All the fun of the fens
Fen pheasants are the wild brown trout of the gamebird world, says Marcus Janssen.
Forget manicured lawns and shooting in your slippers – wild fen pheasants are what separate the firefighters from the flamenco dancers.” So I was once told by a Lincolnshire farmer. We were shooting together on a bitterly cold January afternoon somewhere in Shropshire and, despite the sub-zero temperatures, his chapped, diesel-stained hands were ungloved. “As far as driven shooting goes, they’re the real deal,” he continued. “The fens are flat and exposed, so the weather can be brutal, but there is nothing more rewarding. They’re the wild brown trout of the gamebird world.”
A little over two years later, as I stood in a frozen field just east of the A15 near Bourne, a hoarfrost numbing my toes and fingertips, that farmer’s words came back to me with a prickle of excitement as a bonsai cock pheasant, smaller than any I had ever seen, clapped its wings in the still morning air and powered its way into the heavens. I had never seen anything like it. The Gun to my left simply smiled and shook his head.
I was the guest of Mark Richardson whose family have been farming in the Lincolnshire fens since 1912, and, like his father John and grandfather Frank before him, Mark knows how lucky they are to have a good head of truly wild pheasants and partridges (both redlegs and greys) on their 3,000 acres of fertile arable farmland. The Richardsons have never released any pheasants on the farm, so we are talking about truly wild birds. “To know that these birds were born and bred in the hedgerows and covers on our land, rather than in an incubator somewhere, is a pretty special thing,” commented Mark, as we made our way back to the gunbus.
So, what’s all the fuss about?
“The big difference between a reared bird shoot and a wild bird shoot,” says Alan Gray, the Richardsons’ part-time keeper, “is that with the former, you start off with lots of poults and have to look after them until the end of January, after which you can more or less forget about pheasants until your next delivery arrives in the summer. But with a wild bird shoot, you start off with very few adult birds and have to look after them, their eggs, chicks and poults, year-in, year-out, in the hope that, one day, you’ll have a few spare.”
Alan has been in charge of all keepering duties on the Richardsons’ three adjoining farms on a part-time basis for more than 40 years, so it’s fair to say that he knows what he’s talking about. “You really can’t compare the two birds (wild and reared),” he continues. “Wild birds are so much more streetwise, more wily, so you really have to outsmart them to get them over the Guns. If you don’t get it just right, the drive will be a disaster. If the Guns make a noise, you’ll see their heads pop up at the edge of the cover and you’ll know that they’ve clocked you. Nine times out of 10, they will spook and head back over the beaters.”
Of course, unlike reared pheasants, which are driven back towards the security of a home wood, wild fen pheasants don’t have that luxury, so it’s anyone’s guess where they will head to. “You learn by trial and error,” continues Alan. “But the one thing you really need is a decent wind or they will fly to the safest exit.” For that reason, Mark strategically positions his cover crops to be driven in a southwesterly (the prevailing wind in the fens). Very still days are particularly tricky as the birds tend to hear the Guns and beaters coming and slip out of the covers before the drive gets underway.
“What it all boils down to,” adds Mark, “is an incredibly strong survival instinct. You just know that the majority of them won’t even be shot at, let alone killed. Just getting them over the Guns is a feat in itself.”
The rate at which they climb really has to be seen to be believed. With very few trees and no hills or valleys in the fens, they rocket skyward as if powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin engine before invariably curling and heading for the gaps between the Guns. “Guns who have never shot wild birds before are often astounded by how sharply they turn and curl. And, of course, they’re fitter and stronger fliers than reared birds, too,” continued Mark. “And they never, ever fly in a straight line, which really does make them a truly challenging quarry. You undoubtedly remember every bird you shoot, as well as the ones you miss!”
Facing the challenges
With a total of 11 hectares of game cover – mainly maize and sorghum with some millet and mustard sown by hand for extra cover – a carefully planned crop rotation, and supplementary feeding, Mark and Alan ensure that there is always plenty of food and cover for the wild pheasants and partridges on the three farms throughout the year. “We try to establish a cover crop that will last through the season,” says Mark. “We used to use a lot of kale which is a great late-season crop, but with flea beetle in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult and expensive to grow.”
Like all fenland, the ground is flat and exposed to the elements, so every bit of cover is vital. In addition to the cover crops, there are about 10 hectares of woodland on one of the farms, some strategically planted trees in other areas and a 16-hectare permanent block of miscanthus. Plus all-important grassy field corners and field margins are left uncut in particularly exposed areas, and drainage ditches – which are an integral part of any fen farm – provide refuge from the wind and cold, cover from predators, and lots of insects in the spring. “And we also try to ensure our covers are left as undisturbed as possible between shoot days,” adds Mark, “even to the extent that ditching and drainage work isn’t done near our main game holding areas during the shooting season.”
Of course, the greatest challenge for any family shoot owner is finding the right balance between the running of the shoot and the commercial interests of the farm. And with only three days’ shooting per year – plus a cocks-only beaters’ day – there is little scope for the Richardsons’ shoot to generate much revenue which, in turn, limits what Mark can plough back into it. In any event, none of these fen shoots sell their shooting.
