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Game Vet Blog

August 2017: Big Changes in the Game Season, Though There is Light at the End of the Tunnel! 

Dr Kenny Nutting BVet Med MRCVS

A lot has happened since our last article, so I thought I would summarise what we are finding out in the fields and how our aims at reducing antibiotics are going.

Since mid-July, the weather has taken a turn for the worst, as it often does in the UK. I have to say, I have not seen as much rain in the last two months as I have since the summer of 2012- when a boat was a better form of transport around the game farms than my 4×4! It has not been an ideal summer to aim for our 25% reduction in both feed and water antibiotics. However, early information both from vets and feed mills suggest that we may be on target, which is encouraging to hear. 

Visiting approximately 20-25 game farms and shoots a week I get to see the good, the bad and the ugly. It is clear that there are many shoots that, despite the poor climatic conditions, have not noticed any negative effects on their birds without antibiotics in feed. However, several changes and supplements have been used to cope with the removal. I have had daily chats with, and quite rightly so, worried gamekeepers convinced that their birds will die uncontrollably through release. Luckily, in the majority of cases, this has been proved wrong. Either the birds were supported well via gut health products in feed or in water, or in water medication was used early on. Of course, with the removal of any medication, it has highlighted the cracks in both the rear and release pens on some sites and the mortality has been far higher than we would aim for.

Noticeably, the game farms with the highest number of different age groups have struggled to contain diseases such as Hexamita the most. Game farms with up to 4/5 batches have coped much better. Discussing this with the game farms, it seems often that the shoots are demanding certain dates to fit in with events such as game fairs, harvests or festivals on their land and dare I say, because the release pens have not been put up yet!

As discussions have progressed it seems many game farms are deciding to have more birds in an age group and less age groups on the farm. I think this is a wise decision from a disease perspective and a husbandry approach. Fewer age groups mean less disease, less challenges for the birds, less antibiotics used and stronger healthier birds for release. I wonder if it is better to have a stronger healthier bird earlier (or later) or a slightly weaker and smaller bird on time. Maybe a little more understanding from both sides of the fence could help solve this one?

As with all products and services, traceability is more or less a common demand and understanding when exchanging money. People wish to know where their item has come from, been produced and using what components, especially true for food producing animals. It is therefore unsurprising, especially given the increased demand on antibiotic reduction, that for the first time I have had shoots requesting a full clinical history with their birds from game farms. If you spent £40,000 on a car would you not want a full service history, repair history and MOT? Would you not pay more if some level of guarantee came with the car?

I work closely with a very good game farm in the Oxfordshire area. The main manager and part owner has an incredible attention to detail. We have a specific rearing protocol for all birds on site. When the birds are then delivered to their customers they are provided, if asked, with a verbal or written guidance on what the birds have had and what they should be continued on in the release pen for the first few weeks to reduce the stress of transfer. 

Over half the batches of birds have had no cocci or antimicrobial medications and have reared well on a combination of Ultimate Acid, Coccilin, probiotics and high quality feed with minimal feed changes. This programme has been recommended to their clients, which have removed in feed antibiotics and these have not suffered with diseases, other than “the gapes”.

If ever their clients get an issue, they send me out on site to visit the client. I make a fair judgement whether it is the game farm’s or the shoot’s issue and then I advise and treat appropriately, the service is quick and effective. This transparency and attention has meant we have not seen a case of Hexamita on site for 3 years, even in a year such as this. The system has been invested in well, with nipple bars and a mixture of barns and traditional wooden buildings, and it has taught me that game rearing with reduced antibiotics can be achieved with the correct guidance, dedication and as always, investment. 

There is without a doubt light at the end of what seems at the moment a very long tunnel, and I look forward to the period of change upon us and how we can all work better together to keep this industry expanding as it is!

March 2017: Is Bird Flu the Biggest Disease Threat? 

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

As a game bird practice we are experiencing a high volume of calls relating to all possible scenarios as to ‘what will happen if.’  The answers are always negative and there are few solutions to limiting the wild pheasant and partridge population from seeding infection from migratory birds.

There is much mileage in considering factors such as biosecurity controls. For example, reducing spilt feed, limiting movement of birds, assessing the risk of ponds etc.

However, the common diseases that we can control such as worm infestation, hexamita and mycoplasma are rarely covered in such detail. Actually, the wild bird population will move home in the next few weeks and the Bird Flu risk will diminish until next winter but the likelihood of having a preventable and costly disease that we can control is taking second place.

