These tips will take you as close as possible to the ever-elusive impenetrable pheasant pen

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Imagine the scene: a young fox is out for his usual evening stroll, hunting for his own supper now that mum has kicked him out. Meanwhile, you have just settled several hundred succulent pheasant poults in your pen in one of his favourite woods. As he wanders by he gets a whiff of that wonderful scent, and for him it is just as much of a draw as the smell wafting down the street from the chippy as you exit the pub at closing time. Who can blame the fox for trying his luck?

Predation losses within and close to pheasant release pens fall into two categories: mass kills of naïve poults that are caught together on the ground, and the gradual “attrition” that comes as a bird or two are carried off day after day for weeks on end. Most mass kills tend to happen in the pen, whereas the attrition loss happens both inside and out. Also, because there are no carcases left about, the latter type of predation can go on completely undetected, and eventually add up to more than a mass kill.

Judging by all the scaring devices I see hanging in trees, most keepers concern themselves with deterring predators; but wise keepers also make life difficult for those that are undeterred. So, let’s go back to basics, and think about this aspect.

This guide to building an impenetrable pheasant pen covers these key points:

  • Check perimeter fences for any gaps, weaknesses or damage
  • Site electric fences about 40cm away from the edge of the pen
  • Maintain a good habitat for your pheasants
  • Try to keep release numbers below 1,000 poults per hectare
  • Carefully set traps for small predators such as stoats
  • Keep foxes in check using legal methods of fox control
  • Mink rafts protect poults and help wetland conservation
  • Visual and audible deterrents are effective in the short time

A decent fence
Despite what many people think, most mass kills in pens are caused by ground predators breaking in, and the fox tops the list. Making a fence entirely fox-proof is impossible, but you can make life pretty hard for foxes. Anything less than 2m high can be jumped, and anything that is not either turned out and buried or pegged down may well be dug under. Siting fences close to easily climbed trees with low overhanging branches invites foxes to drop in from above.

electric fenceElectricity
Electric fences (above) are a great boon in protecting a pen, but please remember that they work best when all four feet are firmly earthed. A double strand of wire at about 15cm and 30cm high, around 50cm out from the main fence, works well. I surmise that after a brush with this, the whole fence becomes a zone of fear that won’t be tested further.

Good habitat
We all know that pheasants should regard the pen area as home — a good place to come back to each evening. Plenty of good roosting is important for this, and it also encourages newly released poults to get off the ground early, to where they are much safer from mass kills. Having plenty of low shrubby ground cover is a good stepping stone in this direction, and it also gives good places to hide when danger threatens in daytime. A good pen should have a third each of sunny spots, low cover and good roosting scattered in a mosaic over the entire area. This keeps the birds well spread out, and makes them much safer than when huddled in big groups.

Enough room
My colleagues at the GWCT have carried out years of research into the impacts of pheasant releasing on other wildlife, and this has shown that keeping release densities to not more than 1,000 poults per hectare of pen avoids significant damage to the woodland habitat. Fortuitously, it also seems to help avoid health problems. Keeping to this rule of thumb reduces predation losses twice over, first by making birds harder for predators to find, and secondly through the fact that healthy poults are harder to catch than sick ones.

Birds of prey
Getting the habitat mosaic and stocking density right are the two biggest things that you can do to keep raptors such as buzzards, sparrowhawks and owls at bay. Do not fall for the belief that a dense tree canopy protects your poults from being spotted by buzzards circling overhead. All a dense canopy does is suppress ground cover leaving your birds with nowhere to hide when the buzzard drops below it; doing a slalom between the trunks just adds to the fun of chasing your birds!

mink raftRiver patrol: mink rafts
Mink are serious surplus killers, and a mass kill of newly released birds is on the cards wherever you are, so do not be complacent. Trapping against the fence for small ground predators may just pick up a wandering mink too, but a much better strategy is to deploy a mink raft (above) or two and be sure to be on top of them before they reach the pen. That way you will also be doing your bit for water voles and wetland conservation. The system is ridiculously easy and low maintenance, and is described in the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s mink raft fact sheet, which is free to download from www.gwct.org.uk.

Keep foxes in check
Mink are serious surplus killers, and a mass kill of newly released birds is on the cards wherever you are, so do not be complacent. Trapping against the fence for small ground predators may just pick up a wandering mink too, but a much better strategy is to deploy a mink raft (above) or two and be sure to be on top of them before they reach the pen. That way you will also be doing your bit for water voles and wetland conservation. The system is ridiculously easy and low maintenance, and is described in the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s mink raft fact sheet, which is free to download from www.gwct.org.uk.

Small ground predators
Smaller ground predators such as stoats and rats are good at taking young pheasants, and rats join with grey squirrels in pinching food too. Tunnel trapping to catch these species is a bit risky, as there is always a chance that you will catch and kill one of your birds. However, a few mink cages set against the outside of the release pen fence can often intercept these pests, and of course a marauding mink, before they get into the pen. Set the trap in a little depression, tight to the fence, with the result that any predator will scurry down into the tunnel, but pheasant poults hop over the top.

Check the pen
If you make the mistake of shutting your poults into a pen with a fox in residence, you will not be the first to have done this! Make a thorough check for vermin inside the pen before you introduce the birds, and make sure that there are no holes under the perimeter wire, and that the re-entry points are closed so that predators cannot just walk in. Then check that the electric fence is working well.

A special trick
Around 30 years ago I remember going to a shoot in Kent, where there were yoghurt cups nailed near the bottom of several release pen fence posts. When I asked the owner/ keeper, Alastair Gordon, about them, he explained that he would pee in them on his evening pen check. This was not territory marking gone mad, but judging by the way in which foxes react to a whiff of human scent, it would be a very effective deterrent to marauding foxes and other predatory mammals. Just remember to have your evening pint first, so that your bladder is well filled!

Deterrents can help
You cannot touch protected species such as raptors and whatever you do, you won’t get the last fox, so use deterrents. Charlie is a very suspicious animal, and he is usually pretty scared of humans and their activities. Most other pests are pretty cautious too, so try the following tricks:

  • Keep a radio playing in the pen overnight — I find Radio 2 effective!
  • A few flashing lamps on fence posts can make foxes suspicious, and deter owls.
  • Hang a few CDs from trees to scare predatory birds.
  • Many feed bags come printed with owl faces ready to hang around the pen.

But remember, these scaring devices are short term, and familiarity can breed contempt. Deploy them at the last minute, and take them away as soon as they become ineffective. You may only get a few days or at most a week of effectiveness, but that can make a big difference.