Wild birds in the fens

Thrilling sport but falling numbers... Nicholas Watts explains why the wild pheasants of the fens have had some hard times and how things can get better.

It was January 30, 1962, my father was giving the Guns a short briefing before the start of the last day's shooting on his 430 acre farm in Bourne South Fen.
“Go steady on the hens,” he instructed, “we haven't got as many as we have had in the past”.

Whereupon my brother, who was managing the farm for our father, piped up: “It's the hens you want to shoot - they do the damage, they lay the eggs!”
For the past few years it had been necessary for my brother to re-drill a field, or several part-fields, of wheat because the pheasants had scratched the wheat seed out and eaten it. He was not a big shooting man, and felt we had far too many pheasants. Indeed several farms in the area would have one, or even two days' shooting at the end of the season to reduce the number of pheasants.

These wild birds were very small, some of the hens being not much bigger than a partridge and I can remember having a job to sell them once a dealer knew what I was trying to offer him. Today they are a lot bigger as we have been infiltrated by straying reared birds, usually cocks, but they still fly as well, as they have been reared by their mother who has taught them to keep away from the human race. 
Those were the golden days of wild bird fen pheasant shooting. Three years previously my father shot, with a team of nine Guns, 430 pheasants in one day on this 430 acre farm. A few other farms in the fens also shot a bird an acre on a day's shooting. The highest bag I heard of was 1,015 on Jack Thompson's farm in Holbeach Marsh. My neighbours, Peter and Dick Dennis shot 971 head of game with seven Guns on November 21, 1961, which was generally reckoned to be the vintage year.

Fifty years later bags of 150 wild birds are considered to be a good day; some farms have stopped shooting and a few have reared partridges or pheasants.
Once a farm has gone down the road of rearing pheasants in this flat landscape, the wild birds soon get shot out and that generally is the finish of wild game and the end of exciting fen birds. These are pheasants which will get out of the cover and head for a gap in the line of Guns and generally fly between the Guns rather than over them, always curling and climbing, fanning out in all directions.

The reason for the gradual decline is our modern farming methods and an increase in vermin. Fifty years ago we were using chemicals but not as much as we are doing now; we could not kill all the weeds with them and to kill the weeds the chemicals relied on the crop to compete with the weeds, so if there was a gap in the crop the weeds kept on growing. Today our chemicals are so effective that they kill all the weeds even in the gaps in the crops. Weeds produce seed which is eaten by game birds but more importantly the weeds are hosts to insects which the game bird chicks need to live on for the first few weeks of their lives.

Quite simply, no weeds and the insect population is very much reduced. Insects are very plant specific, for instance if there was no privet there would be no privet hawk moth. If there is no knotgrass there is no knotgrass beetle and so in large arable fields today there are far less insects than there used to be because there are so few weeds.

The fens are flat reclaimed land, for the most part very fertile, and which cover a large portion of south east Lincolnshire (where I live and farm), Cambridgeshire and parts of Norfolk. Fifty years ago there were very few foxes to be seen in any of these three counties. But they have now adapted to our lifestyle and we now serve them, and the crow family, with breakfast every morning on the roads, especially where we are rearing a lot of game. Any species that has a surplus of food will increase in numbers, and like foxes, until relatively recently there were no magpies or carrion crows here in the fens.

However in the 1970s we saw the arrival of foxes. Initially they were not controlled - we are farmers, and most of us were unaware of the damage they were inflicting on our game birds. From 1977 to 1981 we had a series of cold wet springs, numbers of pheasants and partridges plummeting. Controlling foxes became a sport for some and a necessity for others if they wanted to continue to shoot wild game. A few years later carrion crows and magpies spread into the fens. Farming was, and still is, becoming more clinical - farmers are specialising, it has become very technical and we are advised by agronomists when and which chemicals to use, sprayers have to have an MOT, spray operators have to be trained. It is not the amount of spray you apply, it is applying the spray at the correct time that really counts and increasingly that is what we are doing.

No wonder the wild pheasant has reduced in numbers.

There are quite a few things we can do to try and stem the decline and on the face of it farmers seem to be doing quite a bit for the pheasant because, as one drives around the fens, there are cover crops dotted around. You could say houses for pheasants, as in fact we are very good at providing places for the pheasants to live, in during the winter but the pheasants don't really need these houses or places to live, and in many cases they get ploughed in during February, just as food is starting to get short. They were grown so that the pheasants could be attracted into them and we could shoot some of them. Driving cover.

If we want to have a lot of pheasants then they must be looked after in the spring and summer by providing insect-rich habitat for the hen pheasant to rear the family. And vermin must be kept down to a minimum. Most farmers who shoot do try and control the vermin but in most cases more could be done - the problem is that we have caught most of the easy carrion crows and there always seems to be the odd pair of magpies that managed to rear a family. Those that remain are getting more difficult to coax into a Larsen trap and they are also breeding hard. Foxes have always been very difficult to catch or shoot, are mainly nocturnal and what the eye doesn't see the heart doesn't grieve over. However there is quite a lot of effort and activity in trying to reduce fox numbers by various ways and means but they are still around and no doubt do serious damage to the population of our wild game. If we could get rid of all of the above mentioned there are still sparrowhawks, marsh harriers, buzzards and of course badgers, all of which are out of our control.

Large fields farmed well, often block cropped, can be described as monoculture and monoculture does not provide enough insects for game birds to rear enough chicks to make a wild bird shoot. Quite simply there has to be some insect rich areas around the farm where hen pheasants can take their young for them to grow up. 
The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has been advocating what it calls brood rearing covers for many years and it possible to get them paid for on the Entry Level and the Higher Level Schemes. It involves sowing a mix of seeds, usually millet, triticale, quinoa and kale, the latter being the most important as it is a bi-annual, making the crop last for two years. Kale seems to have become difficult to establish over the past few years, so quite often this mix is not successful and also there is no herbicide to control the weeds without killing some of the crop.

Over the past five years I have had 16 kilometres of cultivated margins, an option on the Entry Level Scheme or the Higher Level Scheme. This involves having a six metre strip of land along the side of fields where the weeds are allowed to grow. It is cultivated but nothing sown on it. A good cross section of weeds that you can find on your land will appear and you will have bio-diversity.

You don't have to worry whether things are growing, about aphids or pollen beetle. In fact things might not grow very much in the first year or two because the seed bank is so low but soon enough there will be plenty of weeds. Five years on I have found up to 70 species of plants in a margin, far more than can be found in anything you can plant or sow and they are all native species which are there with the insects that have evolved on them for the past thousands of years. These margins are cultivated each year to keep the grasses out. Grasses make a thick ground layer which young game birds cannot move freely through and I sprayed the margins with a grass killer last year to keep the grasses down. Apart from the game birds liking them, other birds use them as well, especially linnets.

Bumblebees were foraging along the margins in April and have been all summer and I have seen 21 species of butterflies on our fenland farms this summer, many of them on the cultivated margins.

Very few farmers have taken this option up in the ELS or the HLS as it involves more trouble than grass margins. And only a small number have their winter game covers on ELS or HLS. Somehow cover for rearing pheasants in the fens does not at the moment seem to have much of a priority even though it is so vitally important if we want our sport to continue.

We have been very lucky to have been able to shoot pheasants in the fens over the past 70 years but it has come to the stage now when we have got to spend time and money if we wish to continue to enjoy something which is quite special.

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