Alfred Houghton was the Editor of Threads, the I&R Morley House Magazine. In 1955 he commissioned an article by George Clarke, the Head Gamekeeper at Hall Place who is mentioned a good deal in We Had Everything…. Before his death, Alfred gave permission for it to be republished.
Pheasants normally begin to lay about the first week in April but, if the weather is mild, it has been known to get some eggs in March. However, too early laying is not hopeful, as last frosts play havoc with the eggs, making a poor percentage in hatching out.
This is only one of the keeper’s worries. Vermin, such as magpies, crows, jackdaws and jays are all egg eaters and, like hawks and owls, kill the small chicks when hatched out; and then there are animals, such as weasels, stoats and those prowling cats and dogs which people never worry about, and last, but not least, Reynard – the cunning fox – who today will take a heavier toll than ever now the rabbit has been wiped out, more or less, in this area.
The pheasant lays about 12 or 15 eggs and if the keeper collects these they go off and lay again, and still bring up – if they are lucky – half a dozen chicks while the keeper has taken her first lay to put under broody hens.
When the keeper places the pheasant eggs under the broody hens, then his troubles being. The number of eggs to each hen varies from 18 to 21 according to size of hen. Every morning the hens are taken off the eggs for food and water for 15 to 30 minutes as they approach hatching.
Most mornings there are broken eggs due to thin shells or restless hens. Often a hen gives up sitting, which gives her eggs a chill, and, if this is in the early stages of incubation, the eggs will be useless.
All hens have to be dusted for lice to make sure that they are quite clean before they go on to the rearing field with the young chicks.
The day the eggs are hatching, they have to be watched very closely as some hens will kill the chicks as soon as they come out of the shell. It has been known for some hens to kill almost all her hatched chicks, which I think is probably due to the artificial way chickens are reared today.
With killed, trampled, and dead in shell, the keeper can go down 25 per cent before even reaching the rearing field.
The great day arrives for moving the young pheasants to the rearing field. The coops have already been repaired and given a coat of creosote and are placed in position about 20 yards apart both ways. Again the number of chicks varies according to size of hen from 15 to 18. No food is given during the first 24 hours.
There are two types of food – moist and dry. The old school of keeper likes the moist, which is a fine biscuit meal with cod liver oil added, scalded with boiling water and left to cool down; then add egg and put through a fine sieve. Feeding times are about 7 a.m., 1 p.m., and 6 p.m. The amount given must be just enough for them to clear up. If too heavy handed and the food lies about in hot weather it will go sour; this will cause the young birds to have intestine trouble which can be fatal. The coops are closed every night about 10 or 11 p.m. As the birds grow, the food is changed to boiled grain, rice or maize; they also like minced rabbit, and find a lot of natural food in the grass.
Quite a lot can happen in six weeks on the rearing field. I have seen disease sweep through and take a heavy toll. Some years ago I had a friend staying with me when things were not going too well on the field and his expression was “If I had your job I would commit suicide”.
The keeper must always be looking for trouble, and, in fact, unceasing watch is kept by day and in some cases by night.
In due course the birds are moved to the woods where they can take their first flight to the trees, but the hens are still kept with them. There is no better warning of trouble than the noise from the old hen. It is wonderful to watch the birds run to the undergrowth, and the keeper is waiting around with his gun for the intruder. By this time the birds all come to meet the whistling keeper at feeding time and there is no lovelier sight in October than when the birds are getting their full plumage of beautiful colourings.
The shooting starts in October. The Boss (Lord Hollenden) and the keeper have one ambition in common – a big bag, but so often, unfortunately, nature and vermin have had the first pick up. Still the keeper’s always optimistic and hopes hard work will be rewarded with a good day’s sport and a good season overall. His worries are never over until the shooting is at an end, the pheasants are hanging in the game larder, and he is counting them.
Parish Magazine Article: May/June 2003