The proactive shoots and game farms are already planning a strategy for prevention and this is beside the backdrop of a Government scheme to reduce antibiotic usage in the food producing industry. The Government has advocated a level of less than 50 mg of medicine for 1 kg of meat produced. Many practices are now measuring usage and we are assessing how this can be reduced to comply.

There are many success stories, and with a detailed plan and some proactive advice (and some luck) we have achieved a number of large shoots to get to a point of using no medication. The results with respect to the birds flying ability was marked and a very exciting outcome for the project.

The lessons learnt have been very informative as well, with some associations made very clear. One that I was interested in was that stocking density in a pen does not always have a direct association with disease as management factors became more important. With good management the birds in a pen can be made disease free by reducing stress.

Careful attention to detail from the supply of day olds through to the final product will have a great influence on your shoot day and there are a number of things we can change as we have control.

Over the next few months I will discuss specific aspects of what you can do to help improve the performance of your shoot through attention to detail. The next article will focus on choosing your chicks for optimum performance.

Sept 2016: Review of the Rearing Season from the Vets

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

The most significant aspect of the rearing season for us was the apparent increase in numbers of birds reared for supply to the shoots. All areas of the system have been increased from laying hens, to hatching and to poults supplied to shoots.

This has placed demands on operatives and cash flow and while some businesses can apply themselves well to expansion, others have not fared so well. Simply increasing stocking densities in rearing sheds or into release pens we know does not work but requires more space, equipment and infrastructure, as well as cash.

The increased demand for chicks and a limited supply meant that chick quality was about average and we experienced some high mortalities in the early days of life. The knock on from this is that the birds that remain tend to be stronger and better for the shoot but leaves the game farmer somewhat out of pocket!

The other issue that became more evident was that some shoots ask for specific breeds and sometimes this can be difficult with a poor hatch or increased demand. As a result, we are starting to see some shoots with breeds that were not requested.    

From a disease point of view, we have seen a reasonable weather pattern with some great rearing programmes. There were the usual issues with parasites and we seem to be able to deal with worming issues better as we understand the management techniques required to control this problem in release pens that have been used for many years.

The swollen head issues reported from last year increased again this year as the disease is transmitted vertically. This means that the problem is passed from hen to chick via the egg so it is essential that we test the hens and start to control the disease at this level. As vets, we meet to discuss the season each year and start to put together a programme to try to control this dreadful problem. We also discuss issues such as this with all other game bird veterinary practices and research institutes to gain as much knowledge as possible.  

The Spanish partridge trade appears to be becoming stronger as we see more birds arriving this year. Our decision to leave Europe and the subsequent currency changes may well impact on this trade next year as the birds will increase in price if the pound is weak. The converse, I guess, is that shooting is more affordable for those guns visiting the UK to enjoy our sport.

As I write, partridge shooting has just started, our work is almost finished and we start to work with those game farmers who are holding hens and cocks for next year’s chicks.

Have a great season, from all at St David’s Game Bird Services.  

June 2016: 2016 is turning out to be a rather busy season!

Dr Kenny Nutting BVet Med MRCVS

Along with the political disruption affecting England, there seems to be variance in extreme weather where five inches of rain in an hour has become common place in recent weeks. As expected, this has created a lot of issues with birds on rearing fields and some of the early birds just going to wood. The warm and wet temperatures have been especially ideal for bacteria and worms. I have been seeing gape worms on rearing fields, in places that have never experienced these problems. With this in mind, proactive routine visits have come into their own this year with us constantly monitoring every age range of birds and reassessing our approaches to keep the birds as healthy as possible, given the weather. Interestingly, a recent site that had a heavy delude of rain and flooding of 60% of the sheds, have actually had relatively few issues post flooding, as their gut health was extremely good before the flooding. It just goes to show good gut health is a major player in keeping birds alive even in extreme climatic conditions.

Hoping to get the shorts out next week, fingers crossed that things will start to improve.

May 2016: Strong signs for a sustainable future in the game industry. 

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS 

The rearing game season has set off at quite a pace with many rearers having increased capacity and many poults now at bitting stage ready to move onto grass runs in preparation for transfer to release pens in early June. The threats of bird flu and transportation issues seem to have taken something of a back seat and chicks are arriving thick and fast.

Partridges did not get off to such a good start with the cold conditions and some quite high early die offs. This has been seen across the board and often takes out the weaker chicks leaving the remainder which thrive.

We have been providing a lot of release pen advice over the winter and there seems increased enthusiasm for new drives and enlarged pens to increase numbers and improve bird hygiene conditions. We have also taken on a number of new shoots on ground never shot before and I am told there are several more to come but to keep it secret!

