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Where do wild birds come from, and how do you keep them on your patch? What conservation benefits can wild bird shoots bring? Emily Damment visits Mike Swan’s wild bird shoot to find out more
The wild bird shoot I visited back in December is run by a man with such staggeringly vast knowledge of the countryside and everything in it that, after 45 minutes spent chatting in his cosy kitchen, I could quite easily have filled a book (and an interesting one at that).
Sadly, I’ve but three pages to work with, so I must deprive you of several fascinating but slightly off-topic conversations that were enjoyed over coffee and crunchy homemade flapjack. I was in north-east Dorset for a purpose: to find out more about Mike Swan’s wild bird shoot.
For those that don’t know, Mike is head of education at the GWCT, and a rightly celebrated conservationist and countryman. What this man doesn’t know about the birds and the bees isn’t worth knowing (and that’s meant in a literal sense; once upon a time, Mike studied bumblebees and pollination at university).
With big bag days under increased scrutiny, an ever-present desire to conserve our precious flora and fauna, and an ongoing dialogue surrounding the surplus of game meat, it seemed a fitting time to be discovering more about this remarkably sustainable form of shooting; more fitting still to be educated by a man who’s close to self-sufficiency, having homegrown fruit and veg to eat most days of the year and a steady supply of meat from his wildfowling, rough shooting and fishing escapades.
The first thing I was dying to know was quite simple: where do the birds come from in the first place? “The grey partridge is native to the UK,” Mike told me. “It’s been here since the ice age, so there are grey partridges around. The pheasants are obviously introduced because they’re not native, but they do breed in the wild successfully. I’m not pretending that I don’t get a few pheasants and red legs wandering on from other shoots, but I can’t stop them from doing that – the basic project is about producing them in the wild, and we are doing what’s necessary to achieve that and support wild game.”
Encouraging wild birds
This support is widely focused around creating the ideal habitat in which game can thrive and reproduce. It’s a simple concept – create an environment so comfortable and safe that the birds won’t want to leave.
Mike informed me that this is achieved through a three-tier approach: “Dick Potts, the great partridge guru, said it is all about the ‘three-legged stool’. You’ve got to have the right environment, the necessary food resource and the freedom from being eaten by something else. Those three props have got to be in position at the same time in order to support a population. If you knock one leg out of the stool it collapses – if one of those support structures is weak, that is the limiting factor of what you do. There isn’t one factor more important than the others, it’s about having it all working together.
“If the birds hatched on my shoot, they are quite inclined to stay there anyway. Grey partridges in particular have the ‘this is my oyster, this is where I grew up’ mentality, so even if they wander about a bit they will usually gravitate back, as do pheasants to a degree. If you haven’t got those three things in place, you won’t have wild game. Once they are in place the birds have no particular incentive to disappear so long as you don’t over-shoot them or over-disturb them.”
I asked Mike what his advice would be to someone wanting to increase the wild birds on their shoot, and he told me: “It’s important to understand that you don’t get what you might call ‘wild game hotspots’. You need to manage the whole place so that it gently oozes wild game.
“You can’t say: ‘right, those 50 acres is where we’ll focus ourselves’, because no matter how hard you try with 50 acres there is a ceiling on how much game you can produce, and it will spread out all the time. Think about habitat, think about predation control, think about feeding, and then you’ve got something to make some progress with.”
Later, bouncing around in the back of a Land Rover held together by grease and willpower, I was treated to a guided tour of the 1,000-acre shoot. It is stunning. Rolling Dorset farmland stretches as far as the eye can see, and we spot herds of fallow and a trio of roe deer, prancing away in the dazzling winter sunshine. We stop several times so Mike can fill feeders and scatter more wheat around and on top of straw bales for the birds to peck at, which helps to gather them into the right area on shoot days and satisfies their desire to scratch about for food.
I’m curious to find out if a wild bird shoot requires a different feeding regime to a normal shoot. “There is a feeding programme running from September to June, so we feed through the winter and try to gather the birds where we want them, and then we spread the feeding in the spring to where they ideally want to breed,” Mike explains. “This means that every hen has an easily available calorie top-up – she can get up off the nest, fill her crop and be back on the nest incubating in 15 minutes. That maximises the chances of successful hatching and it also means they make better mums once the eggs hatch because if they are fit and well fed they don’t have to go hunting for food for themselves, so they can take the chicks out to look for insects, which is what they need to grow well.
“The feeding programme is not fixed and runs for eight or nine months of the year, moving around to where the birds are going to be. At the moment [early December] I’m feeding where I want to find a few birds on the shoot days.”
This brought us neatly onto the next point – the shoot days. Mike grew up shooting ducks with his father on the Kent foreshore, always shoots to eat, and is more than a little concerned with the conservation status of his shoot, so I was unsurprised to discover that shoot days run a little like an armed ramble.
