21 March 1997



Regular readers of Farmers Weeklys Easton Lodge report may have noticed the absence of one enterprise present on many Cambridgeshire farms – shooting. But by improving game habitat this could change, as Tim Relf reports

HAVING recently begun leasing the shooting rights at Easton Lodge, farm manager John Lambkin now hopes to boost the wild gamebird population by improving the wildlife habitat.

Its not going to be easy. At 80m (262ft) above sea level, the land may not be high but, as the saying goes, its high for East Anglia. The ground is exposed, the soil cold. Stand still for a minute and the wind will blow your hat off.

Not, in other words, an ideal environment for pheasants. It is, however, a bit more partridge-friendly. And, as was evident to the group of local farmers who recently gathered there for an ATB course on establishing a rough shoot, Easton Lodge is already home to some red-legged partridge. Theres a few grey partridge nearby, too.

The starting point, says Game Conservancys Martin Tickler, who ran the course, is to consider your priorities.

John has no difficulty in doing this: "Maximising revenue and minimising costs.

"But I realise that I may have to give up some small areas of land. Hopefully, though, these can be in the least productive areas – awkwardly-shaped field corners, for example."

Encouraging points

Theres some encouraging starting points. Easton Lodges crop rotation sees sugar beet follow cereals. Not only is sugar beet a useful crop in which to "walk-up" birds, but – ploughed late and drilled in the spring – it allows stubbles to be left on lighter soils.

"As far as partridge are concerned, stubbles are a game crop," says Martin. For this reason, set-aside has, indirectly, benefited the red-leg population. (A very modern habitat change, however, for a bird first introduced to this country in 1760.)

Rather than having one block of rotational set-aside, it can be better to put some in 20m (66ft) headland strips, suggests Martin. This provides rough grass for nesting, brood-rearing and winter-holding cover.

The mixture of crops grown under the set-aside wild bird cover option can make a farm more attractive to seed-eating birds, too.

Nesting cover at the base of existing hedges could also be improved by planting a 2m (6.5ft) grass and wildflower strip – something which would be eligible for £750/ha grant aid under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS).

Public access does not have to be provided under the CSS – a plus point in this case. Easton Lodge runs a minimal disease pig unit and John, like all farmers, is security conscious. He welcomes the public – but by prior arrangement.

Such 2m (6.6ft) strips could also be used to divide large fields using a rough-grass "beetle bank", formed by ploughing a ridge which is then sown with tussocky species such as cocksfoot.

Encouraging pheasants, meanwhile, will be a bit harder. "Theyre the same as humans," says Martin. "They need shelter and they need warmth." (They are, however, allowed a few more wives, he adds.)

Open heathland

And Easton Lodge stands on open heathland where, historically, neither trees nor hedges have proliferated. Its no coincidence that an airfield was sited in the area.

The farms existing shelter belt is bare and draughty, so additional planting would help. There is already a 12ha (30-acre) Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), with a stream, a diverse plant and shrub population and some trees. "A nucleus where pheasants could roost," according to Martin.

As an area of permanent grassland, it is also somewhere where partridge can come in the winter to "keep their feet clean.

"They like light clean soil – land which doesnt stick to their boots," says Martin.

The topography of this area is promising. Land slopes up on either side. Visualising the shooting positions, the temptation is to think the guns could stand at the bottom of the slope, and birds could be driven over them.

"But they wouldnt want to be standing right at the bottom," says Martin. "It would be better to position them a little way up the side of the bank, so the pheasants, seeing the shooters, would keep high." Presentation is, it seems, important in shooting as in most things.

One drawback with this area is its division into small paddocks by fences which would hinder the escape of gamebirds from predators.

Foxes, rooks, magpies and – that most professional of egg collector – the carrion crow, will all be interested in whats going on. It looks like predator control will soon be added to Johns job list.

Its status as an SSSI for grassland and wildflowers would preclude any additional tree planting, which would be necessary were it ever to be used as a release area. They have to be five-star spots, says Martin. "A pheasant Hilton."

Sheltered roosting

This means low, sheltered roosting provided, perhaps, by young conifers or hawthorn. Durable winter ground cover is also needed. It also means sunshine, especially appreciated by pheasants after rain. They get cold easily.

"Theyre like sheep," says Martin. "They spend enough of their time looking for an excuse to die as it is – dont give them any additional encouragement."

At present, however, there are no plans to release birds at Easton Lodge. The prospect of charging for shooting is a distant one, too.

The habitat improvements, however, could take shape far sooner. And there might even be a few days shooting in the meantime, which cant be bad.

Easton Lodge offers cold comfort for pheasants at present but additional shelter could encourage wild stock to breed.

Farmers gather for the ATB course on establishing a rough shoot.

John Lambkin (left) has no plans to release birds on the farm but if Martin Ticklers advice is followed, a rough shoot is a possibility.