Key role for farmers in game release programmes and conservation
Each individual gun club also works closely with farmers to ensure accessibility to shooting grounds year-round. Landowners play an important role in annual game release programmes, conservation projects and the sowing of game crops.
Currently 70pc of NARGC-affiliated gun clubs practice the release of pen-reared pheasants to supplement wild pheasant populations. However, this very much depends on habitat and throughout the years, agricultural practices have had the greatest impact on pheasant survival as they affect food, cover, and nesting conditions.
When pheasants were first introduced to Ireland, and up until recent decades, the landscape was much different from the one we know today. Farming techniques were primitive, field sizes smaller, with crops more abundant and diverse. These habitat conditions created a situation ideally suited to farmland birds like pheasant, corncrake and grey partridge. However, agriculture has changed significantly in recent decades and, as a result, gun clubs have invested a lot of money and energy into pheasant release programmes. This is a policy very much supported by the NARGC with bird subsidies, game crop and predator equipment grants.
Although some two 200 acres of game crop was planted by NARGC gun clubs in 2014, the habitat requirements to ensure pheasant breeding success are found to be considerably more complex. A lack of nesting cover is considered to be a significant limiting factor to the bird's reproduction. Numerous studies have shown that released hen pheasants struggle to breed in the wild.
Unfortunately, most pheasant nesting habitat in Ireland is cut for silage. However, grassy set-aside field margins with wild flowers along hedgerows can provide good nesting and brood-rearing habitat and the aim by most gun clubs is to develop more of these habitats to increase the amount of insects, which form the main diet of pheasant chicks.
Other linear habitats along waterways, old paths/roads, and hedgerows are also used as nesting cover by hen pheasants.
Gun clubs are often faced with a challenging situation since they are not owners of the land they shoot on and consequently, may experience difficulties in getting farmers to allow for the necessary habitat work to be undertaken.
However, some farmers participating in the new GLAS scheme may welcome a local gun club offering to plant crops on their set-aside land.
Currently, farmers who plant three hectares of wild bird cover are eligible to an annual payment of €2,700.
Wild bird cover can be made up of a mix that is sown every year or a mix that is sown every other year. One-year mixes must contain a cereal and possibly linseed or mustard, while two-year mixes must contain kale and either oats, triticale, or linseed.
Due to declining pheasant numbers in recent years, some gun clubs have ended up applying voluntary restrictions on pheasant shooting.
The NARGC is now closely working with individual gun clubs to assess the long-term effects of releasing of pen-reared pheasants and its effect on wild pheasant populations as a whole.
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