GWCT: Breed­ing re­search

The Game and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust are con­duct­ing a new study to in­ves­ti­gate the causes of poor breed­ing sea­sons in wild pheas­ants. Joel Holt tells us more about the project

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Anew study has been launched at the Game & Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust’s (GWCT) Aller­ton Project to in­ves­ti­gate pheas­ant breed­ing suc­cess.

The low­land game bird team has started the three-year ra­dio track­ing project fol­low­ing dif­fi­cult breed­ing sea­sons with no more than a hand­ful of hens pro­duc­ing un­der 20 chicks each year.

To un­der­stand the lack of re­sponse from wild game birds, the team will tag and fol­low 40 hen pheas­ants from March through to the end of the breed­ing sea­son. The re­searchers will in­ves­ti­gate fac­tors such as habi­tat use, rea­sons for adult mor­tal­ity in the pre-breed­ing phase and nest pre­da­tion, and will doc­u­ment fledged chick sur­vival where pos­si­ble. In ad­di­tion to ra­dio track­ing, trail cam­eras will be used to iden­tify nest pre­da­tion events, while the sam­pling of car­casses, drop­pings and soil will pro­vide in­sight into dis­ease and worm bur­dens on the site. Ru­fus Sage, who is head of low­land game­bird re­search at GWCT, said: “Dur­ing the early years of GWCT own­er­ship, the Aller­ton Project es­tate sup­ported a healthy pop­u­la­tion of wild breed­ing pheas­ants with no re­leas­ing. This was fol­lowed by with­drawal of wild bird keeper­ing which demon­strated, among other things, the demise of the wild pheas­ant pop­u­la­tion. In re­cent years, the aim has switched to sup­port­ing a wild breed­ing pheas­ant pop­u­la­tion on the farm along­side the re­lease-based shoot. “Ul­ti­mately, the aim of this project is to im­ple­ment a spe­cific man­age­ment plan that pro­vides the Aller­ton Project with the best chance of re-es­tab­lish­ing wild game birds along­side re­leas­ing.” So far, us­ing the li­cence from Nat­u­ral Eng­land to catch and tag pheas­ants, GWCT stu­dents Meg Speck and Char­lotte Parker have caught and tagged 40 hen pheas­ants. Ra­dio track­ing work has started, and GWCT will re­port its find­ings in the au­tumn.

The shoot at Lod­ding­ton has been run­ning since 1992, when the demon­stra­tion farm opened. For demon­stra­tion and re­search rea­sons, the ap­proach to the shoot’s man­age­ment has var­ied from full-scale, wild bird keeper­ing dur­ing the first 10 years of the project, to the sys­tem­atic re­moval of preda­tor con­trol and sup­ple­men­tary feed­ing, with the aim be­ing to quan­tify their con­tri­bu­tion to both game and wider wildlife species.

A great deal has been learnt over this pe­riod and, in 2011, the shoot was re­built, this time with an em­pha­sis on run­ning a sen­si­tively-man­aged re­leased bird shoot sup­ple­mented by wild game. Im­por­tant com­po­nents of wild game man­age­ment are be­ing im­proved or re­in­stated, such as nest­ing, brood rear­ing and win­ter driv­ing cover, sup­ple­men­tary feed­ing and spring and sum­mer preda­tor con­trol.

Austin Wel­don, cen­tral ad­vi­sor at GWCT, ex­plained: “De­spite these ef­forts, wild game con­tin­ues to per­form poorly but, in­ter­est­ingly, song­birds have al­most dou­bled in num­ber and hares have also re­sponded pos­i­tively.”

‘In re­cent years, the aim has switched to sup­port­ing a wild pheas­ant pop­u­la­tion on the farm along­side the re­lease-based shoot’

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