I am also noticing new entrants to the business with many young lads interested in the sport and the engagement of the year’s cycle from laying pens, to incubation, rearing, release and the culmination in a day’s shooting. There is a lot of work taking place every day of the year and as a Practice, we used to cover a six to eight week period and now much of our job is continued throughout the year, albeit a few months in the shooting season. Time we seem able to fill as well!

It is great to see so many youngsters getting involved and also that many are now female and it gives me great hopes for the sustainability of labour for the future. Several years ago, the job was apparently unwanted and now there is greater enthusiasm for getting involved at all stages of the annual cycle. As the business grows there is also an increased use of technology.

Many rearing businesses are now using sensors which can indicate temperature and humidity in the sheds as well as setting alarms to go off if the birds’ heater goes out or water flow alters significantly. This does not replace the old fashioned practices of checking birds regularly but does act as an aid to the management of these birds.

The weather now in May is warm and dry with some occasional showers is near perfect as it allows the cover crops to germinate as well as allowing the first chicks access to the outdoors and the lush grass.

We soon will be transferring to the release pens on the Devon shoots and I shall update at that time.         

January 2016: Bird Flu and thoughts for 2016. 

As you are aware there have been several cases of AI reported and confirmed in France that has caused some concern as to the availability of Game bird chicks in the forthcoming season.

Last reports confirmed a total of 61 cases based in the South West of France, including the Dordogne and Landes Regions mainly. Thankfully these are a long way from the areas where the Game bird parents are kept for breeding purposes.

The outbreaks have also been reported mainly in ducks used for fois gras production. Interestingly the areas have in the past shown positive to low pathogenic strains through the European Poultry survey which several of you may be familiar with having been contacted by DEFRA to take bloods for analysis. It appears that these strains have then become high pathogenic strains as they have mutated and then spread through the duck populations.

The bird flu restricted area is quite large and there would be no export of eggs or animals from these regions while culling, cleaning and disinfection takes place. We are confident that with increased bio security and the control measures in place that it would be unlikely that this will affect trade of day old birds or eggs to the UK due to differing geography.

The ban by Brittany Ferries to transport day olds from France is also a forthcoming challenge to the French and Game Industry in the UK.

The shooting season is in general going very well despite the mild and wet weather and with unprecedented low levels of disease, I find my vets out and about picking up and enjoying their shooting!

The forecast is that 2016 is strong for bookings for days shooting and we are busy talking to shoot owners about expansion, the creation of new drives and ways of differing the shooting experience for guns. 

We rely very heavily on the French for our genetics and for supply of our raw material. They are very good at what they do and concentrate on the detail required while we are best at running shoot days.

That said we are detecting a movement within the customer base as many shoots who traditionally caught up birds for breeding are now focussing on improving the shooting for next year and deciding to buy poults from Game Farmers. In the meantime, those in the UK focussed on breeding hens and cocks are increasing flock sizes as the French supply appears challenged by transport and bird flu issues. However any expansion is a mere blip compared to what we buy from France!

Best of luck for the rest of the season which appears to pass more quickly each year!

December 2015: Bird Flu… Another reason to support British Game Farmers.

Dr Kenny Nutting BVet Med MRCVS

Pheasant in the snow

By now, any regular readers will be aware that we at St David’s are passionate about supporting British game farms and reducing our reliance on imports. 

There is currently an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the French Dordogne region which is considered to be the centre of foie gras production. There are currently three sites under movement restrictions with Protection and Surveillance zones set up around each of them. The first Farm infected was found to have highly pathogenic H5N1. The two recent farms approximately 50km and 90km away from the original farm have both been found to have highly pathogenic H5N2 which is a slightly different strain. Further testing and investigation is currently underway.

If it is found these cases are linked, it highlights how quickly this disease can spread. The region where the farms are located are still approximately 300km+ away from the main region of French pheasant farms. However if an outbreak like this was to occur during the imports of chicks, eggs or poults it would severely affect the supply of birds for the UK shooting industry.

From my perspective as a vet, this is a very real threat and something we as a team are working hard to help our clients prepare for, when it occurs over here. Speak to your vet about how you can best prepare both financially and physically on site against Bird flu. This is a chat you should be having when creating your annual health plans. These health plans are vital to justify the use of medication with an aim of reducing the reliance on antibiotics.  

Hope all is going well with your birds and they’re flying high. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many fly extremely well this year and look forward to many more days supporting this great industry this season.

October 2015: Do Chicks Need to Fly?

