup, it is time to focus on the edges to create your ideal pheasant drive.

creating hedging around a pheasant drive

It is essential to check woodland for pest damage, with the rough edges here indicating deer

You are aiming to create a thick, weatherproof buffer around the perimeter of the wood and all ride edges for your ideal pheasant drive. This can be achieved either by laying or coppicing the species that thrive in the perimeters. If you are short of any of these secondary species, you can boost your stock by layering, which is particularly efficacious with hazel.

Layering involves making a diagonal downwards cut, part way through a stem at the base. Pin this still attached limb to the ground, where it will take root at the tip, providing you with yet another hazel stool — and all free of charge. Next, you must guard your handiwork from pests. Deer delight in eating coppice regrowth or emerging tree and thorn suckers. In East Anglia, our prolific brown hare population poses a similar threat to the understorey.

pheasant drive creation

Invertebrate and beater friendly brash piles known as ‘dead hedges’ provide instant cover for pheasants

Check your woods for damage signs — torn tips highlight deer are present, neatly nipped-off shoots are the work of hares and rabbits. Small woods and belts, when well managed, are a natural home for game, holding birds better than any other form of cover. They repay in full all of the effort you expend upon them.

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