The switch from putting down reared pheasants to conserving wild birds was a dramatic policy change for the management of the shoot at Elveden Estate in Suffolk.

Spread over six years, the changeover period started in 1992, at which point gamekeepers on the 22,500-acre (9200ha) estate reared 30,000 pheasants a year.

According to forestry and conservation manager Jim Rudderham, this practice was abandoned because it was so time-consuming and staff were forced to skimp on other jobs.

“Vermin control suffered,” he says.

“Predators that take pheasant eggs and chicks also attack other birds and having time to control magpies, crows and grey squirrels has benefited other species.

“Stone curlews are an example.

The number of nesting pairs on the estate has increased considerably.

You can’t put a price on conservation, but it is an important priority for the Iveagh family, who own the estate.”

Another reason for the policy switch at Elveden, which is on the Suffolk Brecklands near Thetford, was a big increase in the estate’s vegetable production.

Pheasant damage is a problem with some vegetables and the reduced numbers have helped to bring this under control.

The other major benefit from natural rearing is better shooting, as numbers of the preferred high-flying birds increase.

“I am not criticising pheasant rearing generally, but we were not getting the high birds with reared pheasants on our flat land,” says Mr Rudderham.

“The shooting has improved immensely now that we have wild birds.”

Quality is up, but numbers are down.

With rearing at its peak in the early 1990s, Elveden offered 70 shooting days with bags averaging about 200 birds, but this has dropped to 20 days with a 100-bird average.

To compensate for this, the estate has boosted deer and pigeon shooting across its 7000 acres (2860ha) of broad-leaved and coniferous forest.

Elveden has a big population of fallow, muntjac, red and roe deer and an annual cull target of 600 head.

Deer shooting employs two of the estate’s seven keepers and is let to two Dutch syndicates.

Muntjac account for about one-third of the cull, one-third is roe and the other third is fallow and red deer, with roughly equal numbers of males and females.

Meat prices range from 40p/kg for muntjac to 1.80/kg for roe, but the main reason for culling is not the carcass value, more the need to reduce damage to trees and vegetable crops, says Mr Rudderham.

Payments from the syndicates are based on a fee for each deer on the culling list.

This varies from about 50 for a muntjac doe to 800 charged by some estates for shooting a top-grade roe stag.

Payments from the syndicates support the two keepers and their vehicles.

Commercial pigeon shooting is let to Danish syndicates.

Members come to Elveden for a week, staying in an estate cottage and shooting about 250 pigeons – a big bag by Danish standards.

If the weather is unsuitable for pigeons, the Danes shoot rabbits and vermin.

“Our commercial shooting should cover its costs,” says Mr Rudderham.

“We are generally not far off target, but the balance sheet is complicated because game management also makes an important contribution to conservation and is essential in controlling crop damage.”