We moved 2,500 young pheasants into 'The Hill' pen yesterday, after spending this previous week checking the fencing, patching holes, putting in the equivalent of pheasant 'doggie doors' so the birds can come and go, putting up an electric perimeter, etc. They were a bit jumpy going in so we left them to settle into their new surroundings. It must take their tiny brains time to process going from a shed with a small run attached to an essentially limitless woodland with 2,499 friends.
It fell on me to check 'The Hill' pen last night. I was assured it was a formality and perhaps a few birds would need shooing home, and I only needed to sit in the truck until it got dark to ensure everything settled alright and weren't being bothered by predators. I didn't even bother changing out of my pyjamas and a pair of crocs. I had my travel mug of coffee to sip while I sat and watched the sun set. It definitely sounded like the cushy option.
It never turns out like you plan, does it? No birds were moving at the front so I thought I would just have a look around the back, at the top of the hill. My heart sank. I have never seen so many free ranging poults outside one pen. They weren't supposed to venture out yet, they were supposed to settle and think about going for a wander in 3-4 days' time. Not yet.
The good news: I had the labrador in the truck with me to work the pheasants back home. The bad news: I didn't have my mobile phone to call for 'backup'. I couldn't afford to drive home, find Mike and get back - I'd lose too much time and daylight.
Herding pheasants is only marginally less difficult than herding cats (I imagine, never tried it). I threw Pip into the maize crop to push the birds towards the pen, then spent the next hour until it got dark walking back and forth along the wire pressuring the birds to use their doggie doors. For every one I got in, two more appeared from behind me, in the field, from the woods, hiding in the crop. I was losing the light and in danger of disturbing birds in the pen going to roost. I had to call time and leave what I knew to be a significant amount of birds still outside the pen and vulnerable.
Mike was up before sunrise to check on the inevitable losses and possibly deter the later predators. I heard his truck pull into the drive and came out to look. Confirmation. A pile of dead poults carpeting the flatbed of his truck. All had by a fox. Some still warm. And more yet to pick up. Mike didn't bother to count them, I think it's more upsetting when you can put a number to it. I'm about to take some spaniels back to The Hill pen to retrieve the rest of the dead poults; there's enough bodies that I'll need at least two spaniels to do it. And the rain started about an hour ago. Wet dead poults stinking of fox. It's the worst hit he's ever known at that pen. And it's only their first 24 hours.