Thursday, 1 July 2010

Bitting Pheasants and Going to Wood

This year's hatch is officially complete - don't ask me the final tally as it's a keeper's secret how many birds are hatched, but overall it was a good season and we had surplus to sell. A shoot can only make money in two ways: young birds sold to other shoots, or birds sold over guns (i.e. shoot days).

The value of a pheasant as food is minimal, and a partridge only slightly more than minimal: a couple of pounds ($3-4) a brace. Feathered game is sold as a brace, that is two birds tied together at the neck, traditionally one of each sex.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. At the moment, the oldest birds are just going out to wood. The younger birds are being bitted. Both have been our jobs this week.

Bitting is the practice of fitting small, clip-on rings into the bird's nasal passage. Pete's using a bit gun to insert the bit -

This is a bitted bird. The bit prevents the bird closing his mouth all the way -

She can still eat and drink without problem. But, young pheasants have some unpleasant behaviors including pulling each other's tail feathers out, causing their victims bleed to death. If they can't shut their mouths tight, they can't grab hold of the feather to pull it out. It's for their own, and each other's, protection.

We try and keep stocking rates low, to prevent stress which exacerbates the situation. Some sheds of birds don't pull feathers and we don't have to bit them. When the weather is as good as it's been this summer, we can get the birds out on fresh grass quickly, and this also cuts the rate of feather pulling. So far we've only bitted 3 sheds, and have 2 more that need doing tomorrow, which is less than a quarter of the sheds.

Bitting can be a loathsome task. It's hot and dusty, and the birds are skittish.

It takes 4 of us about an hour to complete a shed. We each sit in a corner, and then it's simply picking up each bird, fitting the bit, putting it down and picking up the next bird. Repeat ad nauseum.

The mask helps to prevent us inhaling the dust, but I can tell you from experience choose your lunch carefully. Cheese and onion pie burps in a mask are intolerable. Almost worse than the dried bird poop you will shortly be picking out of your eyebrows and hairline. The pheasant food is made with fish meal and it smells bad enough before it's been through the pheasant.

Sadly, I've had worse jobs.

When the birds are old enough, they "go to wood". That is, they are put into release pens which are large areas of wood that have a perimeter fence with ankle-high electric fencing to keep foxes out. There's no top on the pens so the birds can fly in and out as they please, and roost in the trees. They view where they roost as home. We feed them here, to encourage them to hang around and want to roost in the pens. This will be vital later, during shoot season.

To put a bird to wood, we catch them in their sheds, remove their bits (if bitted), crate them -

This is one technique for catching and holding young pheasants. You catch them by the legs - both legs - from behind. And you must hold them above the knee joint, by the meat on their thighs. Otherwise you could dislocate or break their leg. By holding 5 birds like this, it frees up my other hand to simply flick the bits out of their beaks.

Once we've filled the crates, they're loaded on the back of the trucks for the mile or so journey to a pen. These birds are going to Hankmoor pen. The truck is backed up to the pen gate -

The crates are unloaded and set in the wooded pen -

The doors are open and the pheasants come out and explore their surroundings at their leisure -

Then the crates are collected and stacked on the truck and the whole process starts all over again until, over a period of weeks, all the birds are put out to wood.

With birds in the woods, we have to keep on top of predator control. This year's fox cubs will be old enough to hunt for themselves now, and young pheasants are an easy meal. Buzzards and sparrowhawks (both protected) will have the odd poult, but foxes can annihilate a hundred or more in one evening.


Poppy Cottage said...

I don't know what is more exciting. Providing 'personal' care for the oldies or sitting on a shed floor full of spooked young'ens.

End of the day you and I both stand the chance of pooh in our hair!!

Lovely thought!!

See you soon. Will reply to email in a bit xx

Terry Scoville said...

Glad to hear you've had a good hatch this season. Also great info about bitting the birds. Do you ever put blinders on the Pheasants? They do that here in the U.S. on the roosters so they don't kill each other in the pens. Perhaps by putting them to wood you are able to forego the blinders.
Great post!

Paula said...

I was glad to read that the birds can still eat and drink with the bits, and even gladder that you remove them eventually. Do you know if the process of bitting them hurts?

Jennifer Montero said...

Colette - I guess we must really like our jobs to put up with the fallout, as it were!

Terry - Blinders are allowed and I think intensive commercial farms may use them but we've never had to (aside from on Myfanwy the egg-eating chicken!)

We have fewer birds, lower stocking rates in the pen, and access to large outdoor runs. I watch the youngster in the runs - they spend time darting about and trying out their wings, and catching flies when there's been a hatch. It seems to disperse their energies in the right direction.

Paula - I'm not sure about pain, but I know the birds are susceptible to stress. The process of catching them stresses them, and we have to be as quick and quiet as possible. They get multi-vitamins in their water afterwards.

The bit sits in the nostrils, like a clip-on earring, so it doesn't hurt like having an ear pierced would. They scratch it for the first few minutes so I imagine it registers as something foreign, maybe irritating. Then they get on with being a pheasant.

The bit is in for about 3 weeks. It can be easily flicked out between thumb and forefinger, but we need to catch and handle the birds again. A lot of pheasant management is stress management. They don't domesticate.

Kate said...

Okay, I won't ask the tally, but you know I'm going to have a (related) question: *Why* is the tally count a secret? What would change or be to your disadvantage if your counts were known? Or is it just some English tradition of reticence? -modesty? -certain subjects being considered bad luck to discuss?

I suppose the low value of the game birds after they're killed means that enterprising frugal folk would have access to very cheap game. Sounds like healthier meat than an industrial chicken to me.

Jennifer Montero said...

Kate - Like so many British things, it's a matter of tradition.

The bosses know at the end of the season how many birds were hatched, how many put to wood, and how many recovered but they're never told before then. Some head keepers never even tell their underkeepers (or their wife!)

Harvest Kitchen Sisters said...

Wow! What a eye opener! Nice post, I am learning so much in the pheasant world.

Jennifer Montero said...

HKS - It's an eye-opener fo me too. I'm only learning as I go along, and passing on what I observe. But I'm glad you find it interesting.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Sheesh. And I thought vacuuming was a drag. But compared to bitting 8 bazillion pheasants (I wheedled the total out of Mike), it's a walk in the park.

Jennifer Montero said...

Tamar - Vacuuming is a respite in comparison. And less poop is involved. Usually.

strawberryarmy1028 said...

Could you please tell me where I can get one of the tools?

Jennifer Montero said...

Sure. It's a bit fitter, and any pheasant or game suppliers will have them. We go to Gamefayre but Patrick Pinker or Collins Nets sells them too. They come in sizes A B and C, last is largest. Make sure you buy the plastic bits on strips that fit your bit fitter (hey that's almost a tongue twister!) I don't know any US suppliers but MAcFarlane pheasants might know. Hope that helps.