It wonâ€™t be any surprise to you that preparation for this yearâ€™s shoot has been set against the backdrop of the worst Spring and Summer weather since records began. Ironically the heavy rain started on the day the hosepipe ban was announced. The weather has a dramatic impact on every part of the shoot preparation.
Hexton shoot is situated on the Bedfordshire/ Hertfordshire border and has light chalky ground which fortunately dried out very quickly when the rain eventually stopped. During the last four years the seed has been sown into very dry soil which is actually more of a problem for us with our light chalky ground than the extreme wet this year. Timing of the sowing of the cover crop is crucial and on heavy soil seed may have been sown a lot later than desired. Fortunately a dry spell in early March allowed the farm to sow the seed in optimum conditions. Ideally the seed should be sown between the end of April and the beginning of May. I like to sow maize with a millet mix, so that they reach full golden cobs before they start to die off in October/ November. I have noticed recently a tendency for some shoots to sow their maize in late June or early July, which doesnâ€™t allow the cobs to reach their full size and therefore they do not provide the full feed value for the birds which they can. The seed is sown by broadcasting a mix of millet at a high rate on the top before drilling, so even if the maize fails to thrive there will be sufficient millet in its place. In the past I have only put half a rate of millet and I shall be reviewing how the larger rate works in October. (Insert picture 1). By the end of July the maize is waist height or taller in places and should produce a good healthy crop by October. 25 acres of maize and millet have been sown which is 5 acres less than in previous years as I feel it has not been used to full benefit. If this is successful, it will provide a useful saving. The cover crops at Hexton are holding crops only; we donâ€™t drive out of them. Instead we blank them into the woods. The size of the cover crop is related to how large we want the drive to be.
Arrival of Pheasants
The wet weather has also been responsible for pheasant losses. Placing pens in a place sheltered from excess rain is beneficial and obviously well drained land has been a great bonus this Spring and Summer. It is unfortunate if pens are in a fixed position in a place which is far from ideal. Birds raised in these conditions may suffer despite the quality of the birds if the pen is not fit for the job and when they go into the wood you will suffer heavy losses. We are fortunate in having well drained land on the edge of the Chiltern Hills.
At Hexton we do not start shooting until early November, so our birds can arrive a little later. In the last couple of weeks there has been some very welcome sunshine but I am aware that rain is again forecast for when they actually arrive. We have wooded valleys which provides a challenge to selling early shooting because of the leaf cover in the valleys, so a November start helps to overcome this problem.
We release 2000 partridge on one of our beats to be mixed in with the pheasants. The ground is not suitable for specific partridge shoot days but it does provide fantastic pheasant shooting and the partridge add a little extra fun on the shoot days.
Despite the changeability of weather in spring and early summer in the past five or six years, the weather seems to improve by about September /October so hopefully this year will be no exception. We are hoping!
It is important to be putting the finishing touches to the pens which have been erected for some time, but may need to be repegged where the muntjack deer have hit the fences. Electric fences are switched back on at around nine and ten thousand volts which should certainly send foxes and deer on their way. The biggest pen is 1150 metres round. Two strands with the CP500 can produce 9000 volts and the battery life on one charge on a 35 amphour 12 volt battery, should effectively give between eight and nine weeks usage from one battery charge.
Once everything is pegged down, the drinkers need to be washed and disinfected although this is not done until a week before the pheasants arrive, so everything is clean and fresh.
The weather has also delayed grass cutting in the pens this year. Before the pheasants go into the pens, the grass should ideally be cut once a week and kept as short as possible. That way when the pheasants start to go into any grass in open areas the short grass will stand up to more pressure from the poults. If the grass is too long they will flatten it and it will turn it into a yellow mess. So the open areas are cut right back and kept short to allow the pressure of pheasants sitting on them all day. However, anything with cover such as stinging nettles and bushes are left long to allow the birds to hide from predators and rain. I am a firm supporter of big pens at Hexton and also on previous shoots I have worked on. They are a big investment but I like to keep pheasants in them as long as possible. They have six foot high wire rabbit netting on the bottom and plastic netting on the top. Before complete release, I try to get six to seven weeks usage out of them although after four weeks a great deal of effort is used every day putting the poults back in as much as possible. The pen is their protected environment where they are safe from predators, have a clean water supply, they can be medicated if necessary and there is plenty of food there for them. They can be well looked after in the pen until serious dogging in starts when they properly escape.
Feed is the next important factor once the birdsâ€™ environment is controlled. I believe it is a false economy not to buy the best feed available. Although at the higher end of the price range I buy Carrâ€™s feed. I have used this successfully for many years and it is seriously good food. It has a very high fish meal protein for the early growers, slightly less in grower number 2 and not much at all by the time you get to poult pellets. I keep the pheasants on early grower for up to five to six week after I get them so it takes them to eleven to twelve weeks of age. With that super high fish meal the growth rate is phenomenal. Dropping down to a lesser feed may save money at the expense of a slower rate of growth in the birds.
