Ask a keeper how the production of wild birds has done on his shoot, and in most years he will usually be cautious and reluctant to give a definitive answer. He might be a glass half full or a half empty man, but whichever perspective he has he will usually want to wait until the harvest is at least started before he commits. At the time of writing this has not yet begun, but looking at the weather we have had this year I can only think that that the overall prospects of wild game production will, at best, be poor. This is one time when I would genuinely be happy to be wide of the mark, but unfortunately I do not think I am.
Living half way up a hill in Wales, in March we sat outside in the evenings in our shirtsleeves, with a hosepipe ban in place and reservoirs drying up, all looking set for a favourable breeding season, but then this was followed by snow and rain in April, which continued. At the end of May it faired up, and things looked a little more promising with a couple of weeks of reasonable weather coinciding with what for many was a peak period of hatching of pheasants, but sadly June was a real wash out. I think there are few parts of the country which have not had their share of poor weather. Looking at the national records it was the wettest since records began (1910), and had the coolest temperatures since 1991. Locally, we had 10 inches of rain when two would normally have been considered a lot. July started off the same, if not worse. This bad weather could not have come at a worse time for nesting birds, least of all pheasants and partridges, and there has been little respite from it for many weeks.
At times, it has been easy to see the damage done; walking along the river where there was a swan’s nest due to hatch, which had stood proudly out of the water by a couple of feet, I saw it had gone in a matter of hours following a rise in the water. It had simply washed away.
Talking to other keepers, it appears some hens simply gave up on their nests, hopefully to nest again, but often those which did so early will have been caught out by yet more bad weather, and those which do hatch later in the year will not have the same period to grow. Every now and again some young chicks are seen, but the sight of hens without and is often the norm, and many broods have simply succumbed to the cold and wet.
Feeding birds longer into the spring, making better use of different types of game cover and sterile strips (a favourite of mine which, in bad weather, really prove their use by giving birds a place to dry) are all some of the developments which, combined with dedicated keepering, have helped increase wild pheasant and partridge numbers significantly on many estates. However without favourable weather, then these increases in numbers would not have been possible.
When people work hard they deserve the reward for their efforts, and it is demoralising to see your hard work and effort achieve little, but the mind-set that both an owner and keeper working with wild game needs is special, in as much that you need to view things in the long term, and unfortunately accept that it is not always going to be a good season. This can be a bitter pill to swallow.
As one keeper put it, he is not now looking at this season but the next one, and trying to move forward. With over 30 years’ experience of working with wild game he has seen it before and knows the dips and troughs, but he is worried about his underkeeper’s morale; he has come to ‘wild birds’ from a reared shoot, and has known only good seasons of improving numbers.
This weather and the damage it has caused is a new experience for his assistant. Spending time in the shed repairing equipment and not on the beat has been hard, but he has now learnt that sometimes it best to keep out of the way as much as possible – disturbing birds when the rain is bucketing down risks pushing chicks into long wet grass, where they can get chilled and die.
They are both fortunate to work for a boss who understands, and is as dedicated as they are to wild game – probably more so as he is paying the bills. He understands that to maintain the stock he will have to curtail his shooting program. This probably is not so much of an issue with the pheasants, and they have already made the obvious choice to only shoot cocks, which, being easy to distinguish from the hens, means they will still be able to have a number of days, but must all accept that the days will be smaller in the numbers expected. Partridges are another matter, and whilst they have a good stock, which has increased to the point where last year they had a good day, the first for several seasons, the repeat this year will not happen, as it is already clear that on their ground there will not be enough to harvest without risking decreasing the numbers that they have worked so fard for.
Many people are rightly proud when there is an increase in their wild game stocks, and it is imporatnt to participate in the counts organised by the GWCT when things are looking good to show this, but it is just as imporatnt to take part when there is a decline so that trends and patterns obvious to us can be seen and demonstrated to others. Looking at old estate records, it is obvious that the poorest shooting seasons followed the wettest springs, but this is not always as easy for others to see without access to accurate figures.
There is little to be optimistic about when the rain is constantly falling and the temperature is low; chicks will stand a little of either but will struggle when both come together. This, combined with a lack of insect food caused by the weather, hits them with a double whammy and in this situation prospects can only be poor. We will all be hoping that when the corn is cut there will be a surprise of a better crop of young birds than expected. However, by shooting sensibly and leaving a sufficient stock for next year, if the weather is kinder there is no reason why it should not be a completely different picture of production next season.