A Shoot from nothing

Woodland Ride Created For Shooting

by Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education

5 minute read

Many times in my role as a GWCT adviser, I have been asked by people who want to start a new shoot about where to put a pheasant pen on a bare farm with perhaps just one small wood. My response is that we need to think about the potential of the ground before we address that; there could be lots of other options that do not involve any pheasant pens.

There is a little block of about 200 acres just over the hill from home that is a typical example of the problem. It is basically a bare arable farm, running along a gentle valley, with a small spring fed stream running through. There is hardly any woodland as such, just a small piece right on the eastern boundary, directly against a huge forest on the other side of the road. There are some nice hedges though, with quite a few hedgerow trees, and the stream has a narrow strip of soggy pasture running alongside it before it at the northern end of the property.

I have known the place for many years, and even visited to advise the little fishing club that stocks the stream, but a new owner who took over a couple of years ago, wondered about the shooting potential. When I went, there were already some wild pheasants about, so it was clear that there could at the very least be one for the pot. That said, there really was nowhere for a release pen. With all that woodland over the boundary, most of any release were bound to wander off.

So, what to do? Well first off, a modest hopper feeding programme, and some spring predation control could easily help the few pheasants to become a few more, offering the owner the chance to take a mate hedgerow bashing several times a season, with every prospect of coming in with a couple of brace to share after a morning’s wonderful sport.

The strip of soggy pasture had not been grazed for years, because it was too small to be economic in the world of modern farming. The once flower rich sward was turning rank, but the fences were still sound, so a summer cut at hay time, and grazing by just one cow and a calf through late summer could be done. There might be no profit agriculturally, but in biodiversity terms there would be lots of benefit in the form of ragged robin and similar flowers, for the pollinators to enjoy. This recipe would be perfect for restoration of winter snipe habitat too, and what better to add spice to an armed ramble?

What have we got?

Longer term there could be much more to develop on that little patch of Wiltshire. Things like using a central hedgerow as the spine for planting a new release wood, putting in cover crop, and digging a flight pond near the stream all come to mind. But, the key point is that you need to understand what you already have first. A site survey, and dare I say it, employing the services of the expert eye in the form of your local GWCT adviser is surely the place to start.

Everywhere has potential, although a farm consisting entirely of improved grass, with dry stone walls splitting it up, is perhaps the least promising. However, the truth is that even here there is bound to be something that you can do. The very fact that it is all grass says thin soils, so there will surely be some rocky and weedy patches where a pheasant might lurk. Chances are there is also a wet spot or two where you can hope to kick up a snipe.

Stage one is to develop this basic character and enjoy the adventure. Fencing that weedy patch might just be all that is needed to allow a bit of rough cover to develop, while part blocking a ditch could turn a place that holds one snipe into a small snipe bog. You might even find that a sprinkle of barley in the blocked ditch attracts a duck or two for an impromptu evening flight.

A Bare Canvas

Clearly, the all grass farm, and the bare arable equivalent both have a relatively low immediate potential. But, both can also be considered as a bare canvas, where the artist in shoot design has free rein to create something new. If there is no significant existing structure, you are not bound by it, and you can pretty much put in what you like. Indeed, the sky is probably the limit, although your budget, and the constraints of farm production are also likely to be factors to consider.

Often, the first thought on a bare space like this is woodland planting, but that needs careful consideration. If your 200 acres is part of a bigger piece of open country, then you could easily be about to wreck a much bigger area by following the modern fashion of going for tree planting. What is more, you will have a while to wait before the trees grow into enough of a wood to hold much game. So, in the case of the arable, how about planting some bits of cover crop first?

If the ground will grow wheat or barley, it will surely grow some game cover, or even some wild bird seed mix as part of a countryside stewardship scheme, which brings the prospect of another income stream that compensates for lost farm production. A network of three or four such plots laid out across the ground, sited to fit in reasonably well with the farming, and taking advantage of any contours, could be the basis of a lovely little driven redleg shoot.

Aside from the fact that this infrastructure can be used from the year it was first planted, this also leaves the open nature of the ground intact for the specialist wildlife that inhabits it. Indeed, farmland birds like skylarks, corn buntings, yellowhammers, linnets and tree sparrows are likely to benefit from the increased diversity of cropping, and the winter food that your cover offers.

A Biodiversity Bonus

One of the great benefits of developing a shoot on a patch where there was nothing before, is that almost anything that you care to do is likely to bring a biodiversity bonus. Even the bare grass farm will be likely to be enhanced too. Cover crops are a bigger leap of faith here, because you will need to plough up some pasture, and probably invest in fencing to keep out the livestock. You will also need to ensure that you don’t destroy a bit of wild flower rich permanent pasture. But, if you get this all right, you will bring a whole suite of wildlife that would not inhabit the grassland alone.

Making Things more Permanent

Once the shoot is up and running, and you know that your bits of cover are well sited, making them more permanent will add yet more value. Mixed native hedges to shelter your plots, or even just some clumps of bushes and shrubs like hawthorn and dogwood, will enhance game holding while adding another wildlife habitat. They will also help the shoot fit into its landscape, by softening the straight edges of the crops.

Longer term it may well be that the right thing is to go progressively from cover plots to woods. If your patch sits in a reasonably wooded countryside, then adding some more is just fine. Planting a bit at a time, while still retaining some game crop reduces the impact of that moment when you cannot grow cover between the trees, but the trees are not holding game yet. You may also want to think about a central home wood that is to become the pheasant release site of the future. Getting this in first, while having fun with redlegs till it grows up is a great way for a shoot to evolve with time.

Every patch is different, and I am pleased to say that we shooters have different desires too. So, getting expert help from the GWCT advisory service really is a great way to start. One of the things I have most enjoyed as one of the team is helping people with different aspirations over what initially seem like similar bits of ground. Doing things differently to suit this means more diversity in the conservation outcomes too.

This article first appeared in Shooting Times

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