Game woods

  • The reason a woodland floor is bare is usually because the tree canopy overhead cast too much shade to allow natural ground cover to survive. Before considering what to plant, decide how you are going to let in more light. Depending upon the tree species, you may be able to coppice some areas and the resulting regrowth, including natural ground cover such as bramble, will make shrub planting unnecessary.

    Commercial tree plantations can be the most difficult to deal with because routine tree management by thinning may not, depending upon tree species admit sufficient light. Even shade-tolerant shrub species establish much better and quicker in good light. In the past several non-native species were used successfully, including laurel, box, snowberry and Japanese evergreen honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida). Box is rather slow and better planted at the same time as the tree plantation. Nowadays many people prefer to use native species such as wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare). Holly is also useful but very slow growing.

  • Much depends upon the species of tree chosen and the type of management proposed.

    Among the broadleaved trees beech, sweetchestnut and sycamore all produce very dense canopies, and are best avoided in game coverts. At the other end of the scale oak and silver birch have comparatively open canopies. If you are intending to include game habitat in a predominantly beech plantation then it will be necessary to plant shade tolerant shrubs such as holly and wild privet or box, with perhaps a few yew for sheltered roosting.

    If you are able to plant a greater range of species then include more open-canopy tree species and include groups of native shrubs such as hazel which be coppiced from time to time. The regrowth of hazel together with the flush of bramble encouraged by the light can produce abundant cover. If bramble does not colonise naturally, it is easy to transplant, but is best not put in right at the start, as it can become a problem weed before the trees are fully established.

  • It is not necessary to include conifers in a game plantation, but there are circumstances when it can be helpful. Evergreen conifers have the advantage that even in the early years they form little evergreen shrubs helping to provide winter holding cover earlier in the life of a plantation than is usually achieved with broadleaves only. Once they reach 12 to 15 years conifers often provide popular, sheltered roosting screened from prying eyes.

    Where soil type or climatic conditions do not suit conifers, or broadleaved species are preferred for other reasons, good game spinneys can still be readily created. A proportion of closely branched, twiggy broadleaf species will need to be included to provide alternative shelter. Hawthorn is excellent provided it is not planted too densely to impede beaters. Alternatives include wild crab, hazel, damson and field maple. Blackthorn is best avoided due to its tendency to sucker and from impenetrable thickets.

  • Pheasants eat a wide range of fruits, nuts and berries. Among the tree fruits acorns, beech mast and sweet chestnuts are all regularly eaten. Unfortunately pheasants often prefer these hard seeds when they have been crushed on roads by traffic and this habit can lead to increased mortality among the birds. If oaks are planted as a food source they have the advantage of cropping pretty reliably, but equally importantly of producing a fairly open canopy when mature, allowing ground cover to thrive beneath them. Beech by contrast, crops much less reliably and produces such a dense canopy that a bare floor beneath is usually the result. Sweet chestnut crops fairly reliably, but again produces a very dense canopy.

    A few berries are eaten from native shrubs such as hawthorn and elder, but berries from common wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare) and guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) appear to be rarely touched. When choosing shrubs their ability to provide good cover in winter at ground level or for roosting is much more important for pheasants than any berries they may produce.

  • Attempting to establish any kind of game crop beneath the deep shade of woodland is doomed to failure. Even if the canopy is opened up to provide sufficient light competition from tree roots is a big problem. It would also be quite wrong to risk damage to the conservation value of any natural woodland ground flora that may be present in the crop establishment process.

    However, game crops do have an important part to play in newly planted woodland. Where winter cover is required in the years before the trees and shrubs have become well established. Where new woodland is planted on arable sites it is often helpful to sow a game crop and then plant the trees into it. Alternatively, providing suitable small machinery is available, the crop can be sown between the tree rows, preferably by drilling rather than broadcasting.

    Perennial crops such as Canary grass are useful in this situation as annuals become progressively difficult to establish as trees grow. Biennial crops such as kale are also useful, particularly as this crop will often still provide some cover after three or four years.