The nutritional value of food is often difficult to check so we are reliant on manufacturers telling us what their food contains. I have thought about checking this out sometime and the cost (about Â£1000) could be shared by several keepers using the same food all sharing the cost. It would be nice to be sure we are getting what we think 9and have bought!)
I am not a great advocate of the wormer Fluvenvet being put into feed. It costs about Â£72 per ton to be inserted and Iâ€™m not sure it is highly effective. In the past, a representative told me that for complete control against gapes, it should be used all the time whereas I have always thought you should use it for a week, then do not use it for three weeks before using it again in week 5 for a week. However using this formula we found that the gapes came back, but using it all the time for large numbers of pheasants is not a cost effective form of worm control. My alternative is to consult with a high quality poultry vet, who prescribes Panicure as a way of controlling gapes in pheasants. Using this last year, controlled gapes completely and it even benefitted our wild stock as even in a very wet Spring we did not see gapes return in last yearâ€™s birds. Whilst this may be categorised as a treatment rather than a prevention, it is far more cost effective and does a far better job. Just remember the 28 day withdrawal periods on any drugs you use before you start shooting.
If the diabolical weather wasnâ€™t enough to contend with, we are also in the middle of a financial recession. This is certain to have an impact on selling shoot days and a good reason to produce high quality shoot days and to diversify into other activities. I thought it was too good to be true when my 2012 season was fully booked by Christmas 2011. I anticipated it wouldnâ€™t be possible to go straight from one season to the next with everything sold. With people having to justify all expenditure unfortunately six or seven of the twenty five bookings we sell were cancelled. However, there has recently been a lot of interest and enquiries. We are in a fortunate position offering a high quality shoot near to London so travel is convenient and doesnâ€™t incur the cost of overnight stays and heavy travel costs as I have experienced in more isolated shoots.
Apart from attending to the quality of the shoot experience, I have diversified into clay days through the summer starting in March to late July. Last year with only half the summer left 17 clay days were run and this year up to 30 days will have been completed by the end of the summer.
The clay days provide additional work for my full time underkeeper but he might not otherwise be warranted on a shoot of our size. In addition the people who attend the clay days, get to see our excellent shooting environment and experience our professional friendly approach including food and drink and it is a good chance to promote what we do during the season.
Another successful venture was hosting the William Powell gun try out day (insert web link to video on the website). Different clientele who wouldnâ€™t normally have come to the estate tried out William Powell guns, had a drink and something to eat, met the William Powell team and the sporting agency (William Powell Sporting) and it was well received and we enjoyed it. I hope that they will repeat the experience next year.
Every year I endeavour to get the partridge pens up early before the maize is too high. Unfortunately this plan often fails and we end up grappling with six foot high maize trying to get them in position. This year we will have successfully erected the pens before the maize is too tall simplifying the job and releasing time to attend to the pheasants when they arrive. (insert picture) I favour partridge pens as large as possible like the pheasant pens, to keep birds in as long as possible. Obviously I donâ€™t let them out on the day of the shoot but I certainly donâ€™t want them flying around subject to predators and wandering off two months before we are going to shoot them. The pens are 170 feet long and 50 feet wide which will hold about 1000 partridges. The same pen held 800 very effectively last year. Some may be released gradually but there will be a mass release later on but well, well before we shoot (in November). Again containing them in pens allows them easy access to good quality food, medication when necessary and an expert eye regularly to prevent them going downhill which can happen very quickly. They can be good fun and produce good returns but a ten by ten pen with a gate and 50 or 100 partridge left to fend for themselves is not a good idea. They need plenty of shelter, zinc sheets and bales and plenty of feeders and adequate space. The partridges are visited regularly each day and twice a week we like to tear off cobs which the partridges love pecking and keeps them occupied.
Shoot day planning
Whilst the shooting experience is improved by the attention of the keepers to the environment and to their birds, the quality of the shoot days comes from our excellent administrative attention to detail. At the moment I am confirming with our beaters the shoot dates, so that they can adjust holidays and work patterns around them. The caterers and pubs are organised also. Attention to detail such as checking radio batteries, double checking the spinners which currently need new bearings, oil changes and the servicing of the quad bikes before they start being pressed in to action for up to 12 to 13 hours per day. Checking the details of all these activities now allows us to focus on the birds in the busy days to come.
Hexton Shoot is only 1 hour from Central London and according to Mark Osborne, the MD of William Powell â€œthe best run pheasant shoot, showing the best levels in the Northern Home Countiesâ€.