Perfect Planning

Perfect Planning

George Browne is a journalist based in Hampshire, specialising in fieldsports. He is the Editor at GunsOnPegs and ‘Head of Inspiration’ at Scribehound. He also hosts the GunsOnPegs Podcast.

The wheel of time turns and the Glorious Twelfth approaches again (as do partridge and pheasant seasons). We meet the people who make it all possible.

If you’re anything like me, the spring and summer months see shooting take a bit of a back seat to fly fishing, cricket and barbecuing last season’s game stockpile from the freezer.

For those who toil to put on the days that supply said game, however, shooting is always front of mind. A gamekeeper’s work is never done, and planning for one season starts long before the previous one has finished. But now is when things start to get serious.

On most shoots, late summer sees the young poults move from the rearing field to the pen. On our family farm in Hampshire, estate worker and part-time keeper Jason Lamport has been juggling his harvest responsibilities with getting everything Bristol-fashion before his feathered charges arrived.

“For us it is important to get everything ready before the combines start to roll,” explains Lamport, “so we took advantage of the quieter June to make sure that the pheasant release pens are in good repair and that all our feeders and drinkers are in good order.”

As well as long, dusty hours, the start of harvest presents Lamport an opportunity on predator control. “Once the crops come off the field it’s easier to spot the foxes, and it pays to get on top of them before the birds arrive at the end of July,” he says.

The arrival of the birds heralds a month or two of sleepless nights for keepers up and down the land. The young pheasants and partridges are vulnerable, despite the protection of their release pens. The stress of being moved, the unfamiliar surroundings, and the exposure to the vagaries of the British summer weather all present a challenge.

In Cambridgeshire, gamekeeper and conservation manager Stewart McIntyre takes this stage very seriously. “In early July we’re getting ready for the arrival of the birds: liaising with the game farmer to make sure that the transition from rearing field to pen is as smooth as possible, finding out what feed they are on, so we can order our feed ready for when they arrive, and getting the pens ready,” he explains, adding: “This means pegging down the wire, installing the electric fencing around the outside, and hanging the gates back on the pens, as well as ensuring that the water lines are installed, cleaned and free of leaks. We also flush out any foxes and deer from the pens, and strim rides in them to make sure there’s the right mix of cover and open areas for the birds.”

The pheasants’ first few weeks on the shoot are critical, says McIntyre. “You need to keep an eye on them for stress, disease, and of course, predation. For the first two to three weeks you’re out at first light walking them back into the pen, keeping them safe, and again in the evenings. Once they have acclimatised to their new surroundings, we can start to let them out and start feeding them up into the cover crops and drives.”

As the birds start to leave the safety of their pens, keepers have a whole different set of problems to cope with, chief among which is the danger of birds wandering off their patches. “We have a lot of ditches and drainage dykes here in Cambridgeshire,” explains Stewart, “and pheasants love to wander off up them. We have to dog-in three times a day – morning, noon and night – to stop them from disappearing. Once they have had their morning feed then all they want to do is go exploring!”

It’s on wild bird shoots that keepers find out if their hard work has paid off, and whether they’ll have a shooting season. Niall Wright, head keeper at the 2022 Purdey-Award-winning Great Lemhill, a grey partridge shoot, is focused on ensuring plenty of chicks survive.

“June and July are all about predator control,” he explains. “The partridge chicks are newly hatched and in the most danger of predation. I tend to wind that down around the Game Fair weekend. Actually the month of August is a bit quieter so I take that chance to sort out the infrastructure on the shoot - working out where the pegs will go and ensuring that the beaters have access through the hedges. Come September we carry out our brood counts to find out how many birds we have on the ground, and how many days we might be able to manage that season and which drives might work; we’ll definitely manage one, and hopefully two.”

On the moors, the counts start around the 20 July, so we will soon have a good picture of what the grouse season will be like. After a poor 2021 and a marginally better 2022, grouse keepers will be hoping that there will be enough of a shootable surplus. Key indicators are the overall number of grouse, as well as the ratio of young to old birds – the higher the number of younger birds, the better.

As with Purdey’s beautiful guns, a shoot day is something that takes hours, days, weeks, months of effort to realise, often by a team of dedicated men and women, craftspeople in their own right. So while you’re tucking into your second or third glass of rosé on a summers’ eve, or casting zen-like into that salmon pool, spare a thought for those who are hard at work to make sure that when the season comes around we all enjoy the fruits of their labours. 

Photo credits: Sarah Farnsworth Photography and with thanks to the Tulchan Estate.