Ecol­o­gist and shoot­ing en­thu­si­ast Alex Hat­ton con­tin­ues his se­ries on habi­tat im­prove­ment and looks at how to be­gin mak­ing al­ter­ations than can trans­form the sport on your shoot

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

How to start your habi­tat man­age­ment

In part one we dis­cussed start­ing your new shoot and mak­ing sure you have ev­ery­thing in or­der from year one and gath­er­ing your base­line in­for­ma­tion. In year two you start to get a feel­ing of where your birds are, and where they aren’t, and you can be­gin to look at mak­ing changes.


Much of our shoot is cov­ered in soft rush in­ter­spersed with wet heath, blan­ket bog and pur­ple moor grass. How this is man­aged is strongly de­pen­dent on which landowner is manag­ing that area of land and whether they are able to get ma­chin­ery onto it. In some cases, you have to con­sider if the stock losses jus­tify graz­ing it at all: it re­ally is very wet!

Be­fore we took this shoot on, one of the largest marshes was grazed by horses, mainly be­cause they were cheap horses and they would sur­vive on the land with sup­ple­men­tary feed­ing. Dur­ing this time, they kept the self-seed­ing trees at bay and they cer­tainly kept the scrub at bay as they tended to rest in these drier ar­eas. Un­for­tu­nately, the sheer weight of horses meant they would oc­ca­sion­ally get into an area of bog and get stuck, with the oc­ca­sional un­for­tu­nate mor­tal­ity. The slim fi­nan­cial prof­its soon dwin­dled when a few horses were lost, which ul­ti­mately meant it was im­prac­ti­cal to con­tinue graz­ing it.

It shot well dur­ing the ‘horse years’. Less trees meant clearer shoot­ing and a sward not so dom­i­nated by rushes. As it changed, so too has the way it now shoots and we have learnt a lot from that change. Firstly, we no­ticed that shoot­ing it was eas­ier when it was grazed. Back then, snipe would rise and a fairly long shot could be had, but now the self-seeded wil­lows have put an end to this. Now we need to em­ploy a stealthy ap­proach, fully util­is­ing the dogs’ point­ing skills.

In part, shoot­ing it like this has been made much eas­ier by a num­ber of things, but the main one is the in­creased num­ber of wil­lows. They are favour­ing the ‘val­ley’ where the wa­ter tends to pud­dle and so the rush is not dom­i­nat­ing. As they have grown they are form­ing a dense band of trees and the snipe feed­ing on the marsh have ac­tu­ally in­creased and also con­cen­trated.

Per­son­ally, I think they en­joy the cover from aerial preda­tors and the abil­ity to feed un­der them in a wet en­vi­ron­ment is ap­peal­ing. There is a de­fined belt of trees and pur­ple moor grass is creep­ing in to the edge, so they are fun­nelled through to the mid­dle of the marsh and the trees have helped our ap­proach to am­bush them.

Snipe will learn and to­wards the end of the sea­son they will run the band of trees to the end. It has never ceased to amaze me how far snipe will run be­fore they lift, so we are plan­ning on in­sert­ing a ‘break’ in the trees and plac­ing a Gun here, forc­ing a flush.

‘Marshes are a chal­lenge for the hobby shoot, and landown­ers are your best friends as they will have the ma­chin­ery and live­stock to help you’

An­other marsh, much drier, had al­ways been grazed by Welsh black cat­tle. In or­der to keep it fresh, it was also topped each year. To the west, a much wet­ter and in­ac­ces­si­ble marsh ad­joined it, with tall rank veg­e­ta­tion. All the years that this marsh was walked-up over, an HPR never yielded a sin­gle snipe in the taller veg­e­ta­tion, de­spite there clearly be­ing foot scent from the birds lead­ing to it. In con­trast, the topped and grazed marsh con­tin­u­ally held good num­bers of snipe.

The com­bi­na­tion of graz­ing, top­ping and taller veg­e­ta­tion were the per­fect blend for pro­vid­ing a mixed mo­saic of habi­tats that of­fered food and shel­ter. Un­for­tu­nately, the marsh is no longer grazed nor topped, and although fields nearby are now man­aged like this, the ranker veg­e­ta­tion is not present and it does not pro­vide any­where near the same num­bers of snipe. We are try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate its man­age­ment for next sea­son.

Marshes are a chal­lenge for the hobby shoot, and ul­ti­mately a landowner is your best friend as he will have the ma­chin­ery and live­stock to help you achieve your goals. There are spe­cific op­tions that marshes can be put into as part of agri-en­vi­ron­ment schemes which aim to achieve a mixed sward height that will in­crease in­ver­te­brate di­ver­sity.

Ul­ti­mately, rais­ing the wa­ter level is the most ideal op­tion, which in­volves ditch block­ing and break­ing land drains, but this is a big change in man­age­ment and will need the landowner’s sup­port. If pos­si­ble, cre­at­ing small scrapes is an in-be­tween op­tion, ide­ally around 10m square. Find a nat­u­ral de­pres­sion as a start­ing point. Not ev­ery­thing will work, and some­times it’s dif­fi­cult to work out ex­actly what it is that at­tracts snipe, but small changes in man­age­ment can yield re­sults.


