Glynn Evans uses the spring Gamekeepers’ Fair to take stock of his preparations for the season, and reflects on what different keepers will be up to at this time of year.
As a young keeper, one of the highlights of my year was attending the BASC Gamekeepers’ Fair. Falling in early April it signified that the work tidying up from the last season had finished and that preparation for the coming season is well under way. By now the clocks have gone forward and with the lengthening daylight hours there is that little bit more time to push on with a growing list of jobs.
The major efforts controlling pests such as rats and rabbits should have been completed by now; if this is neglected the growing cover will soon make this extremely difficult. There will often be few early litters of rabbits about, but carrying a rimfire on sunny evening rounds is a useful way of keeping numbers in check. While I still find the .22 perfect for many situations such as lamping rabbits, a couple of years ago I tried out a .17. I find with a steady rest, either off a quad or a bipod up to 150 metres or so, I do not need to worry about bullet drop. As a general-purpose rifle for small pests it is excellent. Not only has it accounted for a huge number of rabbits, but also a fair number of corvids, which would have been beyond the accurate range of the 22.
Larsen cages should also have been running for a while, and now is the ideal time to tackle corvids to benefit not only wild game but other birds producing young. I know some people will be of the view that getting these cages running in the winter will give them a head start, but I think that this can be counter-productive. Corvids are clever birds and in the winter they are often in flocks. I believe that other members of the flock who see their ‘mates’ caught can become trap-shy; far better to wait until they have started to pair and become territorial.
During the winter months when, due to a busy shooting schedule, I can’t check a full circuit of traps, I will have collected them from their tunnels to take them back to base for a clean, check-up and repair or to discard of any which are not up to standard. This is an ideal ‘shed’ job on a wet day. A good idea to make the task quicker and easier is to use a pressure washer to blast off mud before cleaning the traps with a wire brush and inspecting them.
By April these traps should be back in situ providing pest control 24/7. When working as a keeper with wild game I have run a large circuit of traps – more than 200 – but for those with other commitments who cannot devote this amount of effort, even a small number of well-placed traps will produce good results. I gave this advice on a visit to a small shoot, and the owner put in fewer than a dozen tunnel traps. Over the next 12 months these accounted for more than 100 head of pests, consisting mainly of rats and squirrels, which will both take young and eggs, but he also took a mink in a Mark 6 near to where he releases his duck. Impressed with the results, he is putting more in this year.
Lamping for foxes will still be important, but as the crops get growing it can become more difficult, and where a fox is suspected the use of well-placed snares should be worthwhile, as will keeping an eye on any known earths or likely spots such as a sandy rabbit burrow.
Nesting is another time-specific job for wild bird keepers. I used to use the Gamekeepers’ Fair to indicate when to begin (after the second or third week of April). This generally is the optimum time to start because while the cover will be growing it is not as long and lush as it will in only three or four weeks’ time and, importantly, the birds will have started to prepare nests and scrapes.
Although I was reasonable at this job I was never as good as some of my contemporaries, who just seem to have a natural eye and skill at finding nests. Walking gently alongside a hedge bank any potential nest was inspected by using a long thin stick to gently brush the cover aside. Done correctly it did not leave any sign of being disturbed. If a nest was found then it would be marked so that it would be easy to keep a future eye on. A note would be made in a book, but later on as the cover grows it is easy to know a nest is ‘there’ but not to be able to pinpoint it. An easy little trick is to carry a roll of paper masking tape and to use a little piece doubled on itself on a nearby bush as a marker. Later in the year, post harvest, this would then be trimmed off by the hedge cutter and, being paper, rot down.
It is not only the nests with eggs in but those potential scrapes that partridges make which should be noted. You would expect the first partridge eggs to appear later than those of the pheasants. Knowing the territories of pairs of partridges is a help to finding likely spots, as is experience built up over time. A wisp or two of dead grass in otherwise green growth is a likely spot to check. There are many benefits to finding nests, especially on ground where there are both pheasants and partridges – the pheasants will lay in a partridge nest and this is definitely undesirable. Any pheasant eggs in a partridge nest should be removed, but this should be done gradually over a few days so the partridge will not abandon the nest. Any nest in vulnerable locations or those in which more than one hen had laid a large number of eggs would be picked up. This is because a hen will turn her eggs frequently during incubation so if there are too many eggs to be brooded properly all will get their turn in being chilled and none will hatch. Many wild bird keepers will have a few broody hens at home to hatch and rear the chicks from these eggs.
Once into the second week of May, the cover will be too long and some birds will have started to sit. While some will be pretty tolerant later in the incubation period, any disturbance early in the process is liable to result in abandonment, so the window for finding nests will have passed. Continue checking known sites until eggs are safely hatched.