Liam Bell says that protecting against raptor attack is time well-spent.
Raptors are usually responsible for less than 5% loss of birds released. In some places, the number of birds killed by raptors is much higher. However, in most cases it’s as low as 2% or even 3%. But this doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you find kills, especially if you only put a few birds down to start with.
By the time they reach 10-12 weeks, pheasant pups are usually bigger than sparrowhawks. A month later they will be too large and street-smart for all but those most determined buzzards, but unfortunately never too smart or big to escape a goshawk. A goshawk will kill fewer birds as the poults mature — and become more attuned to danger — but they are never really out of harm’s way. A hen goshawk can kill an adult cockpheasant. As most of the kills happen in the first two weeks that the poults have been in the pens we can take steps to discourage birds of prey. We can also improve the habitat in the release pen to reduce the losses as well as the stress the raptors cause to the birds.
The best way to reduce the number of birds that die in your pens, is to release them at 8 weeks instead of the usual 6 and a half to 7 weeks. The birds grow much more in the extra week. They gain weight, and are generally stronger. Poults that are bigger, stronger and sharper are better able to escape a bird-of-prey’s clutches. They are also less likely to get stressed out if harassed.
In the pen, it is better to have rides that are curved than those that run straight. This will protect the poults. They will not only protect the birds from bad weather but also make it more difficult for sparrowhawks, who will be unable to reach the speed necessary to strike a foet hard enough to anchor it to the ground. It will also make things harder for the buzzards as they are less agile, though a lot of their hunting is ‘still’ hunting, where they sit on a post or the branch of a tree and wait to drop on to something that walks underneath them. How to make the perfect pheasant pens.
It is possible that the cover next to the rides are more important than they themselves. Grasses may be good for insects, and they are often used by birds to warm themselves up after a night of rain or cold temperatures. But they are not very protective against aerial attacks. Hard cover like brambles or low thorns is better than soft herbage that buzzards can easily plow into. Fewer poults are killed in the hard stuff because raptors are wary of damaging their wing feathers and don’t like being hemmed in by cover with no obvious way out.
If a pen is lacking in cover, dropping hazel and dragging in branches from outside will help, but it won’t be as good as having permanent cover growing there the whole time. And if planting additional permanent cover next spring isn’t an option, you may even want to think about moving the pen onto fresh ground where there is more.
The edges of the rides are the best place to put feeders and drinkers. The centre is more appealing, but the birds will have a better chance of hiding if anything comes after them if the feeders and drinkers are placed on the outer edges. Admittedly, it is a little harder to get a feel for how the birds are doing if you can’t see them, and it does make the filling and checking of the drinkers and feeders less straightforward if they are scattered about, but it does reduce the predation and does encourage you to walk the pens more instead of just peering down the rides.
The scaring devices work, but only if they are fresh and new. You will have to keep moving and renewing anything you place out. Birds like pigeons, crows and other birds of prey that live in arable crops quickly become accustomed to their surroundings and can tell the difference between what is a threat and what is not.
All of these items will work, as long as they are moved around. They can keep away things for up to three days, but not more. If you leave them there for too long, even the scariest of devices will become part of the landscape and be ignored.
In order of effectiveness for protecting poults, I’d put plastic bags last, and scarecrows and the spinning mirrors and discs used to keep pigeons off arable crops first. The mirrors and disks do need a bit of wind though, so they won’t work everywhere.
We have also tried diversionary eating. The idea was that if feeding day old broiler chicks in Langholm Moor to hen-harriers reduced predation on grouse chicks then similar methods could be used down south to reduce buzzard predation on our pheasant pups. It worked to a degree when the adult buzzards were feeding youngsters in the nest, but once they were fledged it didn’t appear to do much. The youngsters wanted to hunt, and dead rabbits and squirrels just didn’t really do it for them.
Numbers are decreasing
It is interesting to note that I hear from people who live in other parts the country about fewer buzzards and wonder how many died after scavenging bird carcasses killed by the avian virus. We’ll have to wait and see if that is indeed the case.