28/4/2022

Making the perfect Pheasant Release Pen

Release -pen

By Mike Swan, GWCT Senior Advisor

4 minute read

Many a new pen will be going up over the next couple of months, so now is a good time to think about what makes a great place to release your pheasants. It is one of the biggest investments on many shoots, and getting it right is key to success.

Where should we put it?

Choosing a site well away from the boundary to is obvious, but do not be fooled by the widely held view that pheasants will regard their pen as ‘home’. They may well do, but a fenced enclosure in the woods has no special magic, and there is no obligation for the birds to stay; if the habitat is horrible, they are very likely to decamp en masse once they ‘escape’.

To get high and testing birds, rather than choose a valley bottom, which your birds might just glide down to, I like to find a site on high ground, with places to show birds back from the other side of the valley. Hill top sites often have drier soil too, and this can improve health by minimising disease risk; most parasites and disease organisms thrive best in damp environments.

High birds are very possible in flat country too. The key here is to flush far enough from home that they are forced to climb hard if they want to fly all the way back to safety. Around three to four hundred metres is likely to be about right.

A comfortable environment

Poults need lots of low cover to dive into when danger threatens. They will also need to learn to roost off the ground, so it helps to have plenty of bushes up to four or five metres high. Exactly which species you have is not important and is likely to be dictated by soil type anyway, it is the overall habitat structure that matters. The other requirement is sunshine, so the rule of thumb is to have a third each of sunny spaces, low escape cover, and roosting. This should be in an intimate mosaic, and not in big blocks. That way the birds will use the whole pen evenly, avoid crowding and the associated greater risk of passing on disease.

Many folk think that big trees are important, but this is not so. Too much tree canopy tends to starve the woodland floor of light, and therefore suppress ground cover. Do not suppose that a dense canopy is good to hide your birds from buzzards and the like either. Having eyesight that far exceeds ours, birds of prey will quickly spot them on the bare woodland floor, and doing a slalom between mature trees to snatch up a succulent poult is easy sport.

Also, please try to avoid taking the fence outside the wood. Wood edges are particularly easy for raptors to hunt, especially if they run fairly straight. They are also likely to have a delicate flora and fauna which might well be damaged by crowds of poults. The answer to lack of sun lies in wielding the chainsaw and cutting stuff down inside the wood. When thinning and skylighting in this way, it is good to leave clumps of lop and top to act as instant cover, and provide a climbing frame and protection for regrowth.

How much space?

Overcrowding increases stress, making birds more prone to parasites and disease, and thus easier for predators to pick off. Crowded poults also attract more predator attention, which builds the stress even further – a vicious circle.

Excessive densities can also cause habitat damage. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has carried out detailed scientific investigations into this, showing that up to 1000 poults per hectare of pen are unlikely to have any significant lasting impact on woodland flora.

Ancient semi-natural woodlands are a special case. These last remnants of what was once a large part of the British landscape can be particularly sensitive. So, wherever possible, it is best to avoid using them, but if you need to, GWCT suggests that you reduce to no more than 700 per hectare. This guidance, and the research that underpins it is summed up in the GWCT leaflet ‘Guidelines for Sustainable Gamebird Releasing’, which is available as a free download and enshrined in the Code of Good Shooting Practice.

Please forget any old-fashioned guidance about so much perimeter per bird; a long narrow pen encloses far less ground than a square or round one using the same length of fence. Please also remember that a well sited pen should last indefinitely if you maintain the habitat mosaic, and do not make it unhealthy by overcrowding.

How to construct a pen

There is no one right way to build a pen, but what follows is the distillation of over seventy years of refinement by the GWCT advisory team. It is based on the principle that you want to hold on to your poults in reasonable security from ground predators until they are roosting well and beginning to disperse naturally. So, please remember that it is a release pen, not a concentration camp. Your fence should be 2m high, with 30cm turned out and buried or pegged down to stop predators from digging in. A further 30cm should be turned out as a fringe at the top to hold back whatever tries to climb or jump over.

Time was when only wire netting was good enough, but modern extruded black plastic is fine for the top part of the pen. Indeed, its lighter weight makes it easier to hang, but if you go all the way to the ground there is too much risk of rats chewing holes. So, for the bottom 60cm plus the out turn, please use wire netting. I suggest 25mm mesh; if you go as big as standard chicken wire small predators like weasels and stoats can squeeze through.

Putting up a good fence and leaving an easy bridge over is a big mistake, so always clear a 4m wide track, and site it in the middle, removing any overhanging branches, inside or out, to a height of 4m. You also need to account for the stupidity of poults that fly out but do not know how to fly back in, by having re-entry funnels every 50m or so. These should be protected with a GWCT pattern anti-fox grid. Please also make sure that your access gates fit neatly, with no stoat sized gaps between it and the frame. Also, please remember to continue the protective fringe above and below. Finally, never have a corner tighter than 90 degrees, where poults can be trapped.

An electric fence outside is considered essential by most keepers, and I agree. Two strands of wire about 15 and 30cm high, and 40 to 50 cm out from the pen seems to work best for deterring foxes. As pine martens recolonise the UK, I suspect that we will want to add extra strands for them. They may be great climbers, but I am advised by those who know that they usually approach on the ground, rather than jumping from tree to tree like a squirrel.

Food and water

Newly released pheasants can get lost in a big pen, so make sure it has a good ride network leading back to the centre. A feeder for every fifty birds is a good minimum, and make sure they are well distributed including one in each corner. Automatic water systems are best, but I also like to add a few simple drinkers in the remote corners too, at least for the first few days, until everyone has found the main water supply.

With all this in place everything should go swimmingly, but do not forget cleanliness. Move feeders and drinkers regularly to avoid muddy spots, wear clean boots, and dip in disinfectant in and out when you tend to your pen. These little bits of extra care really pay off, and you should be able to look forward to tremendous sport with strong and well grown birds when autumn comes.

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This article first appeared in Shooting Times

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