Pheasants rule roost at Craigmore Station

Pheasants can be a traffic hazard for farm vehicles in late summer at Craigmore Station in South Canterbury. With about 4500 pheasants as well as smaller numbers of red leg partridge released in January and February for a commercial game shooting operation, they are everywhere in the lower country, says farm manager David Bielski.

Read further below, or the original article, written by Heather Chalmers, here.

David Bielski is responsible for the more traditional sheep, beef and deer farming operations at Craigmore.

Owned by Forbes and Bridget Elworthy, the 1300ha-effective Craigmore Station at Maungati, west of Timaru, is run in conjunction with Grange Hill Run (800ha) in the nearby Hunter Hills.

The combined stocking rate is 21,000 stock units, with sheep accounting for 11,000su and the balance split evenly between cattle and deer.

The farm has a comprehensive policy on pest management, including the control of cats, ferrets, wallabies, stoats and hedgehogs. As the pheasants live in the lower swamp and grasslands areas of the station, pest control was initially aimed at protecting these vulnerable birds from predators using trapping, shooting and poisoning.

About 4500 pheasants are released each summer for a commercial game shooting operation at Craigmore Station.

Most visitors to Craigmore for the game shooting season from April to August are from Canterbury and the South Island. “A lot are people from England that live here now and are familiar with the pheasant shooting culture.”

Up-side-down fences, with fewer wires at the bottom are used so pheasants can hop through.

Bielski, who has been manager for three years, extended pest control to the bush areas under covenant, as these were acting as breeding grounds for pests.

The pest tally is impressive, with 144 cats shot already this season by game keeper John Brownley. “We hardly see any feral cats, but it’s surprising how many are there.”

“We tend not to keep pet cats on the station because of the trapping. When I’m employing new staff, I talk to them about the risks to pet cats. I have a pet cat and it has lost one of its paws.

“We aim to shoot 2000 wallabies a year at Grange Hill. The Hunter Hills are wallaby country.”

Most visitors to Craigmore for the game shooting season have previous experience in England.

Craigmore’s work was recognised when it won the Canterbury Ballance Farm Environment Awards’ predator-free farm award. It has about 50ha of exotic trees and 51ha of natives.

“We are trying to keep planting more of both, particularly in sensitive areas like wetlands or around rocks and cliffs. The limestone country forms big potholes and where we can we will fence these off and plant natives.” Craigmore also has a range of QEII covenants, which range in size and are of natural and cultural value, including historic Maori rock art.

Combined, Craigmore and Grange Hill have 7400 ewes and 1900 hoggets, with romney breeding moving to a texel-romney. Cattle numbers are made up of 500 angus cows and first calving heifers, plus replacements and finishing stock. The deer herd is made up of 1270 red hinds and 1110 rising one-year weaners. The 100 stags includes 65 velveting stags and 35 sire animals.

All deer are finished along with as many lambs as possible, depending on the season. Rising one-year steers are sold to the Five Star Beef feedlot in Mid Canterbury in spring, with dry heifers finished for Silver Fern Farms.

At Craigmore, the scrub country is used as cover for lambing and fawning. After tailing, the ewes and lambs then move to more intensive country with good pastures where they go onto grazing rotations.

“So the covers on the scrub country can go rank and this is good for cattle feed and hinds and fawns.

“I am trying to farm to the environment, without pushing the boundaries too much. For this to happen the stocking ratios need to be right. If you have too many sheep they eat the pasture down too short and if it goes dry I have nothing left to eat over summer.

“I don’t follow the markets, or increase numbers of a particular stock type when it is paying well. I farm more towards the environment. Being diverse is very important and making the most out of every enterprise.

Craigmore Station manager David Bielski. Behind him is Moa Valley, where the limestone outcrops feature historic Maori ...

“The aim here is to grow as much grass in spring as possible. In Southland, where I was before, people worried more about pasture quality. Being a good pasture manager isn’t as important here, as you want the rank feed as that is what gets you through the dry spells.”

Having a more diverse operation also extends to the permanent pasture mixes. Rather than the standard ryegrass-white clover, Bielski uses six different grass species (ryegrass, prairie grass, brome, cocksfoot, timothy and tall fescue) and four different legumes (lucerne and red, white and strawberry clovers) as well as the herb plantain.

“The root system is so deep it breaks the pan after cropping, improving the structure of the soil.

“I sow a very light rate of grass and a heavy rate of clovers with the understanding that the grasses will build up over time, particularly the brome and cocksfoot.”

“My aim is to reduce fertiliser by 20 per cent by having pastures that have bigger root systems that are able to access nutrients deeper in the soil profile.”

He is also trying to breed hardier sheep. “For the last two years we haven’t used drench capsules, or put the flock through a footrot bath.”

At Grange Hill, which is more tussock country, Bielski plans development to increase the stocking rate, while being mindful of the environment.

“At Grange Hill, the limitation is the size of the paddocks, the contour and the lack of finishing country. We want to develop another 120ha of hill country, mainly for sheep, through spraying, fertiliser and new pastures.

“The farm policy is that in any future hill country development, all creeks will be fenced off and paddocks will have gravity-fed troughs.

“The remainder of the development will be subdivision into 10 to 20ha blocks with a single wire fence for cattle, retaining the native vegetation. Native bush and all main creeks will be fenced off. The only way we can do that is by a single wire, as a conventional fence is too expensive.

“Then we will use a type of techno-system in the hill block, rotating mobs of cattle.

“This way we can increase stocking rates in the higher country, without using high-analysis fertiliser and spray. It is important to have a balanced farm with a mix of intensive and extensive country.”

Craigmore Station manager David Bielski says he is trying to farm to the environment.

Fourteen people are employed in addition to Bielski, including a stock manager, shepherd, two cadets and tractor driver as well as a game keeper and under keeper for the game preserve.

Craigmore runs a cadet programme which encourages young people to progress through the industry. “They stay for two years and work through their Primary ITO study.

“It’s a shepherd’s role, but we provide them with half a day a week for them to do their theory work. Another half a day in their first year is spent at discussion groups, or with a seed representative visiting the farm, or a farm walk with me.”

“We are also planning to get a dog trainer to come in about once a month to help the young shepherds train their dogs. Then they can build up their dog team.

“We are just trying to play our part in getting people into the industry.”

A low lying wet area was dammed into a pond, with riparian planting of natives.

When Bielski is not farming, he and his wife Miriam like to run, and not small distances either. “We like trail running, which ranges from a half marathon to ultra marathon. We have one in Wellington next month. Miriam is running 60km and I’m running the marathon.

“I enjoy the outdoors, hunting, tramping and kids’ sports.”

Bielski says he even likes running the hills around Craigmore. “It’s a good way to check pasture covers. You see a lot more than driving around.”

About 4500 pheasants are released each summer for a commercial game shooting operation at Craigmore Station.