A Keepers Diary – The Hungry Gap

In the second instalment of the Keepers Diary, Hincknowle Shoot’s head keeper reviews activities over the last month. Contrary to popular belief, keepers don’t spend the month after the end of the season on a sun lounger with cocktail in hand – there’s important work to be done, from predator control to supplementary feeding.

Guns on Pegs

I’m sure some guns believe that keepers spend February with their feet up on some sunny Caribbean island. An evening on a local draughty beach with a fishing rod is about as close as it gets I’m afraid. Whether it’s sorting bookings for next season, clearing up after the last shoot day, making orders for new rearing kit, or vermin control, the life as a gamekeeper at Hincknowle Shoot in Dorset never stops. This is how it looks in this keepers diary…

With the season over, we’re all able to breathe a big sigh of relief knowing that another one is done. I do like February though, there’s a welcome change of routine. I enjoy the chance to get down to work without the interruption of a shoot day to put me off task… so long as the weather doesn’t come in and ruin that!

The Hungry Gap

Some keepers pack up their feeders and drinkers the moment the season finishes, but I feel this isn’t really acceptable. It can be tempting to clear up around your drives, doing a kit check whilst gathering all your bits and pieces into one place. But it is essential that we continue feeding through the hungry gap. Both game birds and other species rely on us to sustain them through the winter months and on until at least May. I wouldn’t say this means feeders and drinkers need to stay in drives, but by moving them to easier or more convenient locations can make it more efficient to keep everything fed.

From a financial point of view, at £40 per bird we only need 4 birds to stay and make it to the first shoot day for every 1 tonne of wheat we feed (If its £160 per tonne). Not only are these birds more likely to hold through the summer, but also reproduce in the wild if kept fed. I can’t afford not to feed right through, these birds are valuable.

Having said that, February is a good chance to take stock of feeders and drinkers that will need replacing or repairing for the coming season. Keepers use all types of feeders; spring feeders (which I’ve heard now come with some neat deer guards), hoppers, etc. I find King feeders the most effective. Pheasants get moved over from chick trays to king feeders at around 7 days of age and stay on them right through from the summer to the shooting season and into the laying pens. These feeders often follow the birds throughout the process.

If you’re just buying poults from a game farm, it may be worth looking into a feeder more specifically designed to your situation. However from start to finish for me, it saves a great deal of money (and time) sticking to one throughout. They’re easy to move but do suffer with the lids being knocked off by deer if the population is high. In these circumstances it may be worth looking at something different or a way to weight the lids.

I popped into Collins Nets the other day, and was told they have new clear king feeders. I couldn’t help myself but to treat the shoot to one. Now that they are entirely clear, they are so much simpler to check. Something that could even be done from the comfort of the truck or quad. I might actually gain some weight this summer! They also have a plentiful supply of spares for “Kings”, most of my feeders are like “Trigger’s Broom”.

King outdoor feeder - clear

Game Bird Management

All the laying stock have now been moved from the holding pens to the laying pens. This is a hectic time as they all get caught, visually checked over and specked before being put into the pens. Cocks will need to be selected and added to the pens. They also need their toenails trimmed to prevent them damaging the backs of hens, it’s amazing how long they grow on some and it’s probably not an attractive attribute.

I find specks improve the welfare of the birds in the pens by halting pecking before it starts. There are many suspected reasons as to why birds peck each other but I don’t think we should anthropomorphise too much. I think sometimes they just see other birds as their next opportunistic high protein meal and specking dramatically reduces this behaviour. They are an excellent tool to stop egg eating as well. As soon as a birds moves in to peck an egg it vanishes out of their sight.

Results will be back from the vets in the next few days with regards to mycoplasma testing, hopefully they will pass and we can continue with the process of laying. A positive result of mycoplasma present doesn’t bear thinking about, but will be dealt with in such circumstances. I did see a pair of magpies in the hedge on the laying field as I left for the vets, 2 for joy. Yet another job that needs sorting before wild birds start nesting.

Plentiful clean water is a must in pens, I’ve heard most of an egg is in fact water that must pass through the hen. WM2’s are perfect for this providing they are kept clean by regularly scrubbing with disinfectant and using water sanitisers. Birds will also need to be wormed with their first mouthful of layers pellets next week.

Office days

It’s been so wet this month that it’s been harder to get out around the shoot. I’m cautious of tearing up my landowner’s fields, and whilst it’s been a pain to be office bound, it has given me a chance to look at last year’s returns and make plans for the coming year without too much of draw to get outside.

Last year was slightly unusual due to it being the first year on a new shoot, but I will try to have 90% of my days shooting sold or at least have a name next to most dates by the end of February to take the pressure off. Getting an email out early with availability to existing guns works well here – even the last week of January spurs interest. For the remaining days and single pegs I upload them to GunsOnPegs in the first week of February to get some interest in. It makes a huge difference to get to the rearing season knowing how many birds you’re planning on shooting, with some numbers from previous year’s returns to help you prepare.

I also find now is the time to get quotes in and start looking to place orders for the coming months, everything organised now is time saved later and you may even get an early season deal.

Vermin Control

Over the next few weeks I’ll be setting my Larsen traps and getting on top of other pests and predators. From mid-February magpies and carrion crows start to get particularly territorial and although it may not affect the game on the ground, the songbirds will be pairing up towards the end of the month and anything we can do to increase biodiversity is so important.

Getting on top of vermin in general is much easier in February and March than later in the year whilst vegetation is thin, the nights long and vermin are having to work hard for food. Every vixen taken at this time of year is also one less litter of cubs later on. Snares, traps and firearms are all valued tools of the trade in the process of controlling vermin to produce a more diverse habitat.

MORE: Research shows that predator control is an essential tool for bird conservation

This is something that people opposed to our way of life often find difficult to understand but a small moment explaining to anyone we meet whilst on our rounds can pay dividends within the local community in the long run. It is far too easy for them to get home and find something narrowminded and negative online regarding the subject.

Hopefully we can all look forward to some dryer weather in the next month. However one thing I’m sure we all aren’t all looking forward to is the first egg!

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Further reading

February 20, 2020
March 17, 2020