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
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
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