“It’s rough shooting, but with an ambush here or a little drive there,” he told me. “We’re not trying to do eight drives and pegs and all that stuff. We’re not going to kill enough game for that, so we’ve got to keep people interested through being on the move and working their dogs, and by the fact that you never know when a bird is going to pop up.
“On our last shoot day we had 10 Guns, three of whom (me, Charles, who helps run the shoot, and a chum) were there to make sure the other seven got some shooting. We had 27 pheasants, a brace of red legs, a pigeon, and seven ducks from the pond. It’s the sort of quantity of game where everyone takes a brace of birds home. We don’t need to involve the game dealer in any way, so it’s all very simple and low key.”
We all know that weather can be the bane of our existence, turning pleasant shoot days into miserable, mud-caked episodes you’d rather forget. But, for wild bird shoots, the problem can be much more problematic than simply putting a downer on the day.
“The weather definitely affects the shoot’s success from season to season,” Mike tells me. “For example, in 2012 we had a horrible cold, wet summer, and I think we produced one covey of wild partridges. The pheasants were also scarce and we actually cancelled shooting. There are variations year on year – there will always be the odd year when there’s not much and if you over-shoot you eat into your breeding stock.”
So, which weather conditions spell trouble for wild bird shoots? “Cold, wet weather in summer means the insect cycles don’t get going,” Mike says. “Day length triggers the birds coming into breeding condition, and that will happen whatever the weather decides to do. If you get cold, wet weather, the chicks hatch into an environment where there aren’t many insects to eat, and chick survival is low because food availability is low. A warm spring with enough water (because dry weather doesn’t do insect cycles much good either), and the chicks will hatch at the moment when food availability is at its best.
“If it’s just out and out cold and wet, the chicks can’t forage. You very rarely get these conditions for long enough to lose chicks directly because of the cold and wet, but if there also aren’t many insects available in the brief moments when they can feed, then they’ll starve through a combination of chilling and lack of food.
“Grey partridges are particularly susceptible… the old saying ‘if it rains in Ascot week there won’t be many grey partridge chicks’ has nothing to do with the rain during that week – it’s because the rain in Ascot week is indicative of a weather pattern that’s not good for grey partridges.”
Merrily rattling past beetle banks and swathes of cover crop, it’s quite clear that conservation is high on the list of priorities. I spot bare patches of earth interspersed with the crops and ask Mike what they are for. “We’ve just got involved with one of these farmer cluster stewardship schemes, which I’m so excited about, and those bare patches will be filled with all sorts of good stuff for the grey partridge. All we’ve done in the past 20 years is hold onto them. Where all around they’ve been disappearing, we’ve managed to maintain a stable population and I’m extremely excited about the future for our grey partridge.
“Aside from the partridge, we have a healthy population of yellowhammers, plenty of skylarks, arguably too many hares, a good sweep of farmland birds, dormice in the woods, harvest mice in the grass margins – the stuff you would expect. I persuaded the owner to let me dig a little pond on the understanding that we would be able to shoot a couple of duck each season, and now we have all sorts of wildlife in it including frogs, toads, newts, and loads of dragonflies.
“We’ve never put fish in it so there’s no competition. We shoot mainly mallard and have had the odd wigeon. We have also seen teal, shoveler and green sandpiper, water rail and the odd heron at frog spawning time. Once an osprey came down the valley, circled around the pond and flew off again.”
Spreading the word
It’s not just his encyclopaedic knowledge of the countryside that sets Mike Swan apart from most other people I’ve met; he has an air of geniality about him and a way of explaining things which I’m positive would melt the frost on the most die-hard of antis.
“It is so important that you don’t alienate the public,” he explained. “If they’re off the footpath, rather than shouting at them, gently explain where they should be, and that heading off the path will disturb the skylarks, the corn buntings, the pheasants, the partridges… the whole lot.
“People are so used to being berated by a surly gamekeeper that they expect a telling off when often there is no need for one. We need those people enjoying the countryside – they’re the ones for whom agricultural schemes are being financed because they are interested in wildlife.
“It’s so crucial that people understand that if you do this thing well, there are enormous conservation benefits. If you do it badly, those conservation benefits are nothing like as great.
“Shooters should never think that all wildlife benefits from what we do, because it doesn’t –you don’t want to be a crow or a fox on my patch. What we are looking for is a different version of the unnatural balance that is out there already.
“This is a manmade world – even the hedgerows are manmade. People seem to think they exist in isolation from the countryside, but they don’t – every single thing that we do affects the countryside and the wildlife in it. If you make an environment where some species enter ascendancy and some enter a decline as a consequence, then I would say there is a responsibility to manage that, and part of that management involves killing things. People don’t seem to be able to get that, and people don’t seem to be able to explain it very successfully.”
Mike is, without a doubt, doing this thing well. Wildlife is thriving on his little shoot, grey partridge numbers are stable, and ramblers are discovering that not all shooters are anti-public. Perhaps we could all learn a thing or two from Mr Swan!
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