KEEPER’S COUN­TRY: Drop­ping a hen on a ‘cocks only’ day

Drop­ping a hen on a cock day was once a near cap­i­tal of­fence, but do the re­turns from leav­ing a large stock of hens re­pay the re­sources they de­mand? Adam Smith is not so sure

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There was a time when you might have been sent home if you took out a hen on a cock day. There was a time when the pre-shoot meet in the sta­ble yard, or wher­ever, was laced with dire warn­ings of in­stant ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion from grim-faced keepers, who made plain be­yond any risk of mis­un­der­stand­ing that it was to be cocks only. Heaven alone would offer pro­tec­tion from the dire con­se­quences of poor quarry recog­ni­tion.

There was a time when one noble peer of my ex­pe­ri­ence, come the last day of the sea­son, would sit on his bal­cony with brandy and binoc­u­lars. On that one dread­ful, lip-bit­ing day in his shoot­ing sea­son, when forced to ac­cept the in­evitable, His Grace would wait, dar­ing any of the care­fully selected ‘peas­ants’ within sight to take out one of his lady birds. It tended to make the day a bit fraught.

I would con­fi­dently say that then, as now, pre­serv­ing hens as wild stock was a fruitless task. It may well have had ben­e­fit and merit, back be­fore mega-in­ten­sive rear­ing and moth­er­ing broody hens be­came a thing of the past, to be re­placed with var­i­ous inan­i­mate heat sources. These soul­less ra­di­a­tors have taken away what­ever car­ing in­stincts chicks might have learned from an at­ten­tive step­mother, un­til slowly, surely, and ever more no­tice­ably, the ba­sics be­came al­most to­tally ab­sent.

“To­day’s hen pheas­ants are use­less moth­ers,” one keeper said to me once. Pretty well versed in the craft since the 1930s, he’d watched things change within his life­time and gave that ac­cu­rate as­sess­ment to me back in the 70s. The art and abil­ity has been bred out of them and, in my hum­ble opin­ion, the best thing for any shoot to do is max­imise re­lease re­turns and get them in the bag and counted.

Yes, I know there are ex­cep­tions like fen­land birds who seem to re­pro­duce in grat­i­fy­ing num­bers each year, but tak­ing the coun­try as a whole, the re­turns from leav­ing a large stock of hens does not re­pay the time, food and at­ten­tion they de­mand.

And I also know that game farms and shoots that rear, rely en­tirely on the im­mense lay­ing ca­pac­ity of hens, but egg pro­duc­tion and moth­er­ing are two very different abil­i­ties, and one end-of-sea­son day’s take of hens won’t up­set the bal­ance one whit. No, hens are best bagged and eaten – in the fi­nal anal­y­sis it’s what they were bred for – and most of them make a bet­ter meal than a cock any­way.

An­other fact that in­flu­ences wild bird suc­cess is that the days of in­ten­sive trap­ping are, to say the least, on the wane. A beat-keeper was once ex­pected to set and check scores of gins and snares dot­ted around the 800 or so acres of his beat, and when the gin be­came il­le­gal and was even­tu­ally re­placed by the far more ex­pen­sive Fenn trap, this too had an ad­verse cost ef­fect.

Add to this that many a sin­gle-handed keeper to­day is ex­pected to man­age three or four times that area, it’s phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble to main­tain traps and snares in num­bers to make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence and com­ply with the law, so pens will be home to the bulk of small preda­tor con­trol.

‘The hen pheas­ant, whose moth­er­ing in­stincts are al­ready un­der pres­sure, needs all the help she can get to rear a brood of chicks’

Losses from preda­tors on ground-nest­ing pheas­ant were al­ways high with­out this care­ful nest mon­i­tor­ing and pro­tec­tion from foxes, stoats, weasels and rats. Be­fore they be­came pro­tected species, you could add bad­gers and hedge­hogs to that list – but, look­ing on the bright side, they have been aug­mented by plen­ti­ful num­bers of mink. So, not only has the length and in­ten­sity of trap lines re­duced, the time avail­able to check them (legally once in ev­ery 24 hour pe­riod) has re­duced in tan­dem, and that does not in­clude re­build­ing and re-sit­ing traps and tun­nels that an­tis have dis­cov­ered.

