The devil is in the detail
In the first of a new two-part series on shoot management, Belvoir Castle shoot captain Phil Burtt looks at some of the complexities and challenges of putting on the perfect pheasant or partridge drive.
There is more to being a good game Shot than just impressive shooting. Yes, being able to dispatch your quarry effectively and efficiently is crucial – as Simon Ward says, all game Shots should practise on clays before the start of the season so that they don't end up using live quarry for target practice – but knowledge, understanding and appreciation are also key. A good pheasant or partridge drive doesn't just happen by accident; a great deal of thought and planning goes into the orchestration of every good drive, not just on the day of the shoot, but in the hours, days, weeks and months leading up to that point.
In this two-part series, I will explain some of the challenges that gamekeepers and shoot managers face in both creating new drives and running them on shoot days.
Topography and cover
When developing a new drive, the most important thing is to work with the ground you have got. Not everyone has Devon or Yorkshire valleys, so you have to make the most of what is available to you.
Here at Belvoir, we have 65 pheasant and partridge drives across about 14,000 acres of the estate, but each drive is carefully planned around the natural features and habitat in each particular area. Our fairly flat, open ground in the south of the estate, for instance – which is ideal for growing arable crops like barley, potatoes, peas and sugar beet – is bisected by a series of parallel valleys which we leave as grassland for grazing. Not only is this open ground ideal habitat for partridges, but the topography lends itself to driving them across the valleys from one field to another. On the other hand, our steeper, more heavily wooded parkland nearer the castle is far better suited to pheasants.
In terms of cover, we tend to plant blocks and strips of maize, and, where necessary, we will also plant shelter belts on the windward side to add some warmth to the cover. This warmth is particularly important on the very exposed, flat tops. We also plant perennials such as miscanthus, chicory and kale into the shelter belts, and some Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) game cover mixes along the edges of the maize blocks which provides additional food, warmth and holding cover, and makes it a more attractive environment for game.
In addition, we also broadcast strips of mustard into all of our barley two weeks before combining in July and August, and we don't plough any of our winter stubbles until February. (After February 1, we will also flail sections of maize off throughout the coldest months, which provides some additional food for any birds that are left at the end of the season).
A lot of thought goes into the actual positioning of our cover crops so that we can do at least two different drives from each block. From one of our main 25-acre blocks of cover near the castle, for instance, we can do five separate drives which enables us to adapt to the weather conditions we are presented with on shoot days, particularly strong winds or bright sunshine. But I don't like Guns to see cover crops or pens, so they are positioned carefully to remain out of sight.
Maize works well because the partridges can move quite freely through it and won't sit too tight and come in one big flush. You want them to start getting up from the moment the beaters hit the back of the maize, if not before that. Once a drive has been shot a few times, they tend to do this without much prompting. Once, last season, I radioed my keeper who was running the beating line to ask him to slow down as the partridges were coming a bit thick and fast and the Guns had just got to their pegs. It turned out that most of the beaters were still on the beaters' wagon! The mere sight/sound of the approaching tractor had been enough to push them over the Guns!
When you plant your cover in the summer, it is important to remember that the season is five months long and by the time you get into the thick of the pheasant shooting in December and January, your maize will invariably be a bit thin and scraggly and may no longer provide great holding cover. As a result, the pheasants may lift in big flushes which can ruin a drive.
So to avoid this, we also plant small blocks of kale to act as flushing points on our pheasant drives as it provides great holding cover later in the season.
But, unfortunately, kale is very prone to flea beetle in its first year, so if you don't spray it regularly, you will lose the lot (see page 71). We will spray for flea beetle every five days until the kale is well established.
In terms of feed, the simple fact is that neither partridges nor pheasants will stay in areas where there is no food. So the positioning of your hoppers is crucial. Conversely, if you have too much food in or near your home woods, there will be no incentive for the pheasants to move out and into the cover crops during the day, so they won't be where you need them to be on shoot days. And you also need to ensure that there is some cover – either hedgerows, a spinney or game crops – leading from the woods to your main blocks of cover.
We position our feed hoppers 50 yards apart on the leeward side of shelter belts and we also distribute them throughout all of our cover crops. Every hopper is checked and topped-up every single day. And in areas where we have bigger concentrations of game, our keepers will also spin some wheat from the back of a Kubota along rides and hedgerows every morning.
Of course it is crucial that our birds are healthy and strong, so we keep our partridges on a high protein pellet right up until the shooting season. And just as important as feed is water. There tend to be natural streams on the low ground and in the woods, but on our hilltops we have light ironstone, so we have to pipe water to these drier areas. And of course all of our drinkers must be checked and cleaned out every day, and frozen and burst pipes must be tended to immediately or the birds will simply go elsewhere.
Releasing and timing
I like to get my partridges and pheasants out as early as possible. Our pheasant chicks arrive in June and go out to the release pens in early July. Release of the first pheasant poults will be complete by the end of July or early August depending on the weather, whilst the partridges will be released in the first two weeks in August so they are ready for the start of shooting in September when they will be a minimum of 20 weeks old. And of course all birds must have lots of cover, warmth, food and water nearby and the partridges must be left undisturbed for a minimum of two weeks before doing a drive for the first time. And remember that you can never top-up during the season; this is simply bad practice and should never, ever be done.
We release our partridges in A-frames which are positioned in blocks or strips of cover, with 250 birds in each one. They are then given 24 hours to settle before being let out. We will then immediately refill the A-frames with 250 more and keep repeating this process until all of our partridges are out.
We release equal numbers of partridges into each block of cover so that they are evenly distributed across all of our 35 partridge drives. This gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of adapting to the weather and deciding which drives to do and in which direction to do them.
Our pheasants go into large release pens which are strategically positioned in home woods, which they will always fly back to when they are driven later in the year. And from the beginning of September we will gradually start to feed them out towards the cover crops and flushing points for the start of the pheasant shooting in November.
The positioning of pegs is crucial as the birds will behave differently according to what the weather is doing, and the time of day. And remember that drives will change slightly as the season progresses, the cover thins-out and the birds become a bit more wily. So you have to be able to adapt and be flexible. For that reason, I always carry a set of pegs with me on shoot days which I personally position on every single drive. It takes me two minutes to do as the Guns get out of their vehicles. This allows me to adapt to the conditions and peg in a way that ensures that everyone gets plenty of shooting.
So if we have a particularly strong crosswind, for example, not only will I instruct our flankers on the downwind side to tighten up the line, but I will perhaps move the whole line 30 or 40 yards downwind, or have one or two back Guns on that side, so that the birds don't drift wide of the outside Guns.