This afternoon I joined Mark, Head Gamekeeper for an inspection of his pheasant rearing sheds. Mark is presently wet nursing 7,000 newly hatched chicks. And it's a full time job. This is a critical stage, when the chicks are particularly vulnerable to disease or less than perfect management. The whole batch could be lost within hours. A vet is permanently on call and Mark patrols the specially built enclosures every 4 hours, 24 hours a day.
Stepping into the dimly lit shed, I was immediately struck by the warmth and the continuous sound of a myriad of tiny cheeps. Large, electric heaters dangle on long wires from the ceiling. The air temperature is critical. Too cold, and the chicks will clump together and suffocate each other; too hot sand they will dessicate. Mark listens to make sure the young pheasants are cheeping at just the right frequency. He picks up a tiny chick dropping and thoughtfully crumbles it between finger and thumb.
Wading through a sea of fleeing, tiny birds, I crouch low to photograph Mark in action. It's impossible to use flash, so I'm grateful for a camera that can handle ridiculously low light.
In past years, Mark bred from the previous year's pheasants, but he found that the quality of the birds declined with each generation. Now they are lorried in from specialist breeders, so he can choose the exact genetic strain he needs for the best shoot. Within a month the chicks will have grown sufficiently to be penned outside. Within seven weeks, they will be in the release pens, ready to be acclimatised to open country and the beginning of a new shooting season.