So, as I say, the hen pheas­ant whose moth­er­ing in­stincts are al­ready un­der pres­sure needs all the help she can get to bring off a brood of chicks. And when (or if) she man­ages to do that, there’s the fatal siev­ing ef­fect from all those miles of rab­bit mesh en­clos­ing plan­ta­tions, which al­lows the smaller chicks to fol­low mother, and leaves the larger, health­ier, stronger lit­tle birds, just too big to pass through the net­ting, to peep in vain as she pot­ters on, bliss­fully un­aware.

But that’s my opin­ion. Oth­ers may well dis­agree, and over­all it won’t make a jot of dif­fer­ence to many end-of-sea­son shoots be­cause they will per­se­vere with the ‘cocks only’ rule, no mat­ter what I might think.

There are, on the other hand, a grow­ing num­ber of shoots that do give their beat­ers a full day’s shoot­ing at the end of the sea­son and there are sev­eral quite valid rea­sons for this. More of­ten than not, beat­ers have taken days off, fre­quently for­go­ing earn­ings way in ex­cess of what they might pick up swing­ing a stick or a flag, and they will work, walk, strug­gle and crawl through thick and thin in all sorts of weather, and cer­tainly have earnt that one chance.

Some will want to prove to them­selves that all the mut­tered crit­i­cism they have meted out, as they watched bird after bird fly on un­scathed over the Gun line for the past four months or so, can be proved en­tirely valid. They would be more than happy to show those Guns not only just how to do it, but how easy the task can be – al­though most find that it’s not quite so simple after all.

An­other rea­son, es­pe­cially sig­nif­i­cant for keepers, is that a full day’s shoot­ing as a well-earned bonus tends to ce­ment a beat­ing team and es­tab­lish their loy­al­ties for an­other year. It’s an un­de­ni­able fact that the younger gen­er­a­tion are not as at­tracted by the idea of spend­ing a day out in all weathers as they once might have been, so keep­ing a re­li­able team happy takes on per­haps a bit more sig­nif­i­cance with each year that passes.

So, let’s as­sume that all the above should be re­garded as so much eye­wash. Hens are val­ued and ir­re­place­able stock, cared for and pro­tected to re­pro­duce in deeply grat­i­fy­ing num­bers and in­crease the shoot’s vi­a­bil­ity by geo­met­ric pro­gres­sion. And the great day has ar­rived. The ‘cocks only’ rule will be ad­hered to with­out a caveat in sight. Fair enough.

Tech­ni­cally, there should be lit­tle trou­ble in recog­nis­ing cock from hen, though back­ground and weather con­di­tions can play their part. Most shoots, if we’re hon­est, show av­er­age sorts of birds at av­er­age sorts of heights, so dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween the two is def­i­nitely not rocket sci­ence and, if that’s the rule of the day, break­ing it through poor se­lec­tion is no ex­cuse.

On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to shoot at one of the grander venues where pheas­ants and star­lings have much in com­mon, the fun­da­men­tal recog­ni­tion fac­tor is the cock’s long tail, much longer than a hen’s, and al­though this is all you should need to pre­vent an em­bar­rass­ing mis­take, they also look darker.

Ex­cept, that is, if you swing onto a deep choco­late brown melanis­tic bird com­ing at you from a low slung sun, say, or a milk choco­late ver­si­colour hen, dan­ger­ously darker than ex­pected. And if you do, and the fe­male of the species thumps down ac­cus­ingly be­side you, take some small com­fort from the fact that at least one re­tired keeper wouldn’t blame you in

the least.

There’s no ex­cuse for mis-iden­ti­fy­ing quarry when the birds are pre­sented at stan­dard ranges

If you are told “cocks only”, you risk up­set­ting the game­keeper if you de­vi­ate, even by ac­ci­dent

Beat­ers’ Day re­wards the hard work done all sea­son, in all weathers

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