Keeping them at home
Many shoots seem to overlook their greatest resource when it comes to providing habitat for pheasants, says Tim Furbank of Oakbank Game & Conservation.
As suppliers of game cover seed, you would have thought we would be delighted to hear clients say they need more game cover to help hold their birds, but the first question has to be ‘why are you not holding them at the moment?’ The pheasant is a bird of woodland edge and marshland, and many shoots seem to overlook their greatest resource when it comes to providing habitat for pheasants.
Well-managed, mixed woodland provides warmth, shelter, nesting, food, and areas for brood-rearing and roosting, so assuming you supplement the natural food with additional grain and ensure there is a readily available water source, your woodland could be a five-star hotel for the discerning pheasant.
Unfortunately, much of our native woodland has been neglected and often woods are simply used as release sites from which to draw the birds out to the covers. However, if the woodland is badly managed then it is not an attractive home for the birds so they might go out to the covers for food but then carry on walking, looking for somewhere more attractive to roost.
Driving around the country one sees lots of small coverts and woodlands that were clearly planted for shooting. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the GWCT (then the Game Conservancy) helped many shoots design and establish small blocks of woodland for shooting. These had a warm, fast-growing hedge (usually a conifer or lonicera) around them with graduated layers of shrub, hardwood and conifers to create ground cover, a graduated 35–45˚canopy to deflect the wind as well as warm roosting habitat.
These were wonderful oases for the first 20 or so years, but even when designing them the GWCT advisors made it clear that the woods would need thinning and coppicing periodically to maintain their holding capacity. Sadly, too many of them were left unchecked and now dramatic remedial work is needed to restore them. One former GWCT advisor told me of a wood which he planned and planted that had a small flushing area of lonicera. The client was advised to keep the flushing area managed but, after 25 years of no management, they had to employ a bulldozer to remove the three acres of dense shrub that had developed!
Often the main resistance when it comes to thinning and coppicing woodland comes from the gamekeeper as keepers are understandably reluctant to lose any cover. However, if you involve the keeper from the outset they are usually the people who can help most with a management plan as they know the rides that need widening, the flushing areas that need improving and the areas of woodland which are cold and uninviting for their pheasants.
Sometimes a small amount of thinning and coppicing or improvements to the woodland edge is all that is needed but, where drastic action is required such as clearfelling larger areas, the shoot needs to understand that, whilst they may lose a drive or two in the short-term, it is for the long-term benefit. However, where the woodland still has a shrub layer (e.g. thorn, hazel, field maple) some clearing of the canopy combined with rotational coppicing of small sections of the woodland creates wonderful holding and driving cover.
On some of the wild bird shoots with which we are involved, rotational coppicing not only creates great habitat for pheasants but also increases the number of woodcock using the woodland in the winter. One customer suggested that a coppiced compartment in the first year will hold a woodcock, in year two will hold two woodcock, three woodcock in year three etc., up to year nine or 10 when the numbers start to decline as the coppice gets too large.
Of course, with any thinning or coppicing, the speed of regrowth will depend on the site and the browsing pressure from deer. Again it is a source of some frustration that many woods have a clear and obvious browse line and little or no ground vegetation but little effort is given to reducing deer numbers. Proper deer management is essential if woodlands are to recover.
Clear felling, thinning, pollarding, coppicing, ride widening and replanting all improve the diversity of woodland. Thinning areas helps ground flora to recolonise derelict woodland and this in turn increases insect numbers which has a knock-on effect on insectivorous birds and mammals.
Widening rides allows more sunlight to reach the woodland floor which again creates warm and sheltered corridors for insects as well as more woodland edge for birds to use. It can also create an extra drive. Replanting can create flushing areas as well as increase species diversity. If you have the remnants of a hedge or an overgrown hedge surrounding the wood, coppicing encourages it to thicken out from the base and, at the same time, you should gap up, ensuring there is room on the inside of the hedge to drive a tractor and hedge-cutter. If there is no defined ‘edge’ to the woodland, then why not plant a new hedge? Again ensuring there is room so that it can be managed as a hedge.
If you have other motivation for managing woodland e.g. biomass boilers and RHI tariffs, then it could be an opportunity to improve the woodland for the shoot at the same time.
And what of grants for undertaking this management? All forestry grants now come under the auspices of Natural England, whether you are looking for management or planting grants. The woodland management plans that need to be drawn up for grant funding are very detailed and likely to cost significantly more than the grant provides, but this does then open up the opportunity to obtain funding for the work that needs to be carried out (up to £100/ha/annum plus capital infrastructure such as high seats and deer fencing).
If you simply want to improve your woodland for shooting and aren’t worried about receiving funding for doing so, then you might want to consider paying for a less detailed management plan purely aimed at the game requirement. However, if you are struggling to hold your pheasants through the season and you know that your woodlands are not game-friendly, then doing nothing is not really an option and setting aside some money on an annual basis for woodland management will reap dividends in the long run.