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

GOP- St David's article

Recent press releases from the League Against Cruel Sports has highlighted the transport of game from the EU to the UK which has resulted in the ban on transport of live birds by Brittany Ferries. This will include both day old pheasant and partridge chicks and also the increasing number of partridge poults from Spain but not racing pigeons or hatching eggs. It will include any other poultry including chicken and turkey genetic strains.

One of the LACS concerns relates to transport of chicks into the UK and how they are transported. There are very strict Government welfare guidelines in place to safeguard the chicks’ health and conditions in transit and the lorries are specially adapted to facilitate this. There is continual temperature and airflow monitoring along with records of these parameters kept for reference. It’s a bit like a five star hotel with the biggest issue often being released into a rearing hut in the wet and windy British climate!

Although this might seem an easy win for UK game breeders, it has the potential to place a large gap in supply chains as we have a reliance on French imported day olds. I have been worried for some time that difficulties may exist in the future in this area, either through a difficulty with transport or the larger issues of disease control.

The recent outbreak of bird flu in the States, and to a lesser extent our outbreak in Lancashire, did impact on supply to the UK. The closing of areas of French chick supply due to an outbreak of bird flu would have long and sustained issues with respect to rearing and release of gamebirds into the UK market.

There would be no way that the UK could supply day old numbers into the rearing market in 2016 to fulfil the demand where we not to find a way to obtain day olds from France. However there are encouraging signs in our Practice that Game Farmers are looking to expand productivity and feel happy to invest into systems. We are increasingly involved with advice relating to the management and care of laying flocks and within hatcheries and with selection of breeds as each customer is looking to have unique genetic strains.

We have much to learn from the French who have been perfecting laying hen management and performance for many years and produce a high quality chick.  

With recent events the salient point, in my mind, we should start to consider buying local day olds form English sourced stock and help invest into UK game farms to supply birds for what we have- the best Game sport in the world.            

September 2015: Grouse Numbers…. A Changing Period?

Helen Errington BVMS Cert SHP MRCVS and Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

The ‘Glorious Twelfth’ was unfortunately a disappointing day for many upland gamekeepers and moor owners this year. Bag numbers were lower than they have been for years and the ratio of old to young grouse shot was higher than desirable. Consequently, many moors have now cancelled any further shooting days.

It is easy to blame the very poor spring weather and indeed up here in the Pennines, we had baby chicks hatching into snow cover. Keepers have been reporting a higher than normal percentage of infertile eggs and fading broods.

At the practice, we have had a number of shot grouse into post-mortem and we can report that there are still high levels of the Strongyle worm, Coccidiosis, Bulgy Eye and Tapeworm infestation. Tapeworms were always thought to be non-pathogenic in grouse but the sheer weight of infection seen in some grouse and the changes in the gut could suggest otherwise.

The data we collect from shot grouse, although interesting, is unlikely to be the whole story of why so many chicks were lost in this year’s breeding season. It is important that we investigate why we are losing these young birds and the way to do this is to try and diagnose the causative diseases and factors in the spring when the birds are dying. This depends on good collaboration between the grouse managers and their responsible veterinary surgeons.

Let’s hope that next season will bring some flourishing broods!

Meanwhile, in the slightly warmer but equally as wet England, a slightly more positive rearing period for both pheasant and partridge was seen. We have seen some of the best birds being released in years!

We also suffered with higher than normal chick quality issues, though these were not caused by the same factors as the grouse. The bulk of rearing was generally hassle free with coccidiosis a lot lower than last year. The rain came just at the moment when we had many of our clients releasing tens of thousands of birds. At one point we wondered if it would make financial sense to go into an Ark building business!! Thankfully, things are slowing down and it is now at the point where we can take stock of the season, evaluate the innovative trials we have been doing throughout the rearing season and find new ways to combat issues for next year!

Helen Errington BVMS Cert SHP MRCVS and Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

August 2015: Perfect Partridges and Another Outbreak of Bird Flu

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

At the Practice most of the pheasants have left the rearing fields and are now starting to leave the release pens. Many are beginning the transition from pellet and moving onto wheat. The rearing has been relatively straight forward again this year although chick quality was very average. Early birds were nice and even and reared well as did the late birds but the chicks in the middle period were less good.

Release has also been straight forward and although there was some challenging weather in early July most birds were old enough to cope.

On the other hand the partridges have been startling!

Early cold weather led to tight brooding and small mortalities to the first week. On many game farms were we carry out weekly checks we have been surprised how healthy they have remained. Many partridges require medication for coccidiosis at around four weeks and we have seen several farms still have not used any!

In many cases the Game Farms have been using non medicated agents to help create optimal gut health but good quality chicks, cold weather late April and early May and improved husbandry have led to a bumper year for the health of these birds.

