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Should the game shooting seasons be changed?

Game shooting season

George Padley wonders whether, in the light of new climate change evidence, we should be considering a change to our shooting seasons.

Thinking back to my childhood, the month of September was always one of damp mornings and rainy afternoons. If you were lucky enough to be shooting early in the season, you wouldn’t leave the house without your wellies and a coat of some description. Nowadays, however, summer seems to be arriving much later – if at all – with October often enjoying warmer temperatures than June. Of course, astronomically, our seasons have not altered – these are defined by the arrival and passing of equinoxes and solstices – however, the seasons do seem to be shifting in terms of average temperatures. With this in mind, I wonder is it time we reconsidered our shooting seasons?

Tradition vs. commerce

Unsurprisingly, that which makes most sense commercially doesn’t always tie-in perfectly with tradition. Traditionalists will no doubt argue that, since the Game Act of 1831, February has never been open-season and should therefore remain that way. There is, however, a school of thought that suggests that shooting into February would facilitate vital income generation at the end of the season for many commercial estates, particularly those that only offer high pheasant shooting from October onwards and still have plenty of birds at the end of January.

To help alleviate financial pressure, some of these shoots have begun offering September partridge days with the added benefit of further supporting the livelihoods of those who are dependant on what is a seasonal industry. Countries such as Spain don’t start shooting until later in October, which allows some UK shoots the unique opportunity of offering the first driven game days of the year. Ireland is another example where seasons differ from that of England, Scotland and Wales.

Reared vs. wild

Factors influencing bird-breeding seasons are numerous, the primary ones being length of day, temperature and availability of food – all very much interlinked. Meteorologically speaking, the division of seasons by length of day remains consistent and thus birds triggered by daylight hours will be so on or around the same time each year.

However, variations in temperature, and the effects of this on the availability of food for parent birds and chicks, are far more volatile. Of course, reared game can largely be artificially controlled, in thermoregulated hatcheries and rearing sheds, in harmony with the opening of the season(s); the timing of their maturity factored into hatching and delivery dates.

Food is provided and moderated to meet the specific needs of the birds, while some adverse conditions can be controlled through medication and vaccinations.

Wild game stocks, however, do not benefit from the same level of control. These birds are far more susceptible and exposed to uncontrollable climatic conditions and food sources. Many wild birds are now pairing-up later in the year and their young, therefore, are maturing later as well. Incidentally, I have heard that some grouse moors delayed the start of the 2016 season by two or three weeks for this very reason.

Should we not then be considering when we open and close the various shooting seasons to account for these meteorological and behavioural changes? After all, we can control reared stock but not wild.

Pheasants, partridges & grouse

On very few shoots are pheasants truly mature, fit and strong by October 1, and for this reason most shoots choose to start later in the month or even in November. And in terms of wild birds, this is unquestionably the case. Equally, whilst they may appear to be mature and ready, the same can be said of partridges in the beginning of September. Yet both these birds could provide exceptional sport right through into February.

Conversely, it is possible to shoot too late into a season as well. If you shoot grouse too hard during the latter stages of the season, you will invariably pay the price in the season(s) to come. Couple this with an inclement spring and you potentially have a disaster on your hands – we’re all well aware of how devastating last year’s spring was for some moors.

Similarly, English partridges often pair-up far in advance of their French counterparts and, as conscientious sportsmen, it’s vital that we recognise this when shooting in order to give these birds a fighting chance of rearing their own young in the spring. Again, in changing something, it becomes a trade-off of one against another, tipping the balance in favour of some and at the expense of others. A blanket approach to all species would of course be unthinkable.

It would seem unrealistically drastic to suggest that the seasons should be shifted back by an entire month, but could some gamebirds benefit from two weeks of additional respite at the beginning of a season?

Welfare

In every sport, individual sportsmen and women prefer different conditions. Afforded the impossible luxury of choice, I would always choose a frosty November morning with a prevailing wind over a warm and muggy September afternoon. Aside from any personal comforts, more often than not, gamebirds fly better in cooler weather and are far less likely to suffer from exhaustion or undue distress.

There are, of course, people who enjoy shooting in shirtsleeves in early September, and there are shoots that are very happy to accommodate this demand; but I do feel that this is becoming less commonplace on the whole.

There are, undoubtedly, cost advantages of an early September day for both client and shoot, but it may come as little surprise to you that I don’t believe that this is justification for shooting in September rather than later in the season. Moreover, the climatic origins of some gamebird species should be considered – they’re not built for intense flight in hot weather, and sometimes this shows.

Practicalities

Of course a change to the shooting seasons wouldn’t be without practical challenges and complications. For starters, anyone involved in shoot management will to tell you that retaining cover crops into December and January is a real challenge, and in turn, holding birds in drives becomes considerably more difficult during the latter stages of the shooting season.

As mentioned before, cost is an important factor. The cost of holding game later in the season is far greater, and increased feed costs and diminishing returns also need to be considered.

From a conservation point of view, feeding much later into the season when natural food is sparse has added benefits to other wildlife species, too. Most shoots, as per the stipulations of the Code of Good Shooting Practice, continue to feed until spring, which assists birds through winter and bolsters hen birds’ abilities to accumulate reserves for egg-laying.

Moreover, advances in cover crop science and understanding have also given rise to a far greater supply of ‘natural’ food later in the season – chicory and triticale are two examples of cover that provide lifesaving food at times when competition for it is so great.

There are ways it could work, but is there a genuine need or appetite for it?

Truthfully, I don’t think that we should be trying to fix something that isn’t broken – leaving things the way they are and always have been seems sensible when it works. But surely we’re only burying our heads in the sand if we avoid change at all costs. Weighing up the pros and cons, if only as a discussion at this moment in time, has to be a proactive and logical notion.

More and more people, not just in the world of shooting, are talking about these shifting seasonal patterns and, in an industry where we pride ourselves on embracing best modern practices whilst upholding tradition, I think we owe it to ourselves and our game to make sure we’re keeping up with the times.

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