Glynn Evans looks at the benefits farm crops can bring to both released and wild game, and the drives and flights that can result
For many pheasant shoots a reasonable amount of woodland is usually a prerequisite, but in some areas good drives and shoots are held on land which has very little. We have all probably heard about fenland-type pheasants and how they rocket from flat, open fields to climb well over standing guns. There are many factors that make this possible; one that certainly helps is if game-friendly crops are grown, and pretty near the top of a list of these would come sugar beet.
If you look at the figures, on average 7.5 million tonnes of sugar beet are grown each year, so it is a sizeable crop in some areas. Due to its rotation and the fact it is planted in the spring once the soil is warming up, it tends to follow overwintered stubble, itself a habitat which can be of immense benefit to not only game but all manner of bird and other wildlife – especially if it is left unsprayed.
There are a great many shoots with both wild and reared game that do not make the full use of existing farm crops like sugar beet as an alternative drive, and in many ways they are missing out on an added element to their shooting program. Moving to Norfolk in the mid-eighties as a young keeper having worked on midland shoots, I had little idea of how beneficial and important beet could be.
At this time there were probably more workers on each farm than there are now, and the sugar beet was lifted by what are now old-fashioned machines which took them up a row or two at a time. The machine also cut the tops off quite neatly, which were discarded and left on the field. These proved to be a great food source for game. With this work being done by the individual farm it was easy to get all the fields stripped out for shooting, and it was not uncommon for an early season day to be spent driving these strips.
In more modern times, machinery and farming practices have developed, and now it is common for farmers to either pool their efforts or to employ contractors, including for areas such as beet harvesting. Modern machines work and lift in a day what often would have taken an old machine a week. This work is done with tight targets, but by using a bit of tact and diplomacy it is often possible to get at least some of the fields stripped and left. In areas where this cannot be done, driving birds from large fields of beet can be difficult as there is literally too much cover.
With a large field I would take my best guess and try to do part of it well rather than trying to do it all, and doing it badly. In advance of a shoot I would also try draw birds to a desired area by a feeding with a little wheat. An alternative could be to spend time with guns and beaters walking up. For field trials, a day spent in sugar beet that is well-stocked with birds is a favourite.
I think the ideal width when the field has been ‘stripped’ out for driving would be about 120 rows (each beet being one row). This makes it easy to manage, but even at this width it is amazing how easily birds can be walked over. Like any other cover, there are many considerations when planning a drive. The usual factors such as approaching it quietly, the sun, and prevailing wind, but an added factor with beet or any ‘crop’ drive is that it moves around every year as part of the farming rotation, so determining the potential flight paths and positioning the guns accordingly requires some knowledge and skill. One real benefit of a crop like sugar beet is that the birds within it will generally be well spread and flush evenly through much of the drive, and big flushes tend to be avoided. This is also one of the reasons why it’s a popular crop for flushing partridges. Pheasants rise as they see the standing guns and, with a clear flight path, can really climb.
It is not just as a drive that beet is of use. Any wood or cover crop surrounded by harvested beet is likely to be a productive drive throughout the season, and a few pieces of harvested beet thrown on feed rides around the shoot provide an interesting and alternative feed source in addition to wheat that can amuse and help hold game birds. I tend to cut the first few in half to expose the ‘flesh’ to get the birds started.
Sugar beet is not only of use to game – it is attractive to other birds, and in places like Norfolk once harvested, the ‘stubble’ of the tops and missed beet is really important to pink-footed geese on an international scale. There are regularly more than 100,000 pink-footed geese in north Norfolk and the Broads. In the 1960s, only 50,000 birds wintered in the UK – now the RSPB give figures of 360,000.
As a young keeper, one of my yearly highlights was when a neighbouring keeper, who for much of the winter had large numbers of these geese on his ground, would invite a
few local keepers to have a flight at them.
This might mean an early morning foray waiting on a flight line as they headed towards the fields. Standing and watching them head in was pretty exciting, but having a gun and chance to shoot one was, and is, a memorable experience. They can stop almost still in flight and then wiffle from side to side on the wind and drop straight down in a matter of seconds, and the speed at which they can turn and fly is nothing short of incredible.
Being local, the keeper could watch and pick a date when the weather and conditions were best for a flight. Any flight at these geese was special, but the ultimate was a flight under the moon. This did not happen every year. The time between the sun setting, when the geese would fly en-masse back to the marsh, and the time between the moon rising and the geese starting to come back had to be just right. We would not stay late into the night so as to let them come in and feed once we had finished the flight, and also so we did not disturb anyone by shooting late into the night. The optimum time for us was two or three hours between night falling and the moon rising. This meant that there were only a couple of nights in each month when a flight was possible, and if it was foggy or too cloudy we could not go. Strangely enough, you also need some cloud to silhouette the geese against; otherwise you hear them whistle over but do not see them to shoot. We usually had a good flight and did not overdo it; unsporting behaviour was not tolerated and, outside of a few flights each year, the keeper ensured that the geese were left quietly to use the fields, and to enjoy the sugar beet at harvest time.