Our major cause of mortality at the moment is from birds dying as they hit sections at the end of pens as they try to fly out! So tomorrow starts the transfer to release pens and next week we will see many released and free to fly in the wild.

I have never seen such strong partridges both in rear and in release and would suggest that this year should be a bumper year for both flying ability and bird strength.

In the meantime the highly pathogenic bird flu outbreak in Lancashire appears to be thankfully contained and the birds have been destroyed and the site cleaned and disinfected. Vets have visited the in contact farms and it looks so far to be well under control.

Meanwhile the bird flu outbreak in the US still seems to be moving although the hot summer weather will slow the virus. The toll is close to 50 Million birds affected in the most dense egg and turkey producing States. The US Agriculture department feels the disease will be under control by September.

The virus now appears to be heading into Mexico and calls are being made to step up bio-security in the coming weeks.

We are thankful our outbreak has been controlled and looking forward to the end of the release period.

May 2015: Bird Flu Outbreak Starts to Make Us Think Again?

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

For many years, I have been campaigning for game rearers in the UK to buy high quality chicks from our own stock. We have relied heavily on French imports and we have hypothesised the effect of bird flu on supply chains, were there to be an outbreak in the French valleys. Thankfully, up until now, this has never been an issue but now we may well approach a shortage and it is not the French who have the bird flu virus but the US.

The H5N2 strain is mainly in Iowa and Minnesota States and has claimed the lives of many million birds to date. USDA confirmed that there are now more than 101 outbreaks affecting more than 15.7 million birds; mainly chickens and turkeys. All of the outbreaks are in the area of the Mississippi flyway for migrating birds. There is little information on how the virus is transmitting but some farms are heavily affected in the route and then many are not.

The virus is identified as the dangerous high pathogenic strain causing large drops in egg production and high mortality in broiler chicken and turkeys. Iowa Agriculture Secretary, Mr Northey said that he believes they are somewhere north of 15 million laying hens affected so far; that’s about one quarter of Iowa States chicken population and 6% of the laying industry in the entire US! 

The significance of this to us in the game industry is that the import of chicks and eggs from the US to the UK has been stopped, and we have game farms with no stock of the popular fast flying Kansas and Manchurian birds for rearing for this season. No game farms are currently affected in the US but the birds may be in an infected zone or in the incubation period (the time between getting the infection and showing the signs). We are all hoping that this restriction is lifted soon and the outbreak contained.

In this situation, we immediately turn to the French for supply but they are suffering a bad year with lower production than anticipated, as well as greater demand from the UK due to an increased appetite to shoot more in the coming season. The French supplier blame bad weather conditions and production is behind target.

In the UK, we are also experiencing poorer production as hens are late into lay but we also have few laying flocks compared to the number of chicks reared here. In most cases, we now rely on outside production for a sport developed and nurtured in the UK. The reason for this can be just a few pence difference in the price of a chick balanced against the risk that we now find ourselves in with limited supply and unknown disease status.

There is no doubt that the French and the US have very good breeding farms and do the job very well, at a reduced cost compared to the UK but a small investment in a UK game farmer and support may help us to start to build a better, more sustainable and more controlled supply route to shoots.

So with that, I am off to vote and it might be after the election that I join the Game Keeping branch of UKIP!  

February 2015: How The Portuguese Do It and How Should We Do It?

Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

How the Portuguese do it… How we should do it?

Over the summer, our Practice played host to João, a vet student from Portugal whose family own one of the most prestigious and largest game rearing farms in Portugal. Following João’s time with the Practice, I was lucky enough to be invited to see how the Portuguese run a game farm.

The family business is run by João’s father who has been trialling and selecting his parent stock for over 20 years, and he still has the same strains of genetics now as he did back then! They rear on an average year, 100,000 ducks, 200,000 partridges and 200,000 pheasants.

The Setup

The mallard ducks are reared on large 2-3 foot deep manmade lakes around three barns. There are no nets to stop them from flying off, and the only predator control is a perimeter fence. The birds are brooded in three large barns and are then allowed out onto the lakes when they do not require any heat. The birds are fed on pellets until adult size and are supplemented with tomato skins. This is a bi-product of the human food industry and helps to promote plumage colour.

Once the birds are allowed outside, they are fed several times a day but only in the barns. When the ducks are required for a client, the birds are fed and the doors shut on the barn, thus allowing them to be caught for the client. Years of meticulous parental selecting has created an adult mallard that weighs only 600g. This has, in João’s opinion, created a far superior flying bird to its larger traditional mallard relatives.