Although Mark had 80 hectares in ELS and Countryside Stewardship schemes until recently, they have plans to enter into a HLS scheme next year which will be aimed at pollinators. Stubbles are also left for as long as possible into the autumn and winter to provide extra food and cover. And although they do have two or three feed hoppers in each of their main covers, Alan prefers to feed the pheasants by hand, scattering grain onto a bed of straw in clearings within the main holding covers. The straw keeps both the grain and the birds’ feet clean and dry and allows Alan to ascertain how many birds they have, and how heavily dependent they are on the supplementary feeding. “And I like to make them work for their supper,” he says. “If they have to scratch about for their food, they are likely to stay in the covers for a lot longer.”
Indeed, according to Alan, ensuring that the birds are evenly distributed between all the cover crops is the greatest challenge of any wild bird keeper. “There’s no point in having them all in one place,” he explains. “A wild bird keeper needs to know where to feed, how much to feed and when to feed. It’s all about maintaining a fine balance.”
Predators and vermin
Because the ground is flat and exposed, fen birds and their eggs and chicks are particularly prone to predation by raptors which, according to Mark and Alan, have increased dramatically in numbers in recent years. In addition, because there are very few trees for roosting, they are also more prone to predation at night by foxes than reared birds. “The only thing they’ve got going for them is that they are incredibly streetwise and alert at all times,” says Alan. “But don’t get me wrong, good cover and good vermin control are also vital on a wild bird shoot.”
Alan uses Larsen traps for magpies and carrion crows, and also lamps foxes at night. “Unlike on a reared bird shoot where the pheasants are released as poults,” he adds, “our birds are most prone to predation before they hatch and in the first few weeks of their lives. A carrion crow will empty an entire nest and eat every single egg or chick over a period of days.”
Mark admits that, given the resources, Alan could probably treble his hours, such is the demanding and time-consuming nature of running a wild bird shoot. “Of course, we have to be realistic about our staff costs,” he says, “but people like Alan, who have such extensive knowledge and experience, justify the investment. As much as I love the shoot, it does, however, have to fit into the wider scheme of a commercially viable farm.”
Although Alan says that the wild pheasant population on their ground is relatively stable, the variable that has the biggest impact on numbers isn’t predators or vermin, but weather, particularly during the key hatching period in May. “Ideally, you want a dry, warm spring. If we get heavy rain or an unseasonably cold snap, it can decimate our wild bird population. During that key hatching period, we really are completely at the mercy of the British weather.”
The real deal
I will never forget my first wild fen pheasant. Although I was initially invited as a spectator – the only shooting I would be doing would be with a camera – at the last minute Mark sent me a tantalising text message saying: “Bring a gun. Just in case.”
It was the fourth drive of the day and I already had an SD card full of big blue skies filled with incredible wild birds, as well as a team of smiling Guns, beaters and pickers-up, so I was delighted when Mark enquired whether I had remembered to bring a gun. What a question!
The first couple of birds that came my way turned and curled between me and my neighbour and, judging them to be nearer him than me, I didn’t raise my gun. And neither did he. “Those were your birds,” said Mark with a knowing smile. “If you’re waiting for one to fly straight over your head, we could be here for a while. They will always fly for the gaps between the Guns.”
I would be telling porkies if I said the next bird that came my way folded and fell from the sky like a deck chair in a storm. In fact, the next three or four went by without so much as a ruffled tail-feather. “You’re at least two feet behind them,” said Mark as he spotted the look of desperation in my eyes. The next bird that came within range turned and banked like a Spitfire on the tail of a Messerschmitt 109 and headed back towards the beaters. And, to my amazement, she tumbled into the stubbles as Mark clapped me on my shoulder. “Remember this moment,” he said.
It would be hard not to.
“Genetically, it is difficult to say how truly wild our birds are now,” says Mark. “I would love to DNA test some to properly analyse their genetic make-up. The archetypal wild pheasant really is a small bird, much smaller than your typical reared bird. And, in my opinion, our wild fen birds have got slightly bigger over the years. But we can’t be sure if that is indicative of cross-breeding with reared birds from nearby shoots, or just a case of the birds now being a lot more well-fed. Because, of course, in the past, wild fen birds wouldn’t have been fed like they are now.”
The White Horse, Baston
The pheasants that regularly feature on the menu at The White Horse, Baston, are no ordinary pheasants, they are wild fen pheasant from the Richardson’s Shoot.
Prompted by a Facebook campaign to save Baston’s local pub – The Spinning Wheel – in 2012, Mark decided to step into the breech and buy the run-down premises before giving it a complete makeover. “I had used the pub for many social occasions in the past,” he says, “so to lose this asset would have left a massive hole in the fabric of the village.”
Re-opened in 2013 as The White Horse with licensee Ben Larter and chef Leighton O’Callaghan at the helm, it has very quickly developed a reputation for warm, friendly hospitality and truly excellent cuisine, specialising in using fresh, local produce.
“One of the great things about wild pheasant shooting is that there will never be an overabundance or glut of game,” says Mark. “Every bird that is shot on our farm – apart from those taken home by the Guns or beaters – is used here in the pub.”