Both rivers and streams are fan­tas­tic lin­ear fea­tures across a shoot and will fun­nel an­i­mals in to your area. But they can fun­nel them away just as quickly if there is not a good rea­son to hold them. On our small shoot there are a num­ber of small wa­ter­courses.

The smaller streams are dot­ted with hawthorn, wil­lows and a par­tic­u­lar favourite of wood­cock – holly. Be­ing an ev­er­green, holly pro­vides shel­ter

from the el­e­ments when the wood­cock most need it and over the years we have planted them along the banks of the streams and on steep ditches.

We have seen wood­cock shot from un­der a holly bush, and had a dif­fer­ent wood­cock sat un­der it within the same month!

These un­fenced streams sur­vive im­pacts from sheep, on the whole, but when pos­si­ble we lay some hedge and use brash to pile up along­side them to act as a bar­rier to stop the sheep push­ing through them, as well as pro­vid­ing that lit­tle bit of ex­tra cover.

Large rivers will fil­ter more game onto the shoot and, if pos­si­ble, the best op­tion is to fence them off and al­low some scrub/tree re­gen­er­a­tion, pro­vid­ing a cor­ri­dor of habi­tat.

Some years ago both the En­vi­ron­ment Agency and our Welsh agri-en­vi­ron­ment schemes were of­fer­ing fenc­ing of river sys­tems in ni­tro­gen vul­ner­a­ble zones. The landowner was ap­proached with a pro­posal and it ticked all of his boxes!

Free fenc­ing, with ac­cess gates, and it sep­a­rated two of his parcels of land mak­ing it a more man­age­able area. The im­por­tant parts for the farmer were the pro­vi­sion of drink­ing bays and cross­ing points so that he could man­age his stock.

The parcels each side had tra­di­tion­ally been grazed heav­ily and so there was a fair amount of dis­tur­bance and lack of cover so the bank­side cor­ri­dors did not hold many birds.

In the first few years, we no­ticed a spike in wood­cock us­ing the banks. In­stead of just pass­ing through, pheas­ants stopped by more and as the cover in­creased, ducks started to feel safe and we reg­u­larly put up wild mallard who had fol­lowed the river up.

We now feed one of the banks to en­cour­age the ducks, safe in the knowl­edge the sheep will not get to the grain.

With less stock churn­ing up the banks, I am told the brown trout are mak­ing a come­back on this river and the hope is sewin (seat trout) will once again be a vis­i­tor on this sys­tem.


We took on a great legacy when it came to scrub. Our pre­de­ces­sor had iden­ti­fied many rough cor­ners and got the agree­ments of the landown­ers to fence them off and al­low them to flour­ish. These were not agri­cul­tur­ally im­proved grass­land ar­eas, but rough cor­ners, and they were rocky, wet and steep, or were sep­a­rated by ditches, so it took lit­tle con­vinc­ing to ask for them to be fenced. As well as these cor­ners, we are for­tu­nate to have an old rail­way line with trees on ei­ther side.

Scrub flour­ishes very well un­aided, as do trees, and we have no­ticed the quick suc­ces­sion of these rough cor­ners, which are pos­i­tive at first but they do need manag­ing be­fore they be­come in­ac­ces­si­ble to birds and dogs!

Our sum­mer jobs in­clude clear­ing a path around these ar­eas and clear­ing trees from the mid­dle, as well as bram­ble, to al­low wood­cock to land in the mid­dle. The edges also need cross­ing points for dogs and han­dlers so that they can work the wind most ap­pro­pri­ately.

Fences are a great way of start­ing these ar­eas off, but they must have ac­cess gates and ide­ally a wa­ter sup­ply for stock as of­ten they get too well es­tab­lished and will not then hold birds. Al­low­ing a few stock in for a few weeks will soon change it dra­mat­i­cally and save you a big job. On the flip side, do main­tain your fences; grants pay for the out­lay of the fence, but one breach caused for ex­am­ple by a fallen tree, can be enough to foil your ef­forts par­tic­u­larly if you have planted an area up. Be pre­pared to be the one to put in new posts or patch some net­ting rather than mak­ing it yet an­other job for the farmer.

We have a num­ber of self-formed un­fenced scrubby ar­eas that have ben­e­fited from open­ing them up to stock by cre­at­ing a path through them.

A few hours with a bill­hook and a brush-cut­ter have had al­most in­stant re­sults the fol­low­ing sea­son.

Plant holly to en­cour­age wood­cock

A rough cor­ner fenced off with a gate to al­low ac­cess

Self-seeded wil­low trees have in­creased and con­cen­trated snipe num­bers

A shooter en­joys some suc­cess on the snipe

Oc­ca­sion­ally, you can get grants to fence your rivers

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