Selection & Breeding

The pheasants and partridges have gone through an equally stringent selection process including, genetic selection to ascertain the purist of each strain and to eliminate unwanted strains such as he chukka partridge.

Each bird is compared to breed standards looking at feather colouring, size and shape; any that do not meet the standards are removed from the parent stock. Parent stock is then divided into sections, and their eggs and chicks are followed through to adulthood. Traceability is consistent so that when the birds are released, their flying abilities can be monitored to ascertain which birds produce the best flying stock. The same traceability is also kept for diseases purposes so that any stock particularly good or bad against fighting disease can be kept or removed in the breeding stock.

Once the eggs from the completely closed parent stock are hatched, the chicks are moved to their brooding/rearing barns. The brooding is very similar to the English, with the only main difference being the style of barn and feeding/water systems used. They use similar heaters to the Sierra heaters and brood using only nipple lines.

The feeding system is totally automated across the line of barns, similar to those used in the broiler industry. Great effort is taken to maintain the cleanliness of the water lines using Hydrogen peroxide based cleaners. They also acidify the water to promote healthy guts and reduce the chance of secondary bacteria causing issues after a primary stress such as cocci. Since using this, they have drastically reduced their medication bill!

This heavily automated system allows 200,000 birds to be reared with only two members of staff.

What about disease?

Interestingly, the mortality is generally lower than many UK flocks but similar issues with diseases are faced, with coccidiosis being the main culprit. Hexamita is almost unheard of, and worms are few and far between because of the high temperatures (40°C) and constant sun, allowing both to kill any worm eggs that may be lying around. Unfortunately, coccidiosis often survives these arid conditions and reliance on medication in water and feed are still necessary.

High levels of biosecurity, including single members of staff per age group, reduced stocking densities and reduced mixing of age groups are some of the key principals João’s family have tightly enforced to reduce the spread of diseases. Fortunately, the Portuguese have plenty of cheap land available and so separate sites for laying, hatching and rearing have been easy to create.

The Portuguese system may still not be perfect but João’s family have spent many years trying to get perfection and from the level of parental selection and biosecurity that I saw, it seems the English may have a long way to go yet?! 

February 2015: Game Rearing- How We Fared and What The Future Holds.

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

As we see the closing stages of this year’s shooting season come to an end, it is with great pleasure that I can report no veterinary problems have been investigated. This is a first for the Practice and reflects the perfect weather pattern in 2014 for laying and rearing.

Production of eggs was good but not excessive and the chick quality was very pleasing, with an easy rearing year and a good release. I often believe that high hatching percentages can lead to less viable chicks and there appears to be a correlation in our records to this over previous years. There may be, in many cases, a disparity between breeding farms trying to maximise egg numbers and hatching percentages and their customer’s requirement for viability.

That said, last year saw a large number of partridges for sale as the hatching and laying was high and lower numbers of pheasants available on the market. With increased demand for shooting, this led to a shortage of poults at the end of the summer. Many shoots contacted us for extra birds as they were able to sell more days or bigger days and game farms with surplus saw brisk trade.

With high feed prices in recent years, we have also seen a reduction in the practice of game farms rearing more birds than required for orders due to a high hatch rate or the availability of “cheap” chicks appearing. This also contributed to the market often having some excesses.

The prediction for 2015 looks intriguing!

  1. The demand for shooting is strong, with many shoot owners reporting most days have been sold already – although the deposits have not always been paid!
  2. The large laying units are static, with no increase in numbers so supply appears the same.
  3. The weather is unlikely to be so favourable this year and rearing may be more difficult with higher losses.

This would lead one to think that we may find another year of shortages at the back end of the summer and ordering good quality chicks early should be a useful piece of advice!

October 2014: Rearing Season 2014: How Have We Fared?

Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

The rearing season has now finished and I have to say, what a quiet season, in general, it was. The weather has been very kind to game rearers and although this has been welcomed by many, as a vet practice, a sunny summer usually coincides with pay cuts and holiday reductions for the vets! 

Many comments were made this year from shoots that I had recently visited, that the size of the birds were smaller than usual, although perfectly healthy. Of course – this has led to a few raised eyebrows as to the actual age of birds being delivered but I can honestly say that I have to agree, many pheasant poults of 6-7 weeks have often looked like 5-6 week olds. This is especially true with the smaller strains such as the Kansas. Having looked further into this with a few large rearers, it seems that feed consumption has been lower than in previous years, despite having the same number of birds. 

