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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A long and enjoyable season

A long and enjoyable season.
On Tuesday 1st February the 2010/11 Shooting season finally comes to a close. The beautiful male Pheasants will soon be back strutting around without a care in the world as the spring buds start to emerge.
This season I have enjoyed some great days out in the countryside, ranging from a couple of mates and our dogs on the farm, to small family shoots, to larger commercially run days. I have met new people and reaffirmed old friendships, enjoyed the odd sloe gin and dished out plenty of banter but also received my fair share along the way. I really enjoyed all the days that I was generously invited on, so thank you to all for your kind invitations.
It has also been great to see lots of the younger generation learning about this vital country sport. Normally they spend the day in the beating line with stick or flag but good old dad (or occasionally mother) gives them a chance to bag a brace on the last drive. I started off in the beating line doing this and still remember my first brace of pheasants I ever shot, standing next to my dad at Shelland Wood with my Grandfather picking up behind me. I would have been ten or eleven and it is one of those Life Moments I will never forget. 
I have been brought up to appreciate the excitement and satisfaction that a quality high, fast, curling pheasant can bring as it folds up dead with your first barrel. On some really big 350+ bag commercial shoots you can’t remember any birds you shot as there have been so many but on the smaller days if you only shoot (or miss!!) one ‘cracker’ all day then it’s guaranteed you will remember it all season and beyond.
This year I have noticed a different mentality creeping into a number of shoots.  Where in the past it was all about numbers, this year it has started to swing back to quality and not quantity. At home, we run two days a year; we don’t release any birds so we are a totally wild bird shoot. We manage our shooting to maintain a healthy wild breeding stock of birds. We limit our guns to only shooting one or two female pheasants throughout the whole day and ask them to shoot more of the male pheasants. The males during breeding season become aggressive towards other males and hen pheasants.  They can fight to the death over territory and females!
We also have a total ban on shooting any Partridges and Woodcock on the farm but any flying vermin is fair game as long as it is safe. The Partridge ban is due to our work of conserving the population of Grey Partridges and Red legged Partridges on the farm through our Environmental Schemes. We have not shot a partridge on the farm for 10 years now and we have started seeing the benefits as we have a healthy population of wild Red legged Partridges and Grey Partridges. I say ‘wild’ as we do not have any farmers on our boundary at Westhorpe that release them for shooting so they have not wandered over from a neighbouring, organised shoot.
The Woodcock ban is something that we have brought in over our farm in the past 4-5 years. These birds are very common up north but rarer down here; many are migrants from Scandinavia but we do have a small resident population in the UK all year round. These beautiful small delicate brown birds, with their distinctive bobbing, jinking flight are great to watch and to admire. More and more shoots have started to ban Woodcock from being shot on their days, as many people have started to appreciate their importance and why they are actually on the RSPB Amber list for species in need of conservation. We just hope that they do not make it on to the RSPB Red list for species in critical decline, like many of our once common farmland birds. This year on our two days, we must have glimpsed between 35-40 Woodcock which was really pleasing to see.
I have also noticed the move away from pure Maize cover crops to more of a Wild seed mix as a cover crop, probably through the good work of Natural England’s Environmental Schemes and the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. These areas are used to concentrate the birds into shoot drives so they can be flushed from them. Maize is seen as the best cover crop but it gives very limited food source to wild birds, large and small. Shoots have started to use millet, mustard, cereals and other mixes to benefit all the birds on their land by giving small seed food throughout the winter. We must also not forget the importance of the shoots’ gamekeepers in maintaining the food in these areas by keeping their hoppers filled up and drinkers free of ice.  This is so that their reared birds can survive but also, so that the small wild birds like the Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings can keep fed as well. It has been a harsh winter and I have not enjoyed going out in the snow with my bags of feed on some days but now you see the flocks of small birds it does make it worth while.  While standing waiting for drives on our shoot, you notice all the Chaffinches, Green finch, Gold finch etc, flitting in and out of the cover crops where they are feeding.
Shoots also play a huge part in reducing the flying vermin that we see on a daily basis. Magpies, Jays and Crows all have huge impact on breeding birds in the spring. The use of Larson traps to control these species is a common practice over shoots, protecting all birds that are trying to nest. These birds are very clever and will know where all the nests in their range are. They will not take all the eggs at once but return day by day to have a week-long buffet. Last spring Dad successfully trapped over a 100 magpies and crows over our farm. If we did not do this and every one bred and had four to five young , the population would soon be out of control and our small birds would have to work even harder to rear a brood of young successfully.
A Larson trap is a legal trap used under the Wildlife and Conservation Act; it uses a trapped decoy bird in the cage to attract the very territorial bird into the trap which we then humanely and quickly dispatch. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/Images/wml-gl06_tcm6-24151.pdf
Under the act, we have to keep the decoy bird fed, watered and shaded. Dry dog food is recommended by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust instead of a dead rabbit or old egg as it keeps the living area clean of bacteria and maintains a much better balanced diet for the bird. We try and keep the traps out of sight but we have to, by law, check on it twice a day. It is a full time job especially when you have 4 or 5 to check on in different parts of the farm. We do see this as a necessary measure in conservation, so we do ask that if you find a trap, that you leave it well alone and do not release the decoy bird into another bird’s territory as it will usually be driven away or end up dead anyway, killed by the other bird holding the territory.
Shooting is a massive sport in the UK, bringing money to local businesses selling equipment, clothing or shooting services like clay pigeon shooting schools etc. It also supplies fresh food for pubs and restaurants, with shoot dinners also providing a welcome income for many rural pubs. It looks after our countryside with management of vermin that can quickly get out of hand - not just the flying vermin but the ground vermin as well like the foxes and grey squirrels. One shoot I was on this year, on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds, said that they have shot over 400 foxes in 18 months and they have noticed a massive resurgence in wild game birds and song birds on the shoot. The number of foxes has not slowed down; however, showing the thriving population of urban foxes is now moving out to rural areas. The following article was in the daily Telegraph over Christmas.
So, come Wednesday 2nd, the season is closed and the planning for next year starts again. Hopefully this shooting and conservation vibe will continue into next season and on, as they do run so very well hand in hand. It also means that I will have to dust off the hockey stick, as I will have free Saturdays again.  At least I will lose my Christmas and Shooting season excess weight, ready for the Cricket season that starts in April!!!  BWB

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