A Keepers Diary

Guns on Pegs

In the first of a six part series in partnership with Guns on Pegs – Ian Mowlem, game keeper at Hincknowle Shoot in Dorset, shares his tips on catching up pheasants for rearing. For many catching up may seem like a daunting prospect, but there are major benefits to the practice.

A Keepers Diary

January is a busy time of year for keepers. In addition to the last few days of the season and the all important Beaters’ Day, many of us will have been catching up over the last couple of weeks. After a long season of running shoot days, it’s hard work to get all your layers for next season caught up before the end of the current one. With today being the last day of action, I thought it may be worth sharing some of what I’ve been up to in the last few weeks.

Before I get into the detail, here’s a bit of background on me and my experience to date. I now run The Hincknowle Shoot in West Dorset. This season just gone has been my first as a single-handed, self-employed gamekeeper, after learning my trade working for a number of years in Herefordshire as an underkeeper. We have shot a total of 20 days with an average bag of 150 birds in the first season at Hincknowle. Whilst the shoot is certainly nothing large scale, it is keeper-managed and therefore I look after every aspect from the initial letting enquiries to getting all the shot game into the food chain and everything in between.

How to start a new pheasant shoot from scratch

My aim over the next few months is to give an insight and share my experiences establishing a commercial shoot on an almost blank canvas,  in the current economic and political climate. My wish is that if the industry becomes more open a greater proportion of the general population will come to understand the value of gamekeepers in the countryside. Also generally we’ve all got something to learn off of one another. My phone is full of contacts I’ve come to respect who I often call to bounce ideas off and likewise my phone is always turned on should someone like to have even just a chat. This job would be lonely without a mobile phone and its amazing how many people answer at 5:30am in mid July on a Sunday to talk about pheasants… we must be mad!

Back to the task at hand, and first of all:

Why catch up pheasants?
I often get asked why I bother producing my own birds these days with so much else to do and it being so easy to pick up the phone and just order generic birds. It is quite simply though: I know these birds. I’ve been with them since before they hatched so I know they’re from good stock; selectively bred for certain characteristics by a good friend over 30 years. I’ve seen them fly all season too – they’re good meaty birds for the table but fly well off our hills and hold pretty well too.
Of course our game vet will come out and health test as a matter of routine to ensure there are no underlying problems, a slightly unnerving time should the worst be found but essential. I haven’t over-wintered birds because after seeking advice from an experienced game farmer, it just wasn’t financially viable or time efficient in the first year. It is certainly something to consider for the future, though.

When should you catch up your birds?

We should all be finished catching now the season’s finished (it is illegal to do so after the end of January). The key is generally with the weather: try not to catch up when it’s wet. You’ll find your birds may lose more feathers and its just not fair on them. If you have no choice but to catch up in the rain, straw in catchers is marvellous stuff in such circumstances. Other than that, whenever you can between shoot days and other odd jobs.

How to catch up pheasants

I tend to build a few specific pens in each drive, 10x10ft made from four panels with netting over the top. I usually use older panels and turn them upside down so I can fit the funnels easily to the netting and enable birds to see in. Each panel has funnel or two in it and a door in one of the pen sections. I stake opposite corners to stop them from blowing over.
Everyone has a different theory about funnel size. I was always taught to be able to just get a scrunched fist through the narrowest part of the funnel. Slightly larger may be required for bigger strains of bird. If you are only managing to catch cocks try slightly smaller funnels; the hens may be coming and going through the larger tunnels. If you think something is up I just generally sit back with the binoculars in the truck and watch, probably with the heater and radio turned on.
Good quality rabbit netting is ideal for making tunnels. You could catch 50 or so at any one time with proper pre-bating in a busy drive, but check them regularly to avoid stress and never leave birds in overnight unless your catchers have an electric fence.
I hopper feed using King feeders as my feeder of choice due to their versatility, generally putting one in each catcher as a point of reference for the birds. I will always pre bait with cut maize in the catchers as birds seem to get addicted and then close the door when the time comes to start catching, leaving an irresistible pile of maize inside each funnel.

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What equipment do you need for catching up pheasants?

My kit requirements are pretty simple:
• Pen sections (3 plain and a gate)
• Wooden Stakes
• Good quality rabbit netting
• Straw
• Cut Maize or similar holding mix
Feeder of choice (Mine would be a King feeder)
Transport Crates (15 birds per crate is plenty)
I hope some of you may find this helpful for future years, or that it may give others who are considering catching up in the future an idea of what is required and the labour involved at an already busy time. Now that it’s all over and the next season’s preparations have begun we can all look forward to February 2nd 2021! I do also hope that everyone gets a well earned rest and a few days of holiday before things really kick off again.

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