We see this picture with meat birds in hot weather, when their feed consumption goes down. Much like humans on a sunny beach in the Bahamas, animals in general, are unlikely to consume three full meals a day and the same can be said for game birds. Due to the reduction in feed, birds are taking in fewer nutrients required to put on weight and increase bone structure. However, that said, I have now visited many of the estates that were worried about small birds and they seemed to have managed to catch up and are now looking well feathered and almost identical to the odd adult bird who has managed to escape the clutches of the gun line in previous years!

Along with reduced feed consumption, there were also some birds (regionally) that seemed to suffer with the intense heat during July and the early part of August. Looking closer into the set-up of many of these sites, it was apparent that some sites did not have the sufficient number of drinkers necessary for the birds who were near adult size. Under normal climatic conditions, the number of drinkers would be adequate, however under the intense temperatures experienced this year, it clearly wasn’t. Asking the manufacturers, local vet or fellow keepers is always advised when trying to work out if the number of drinkers is adequate for your flock sizes (as adult birds).

The shooting season, so far, has proved bountiful indeed, with many of the guns commenting on how well the birds have flown, whether it be partridge pheasant or grouse. Certainly, talking with keepers across the country, everyone has been pleased with this year’s birds so far. After the first few weeks of being pushed from one cover crop to another, some birds can be prone to a few diseases and as such, now is the prime time to keep a beady eye on the stragglers left at the back of a covey. Often, it is just the odd one or two but if more and more appear, it may be something more sinister and in my experience, waiting to “see what happens” will always end ‘fowl’.

July 2014: The Good vs. the Bad

Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

With the end of the rearing season in the not so distant future many shoots are now concentrating on the release.

Overall the weather has been kind to the majority of the country with high early temperatures from April onwards and continuing through early summer and looking set to continue. The good weather has generally allowed many rearers to use few drugs and produce excellent birds with some of the lowest mortality figures seen in years. 

There has been a few issues with the outstanding high daily temperatures and unusually fluctuating night temperatures it seems apparent that the smaller and often older sheds with little insulation and minimal methods of ventilation seem to suffer the worst. This is in striking difference to the larger more modern sheds being used which have several methods of minimising the difference in day and night temperatures.

The modern larger sheds have insulated walls and roofs that allow them to keep heat in at night and allow cooler air to be trapped in during the day when outside temperatures have been approaching high twenties. The added benefits of these new larger buildings is the ventilation designs, many but not all have roof ventilation systems that can be open or closed depending on what is required. These also have the usual window vents that allow air to be drawn in and hot air taken out via the roof vent. The added benefit of improved ventilation means these houses often have reduced dusty environments which can only be good for the birds and catchers! 

Birds in the more insulated and or ventilated houses seem to thrive that much better when compared to the fellow comrades. 

Will this spell of good fortune continue…?

Laying season went by with few issues seen, now the rearing season has generally been a good one all round. What will the shooting season bring?

Having had many conversations with keepers about the merits and pitfalls of a bad and good rearing season. I had an interesting conversation the other day with a well weathered keeper, as they say, who made the comment that in his experience the better the rearing period the poorer the shooting season. After much thought and deliberation I would tend to agree.

In a poor rearing season the birds who are weakest and have been exposed to more diseases tend to die off leaving the fitter and healthier birds to survive through all the challenges. This then leads to a fit bird when taken to wood. Whereas the opposite could be thought of when a really good rearing season is had where all and sundry survive including peg leg and tiny Tim. These smaller birds are undeveloped for one reason or another, it could be related to the hatching process or again reduced disease burden allowing them to survive. These birds when released are unlikely to ever produce the calibre of flight required and with the added stress of movement will either be the earliest to keel over or be the few birds that become the entry point for disease in the wood. 

I guess only time will tell whether the best shooting season is ahead of us, but until that time it’s something for us all to bear in the back of our minds when we watch the first birds fly over us!

June 2014: Troublesome Teens

Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

With the rearing season now well under way there has been quite a varied weather pattern affecting the birds. Localised flooding of some sites has prevented 4week old pheasants from even entering the night shelters. However Mother Nature has been kind to many with high recent temperatures and reduced rain fall in a lot of areas allowing the birds to finally get out and stretch their wings.

There is now a wide spread of age of birds being reared with the earliest now being released to woods this week and the youngest still being laid! The majority however are in their “teenager” phase with the ruffled feathers around the neck and the colouring up of the young feisty cock birds.

