Over the last few years, there has been a noticeable increase in the popularity of wild-bird shoots. Much of this can be traced to the environmental schemes that are now in place, which undoubtedly work in unison with how a successful wild-bird shoot habitat is created.
And, it is possible in the future they may play an even more pivotal role across the sector. With the ongoing issue of getting birds into the country due to the bird flu outbreak in France, wild-bird shoots could be seen as a sure-fire way of reducing our dependency on foreign stock.
If the habitat is created correctly, and the birds are already here, then it could be argued that there is no need to be bringing the same high levels of stock in.
This isn’t to say reared game bird shoots will be replace, as these are as much a British tradition as roast beef or a cup of tea. However, if we can reduce the reliance on foreign stock, it could ease pressure and make for a more sustainable industry.
What is a Wild-Bird Shoot?
Very much as it sounds, a wild-bird shoot is made up of a bird population that have found a habitat pleasing to them. Somewhere that is deemed suitable for their essential needs – eating, shelter and safety. These habitats, however, are by no means formed by coincidence. They are the result of some of the most high-quality conservation work in the country.
The birds most commonly seen on wild-bird shoots tend to be grey partridge – which are native to the UK, and pheasants – who are reared in the UK but often find their way in the wild after the season-end.
The late Dr Dick Potts, often associated with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and an expert in grey partridges, coined the phrase “three-legged stool” when talking the fundamentals of what grey partridges need to thrive, and therefore the necessities of a wild-bird shoot. He said there are three requirements for this: food throughout the life cycle, a suitable habitat and freedom from a wide variety of predation. If any of these are absent, the whole system will collapse.
So, how can a habitat that meets these high expectations be created? Aside from good vermin control, which is also essential, there are three key considerations when it comes from the crop and habitat perspective, you could almost say a ‘three-legged stool’ of crops.
The addition of Beetle banks to many farms has been a welcome one. These raised, tussocky grass areas divide larger arable fields and provide the ideal nesting habitat. Cocksfoot, fescue and timothy are the main grass species to establish. Ploughing or using a digger to build a high bank will ensure the ground stays dry, even during wet spells, which is vital. Beetle banks also provide a safe haven for insects – an important food source – away from the surrounding arable crop.
Fortunately, field margins are now the norm across much farmland, providing sanctuary for wildlife. A grass margin (ideally with the addition of some flowering species) alongside a well-managed hedge offers perfect nesting habitat. Clearly, topping or driving on field margins during the spring and summer should be avoided – and is prohibited anyway for those in stewardship schemes.
Generally, partridge favour open areas, with beetle banks and field margins forming the base habitat for grey partridge re-introduction projects across the UK. Whereas pheasants are more at home in woodland. Research shows that upwards of 43% of pheasant nests are made in woodland, so if increasing stocks of wild pheasants is the objective, improving woodland habitats should be a priority.
The woodland edge is the key area of focus. A graded slope achieved from mature trees, down to lower shrubs along the woodland edge will deliver cover for a range of farmland wildlife, not just game.
Coppicing is beneficial too: the majority of shoots undertake coppicing in the late winter/early spring to improve ground cover on the woodland floor, which in turn creates more nesting cover. For customers looking at options to plant cover crops in woodland, Canary grass is a good candidate. It is fairly shade tolerant, however, don’t overlook the option of opening up the canopy to allow entry of more light, which will help increase the fauna.
Increasing the insect population is fundamental in producing successful wild broods. There are three main routes to take:
- Plant a brood-rearing mixture
This is the quick fix option. Drilling in the late summer/autumn works well as it allows for the crop to be in full working order for the following spring. Phacelia, Crimson Clover, Vetch, Chicory, Birds-Foot Trefoil and Fodder Radish are just a few of the potential species to include.
Nectar Flower mix (AB1 Countryside Stewardship code) is a good option too that will help encourage pollinators, whilst including a whole host of flowering legumes. Ideally, this is best planted into a warm seedbed in late May or June.
Crops that flower low to the ground are perfect. Phacelia is a reliable choice, and crimson clover is good as it flowers early in the year. The key is to create a diverse mix, but keep it at a fairly low seed rate (hen and chicks should be able to easily access the whole mix area, not just the edges). Planting long, thin strips is preferable to big blocks – ideally a drill-width or two extending along the full length of the beetle bank or field margin.
- Wildflower margins
Protect existing wildflower habitats and enhance existing grass margins by either adding or replacing them with wildflower mixes. Farms entered into Countryside Stewardship can take advantage of the AB8 option, which focuses on ‘Wildflower Margins and Plots’.
Wildflowers attract a huge number of insects in the spring, and having low growing grasses like Sheep’s Fescue will ensure that the wildflowers aren’t swamped by more vigorous grass species. The key advantage of opting for a wildflower margin over a brood-rearing mix is that the wildflowers are a more permanent feature. It is worth remembering that a good insect population can take years to build-up, but that the rewards can be tremendous. A recent trip to a Grey Partridge project in Hampshire showed permanent wildflower areas – mainly field corners and margins – booming with insect life.
- Unharvested cereal margins
Potentially the simplest option, this involves leaving a strip of arable crop unharvested around the edge of a field. For the best results, after drilling the crop the area should not be sprayed with insecticide or herbicides and should not be fertilised either.
This method allows insects to thrive and will encourage natural weeds and wildflowers to emerge, whilst the lack of fertiliser will prevent the cereal crop from dominating the area.
Drilling the unharvested area on wider row coulters or at a lower seed rate will increase the light reaching the soil and can encourage further germination of favourable plants, and also make the crop more accessible to wildlife, including ground nesting birds and their chicks.
Not So Rough Shooting?
The term ‘rough shooting’ is often reserved for bags made up of native wild birds (as well as wildfowl, rabbits and waders), much like the wild-bird shoots that we have discussed. In reality, a successful wild-bird shoot being referred to as ‘rough’ couldn’t be further from the truth.
To achieve the proper habitat – and to achieve a bag of wild-birds at all – requires considerably more work from the shoot team than a standard driven shoot. The habitat creation, not to mention the pest control, necessary is vital to attracting and holding the birds – and without this the birds will simply find somewhere more appropriate.
There is also an argument that the birds on a wild shoot offer a greater challenge for the guns, and this makes sense. A bird that has hatched and lived its life in the wild is gong to be far more au fait with its surroundings than a reared bird, it has likely come through a great deal of trouble to reach adulthood.
Finally, the argument that wild bird shoots reduce our reliance on foreign imports cannot be laboured enough considering the ongoing panic that the bird flu outbreak in France has created. If a shoot habitat is even greener than a standard shoot, and the birds come from a more sustainable source, it is no wonder interest in wild bird shoots is ever increasing.
A Grey Partridge with chicks – exactly the kind of thing this habitat encourages.