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Woodland trees and shrubs – Look after your shoot’s biggest asset

The woodland trees and shrubs are the most important aspect of your land, says Charles Dutton.

Whether your shoot’s a large commercial operation or a DIY shoot, what do you think is its biggest asset?

Is it the fortune we pay for young birds, the wizardry of the keeper or this year’s game crop?

I suggest, while the above are all very important, it is none of these; rather it’s the very ground that makes up your shoot; in most cases it is the woodland, copse and spinneys.

Trees and shrubs that make up our woodland are a growing ecosystem. Trees get bigger and require more light and shrubs often get smaller because of a lack of light after being shaded out by the demanding trees.

This might all seem rather basic, but during my shooting career, you would be amazed at how many times I have been asked for advice about a particular drive which has ‘deteriorated’ over the years!  “What has gone wrong?”, asks the shoot owner or manager. The simple answer is often: “You have not looked after the trees” and the shoot owner has been terrified to cut down trees and shrubs in order to allow more light onto the woodland floor for fear of making things worse.

In this photo Charlie has established flushing zones within the woodland with enough room for birds to get air-borne, note that the ‘roosting’ Norway Spruce have been brashed so that birds can take to the wing. The woodland is interspersed with clumps of older mixed broadleaf and conifer (just out of shot) which gives the woodland balance and structure.

I was lucky to learn much of my shoot woodland management from the late John Ransford and Major Archie Coates. Although I met Archie only a few times, he amplified what John had been telling me for years. “Work out where the birds want to go and when, then make their home as comfortable and warm as possible,” were his wise words. Again, this might sound simple, but all too often one sees drives being done at the wrong time of the day when the birds have long gone or not yet arrived.

A classic example of a shoot where the owner understands precisely what the game bird is looking for is at Pitts Farm near Sherborne in Dorset. The owner, Charlie Wilson and wizard head keeper Dave spend hours studying the birds’ movement during the day and then plant ‘warm areas’ for them when they get to those places, creating the perfect home for the birds to stay. Little wonder that both Charlie and Peter Wilson can only seem to shoot sky-rockets!

The layers of hedges, bushes and uneven aged conifers graded in from the outside end of the wood, create a perfect warm woodland with roosting as well.

Other issues that frequently crop up are lack of roosting and flushing areas. In order to keep your birds on your shoot, it is best to try to provide them with a suitable place to stay, a Premier Inn if you like, where a good night’s rest is guaranteed. There is a trend in recent years to do away with conifer in favour of restoring native broadleaves, often taking advantage of the latest woodland grant. You might just be encouraging your expensive birds to leave your shoot, which is NOT covered by any grants! Does your shoot have enough roosting cover of the right age?

Flushing areas, whether they be permanent (something which I am very keen on) or temporary, should be seen as a vital part of any woodland drive. Not only should careful consideration be given to where and how big the flushing zone (s) should be, but also what shrubs or game crop should be grown. Just like in forestry, I have seen too many times, a shoot trying desperately hard to establish the wrong plants in the wrong areas for a flushing area.

Another consideration which plays an important part in the longevity of the shoot is the relationship between the land owner and the shoot tenant. In some lucky cases, this relationship is all ‘in house’ and long-term objectives of the shoot and the woodland management can, with some careful man management, be achieved. However, there are a great many shoots that only have relatively short leases; owners wishing to keep their options open and shoot captains not wishing to commit themselves to any longer-term financial commitment.  Leases can be annual or if you are lucky, you might get a three-year deal. This does not really benefit anyone, not least the most important bit of your shoot, the trees and shrubs!

All these difficulties are well known to many; however, there is a way of ironing out some of these problems.

The starting point really should be for all shoots to have a ‘Woodland Management Plan’ (WMP). There is a grant-aided scheme administered by the Forestry Commission to help towards the cost of this. The aim is to produce a long term WMP lasting 10 – 20 years. One of the beauties of these plans is that once approved by the Forestry Commission, it gives the shoot or the land owner a 10-year thinning licence, so that when the keeper or the forester cuts some trees down to enlarge a gun stand, he is legally covered to do so. This is a great selling point over all other digital plans.

Mature, low-grade mixed broadleaf well thinned over many years, results in a good warm understory, with plenty of tracks cut though it for the beaters. Note the pond in the fore-ground where there is often a duck or two!

Such a plan from the Forestry Commission qualifies for some grant aid, in some cases, the grant can cover the cost of producing the plan. We have produced a great number of these plans for our woodland clients, and their feedback has been encouraging. You get;

  1. A series of really useful maps, which help with planning and timetabling work on the shoot, showing all woodland designation, thinning and felling cycles, footpaths and any constraints. You could add things like the position of deer high seats if they were permanent.
  2. A plan and set of maps showing when each woodland block is going to be thinned or even felled over the next ten years.
  3. A summary of any designation on the land which may or may not be relevant to the shoot, for example ‘Site of Special Conservation’ or SSSI.
  4. An opportunity to look at the layout of the shoot and perhaps think about establishing new drives and new woods, for which there is grant aid.
  5. Where woodland improvement work and news tracks could be added to help with the biodiversity and overall management of the woodland, some of this work is grant aid-able, but if it is not in your woodland management plan, you will not be able to access it.

The best feedback we have had is that this plan has cost the shoot or landowner very little (or nothing in some cases) but it gives them a 10-year roadmap for their most valuable asset.

Charles Dutton is Senior Woodland Manager for Pryor & Rickett Silviculture Ltd. If you would like to know more about a woodland management plan designed for your shoot, please  contact him on 01963 231 61.

 

Photos courtesy of Charlie & Peter Wilson of Pitts farm, Dorset

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