Unfortunately it’s that time of year again with plenty of coccidiosis floating about.  For those of you who have been luckily enough to escape the grasp of cocci, it is a Protozoa of the similar family to hexamita and trichomonas. Cocci are extremely fast at proliferating once they enter a bird and once inside the cocci will attack the intestinal walls and cause severe damage and haemorrhage leading to death or huddling.I often get asked why partridges seem worst affected with cocci when compared against pheasants with the same level? The simple answer is we are not sure. There are several theories including the theory that species affecting partridges are more pathogenic (dangerous) than those found in pheasants. In reality this means that when partridges are affected at the same level as pheasants it will often be the partridge dying at an alarming rate and the pheasants who just start to huddle and look ruffled.


Above: Coccidiosis as it appears under the microscope and to the naked eye. As identified by Kenny Nutting throughout the article. 

Getting on top of the cocci issue on your site is key. This little blighter is one of the main primary organisms that allow numerous other secondary organisms such as bacteria, hexamita and trichomonas to enter and proliferate compounding the current cocci issue. A cocci prevention plan, regular anticoccidial medication and high quality management systems are the three main areas to focus on.

Recent work carried out by Zoetis and our practice on coccidiosis in Red Leg Partridges has helped to identify the main periods when cocci is found at high levels in droppings. The trial found the the majority of high cocci levels were in RLP partridges aged between 6 and 12 weeks old, although there were high levels found in birds before and after this time period the majority were within this time frame. This helps to emphasize the importance of coccidial control during this time of rear. The trial also involved looking at coccidial levels in the soil on the rearing site before and 6 months after the rearing season. The findings revealed there was an obvious increase in cocci levels in the soil 6 months after when compared against what was originally in the soil before.

Interestingly the site which ploughed their rearing field had considerably lower cocci levels in the ground when compared with the ground which was not ploughed. This trial is planned to carry on through this rearing season to help us create a better understanding of coccidiosis and how treatments and prevention methods can be altered to ultimately reduce the cocci burden.

Don’t forget there is also a few other issues to look out for during this period of rear. As with many teenagers who keep untidy dirty rooms the same can be said for the birds at 3-4weeks onwards. There is more body weight per square foot, more food and water consumed leading to increased pressure of waste on the bedding, this mixed along with weeks of the odd leaking drinker or dripping nipple create the perfect environment bacteria viruses and other organism to proliferate. Fresh bedding, antibacterial desiccating powders and moving around of feeders and drinkers will all help to reduce the disease burden on the birds.

May 2014: Sex and Drugs

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

Cocks and hens are busy mating and the favourable weather is helping.

Results from layers are however variable with some flocks doing well and others about average or a bit below average. Egg quality is good but hatching is down. It is interesting that when the laying and hatching are just average, that the chicks appear full of life and energy!

There are now several age groups of chicks on the ground and both partridges and pheasants are doing well. The chicks are as lively as I can remember and are swarming around the food and water sources. It looks like we are off to a good start with steady weather.

We have been starting birds on “chick start” which is specially made with a mixture of energy, amino acids and electrolyte to help the birds get off to a good start. The first few days are critical in a bird’s life and if they achieve good feed and water intakes in this period this will carry through as increased growth rates and bigger birds and stronger birds for flying in the season.

The big issue currently in the game bird veterinary sector is the use of medicines in the rear and release of birds for sporting purposes. The poultry, pig and ruminant sectors have been under increasing pressure from supermarkets to reduce antibiotic inclusion as the use of medicines in our food needs to be reduced. Antibiotic usage is measured in these sectors and management changes are made on farm to reduce the trend and in some cases higher margins are paid for the food produced.

Concerns began as medics expressed their views that some diseases in humans were becoming more difficult to treat as multi resistant strains of bacteria were appearing. Although the veterinary sector was held responsible, the medics were also looking at whether they needed to prescribe antibiotics to all cases of “minor” illnesses in people attending their clinics.

It was decided amongst the game vets, as questions reached Parliament, that we need to at least monitor antibiotic usage in the first instance. A meeting was held at ABN Offices near Oxford and it was thought that medicines dispensed against birds under our care as well as feed inclusion could be assessed.

Once a starting line is established we can try to help facilitate a reduction in the amount used. Clearly weather is a large factor in whether a year is good or bad and in these instances it is difficult to avoid disease challenges, but using medication as a “prop” for poor management will become a thing of the past. Again medicating birds in anticipation of a problem period is also likely to come under increasing scrutiny as medication is only used to treat a clinical problem.

Work at the Practice into non antibiotic solutions continues and where this is accepted by the game farmer or the game keeper as a possibility the benefits are high as not only are costs reduced but also the flying ability is improved.  

Next month we will look at the best methods of reducing diseases faced by your birds in their teenager months.