Where gamebird health is concerned, good communication between shoots, keepers, gamefarmers and shoot owners is vital. Often each shoot is considered in isolation, but the veterinary profession is well-placed to see that disease tends to spread across whole areas. To try to solve these issues requires some joined-up thinking. There is little point in one shoot doing all the right things if the neighbouring shoot is not taking responsible action.

Our West Country practice, St David?s Game Bird Services, has recently been attending a series of meetings where a gamefarmer or shoot owner has invited local keepers over for an evening meal. Such gatherings work well as people feel relaxed enough to talk about their problems with gamebird disease in a way they might not at a big formal meeting.

Though there are treatments and vaccines available for controlling gamebird diseases, addressing the management factors that are responsible for outbreaks in the first instance is more important. Vaccines will only work if all other elements are in place. I often give shoots a 10-point plan and am only confident that the vaccine will work if the plan is fully carried out. We were recently asked to attend a meeting near Newbury, in Berkshire, relating to mycoplasma, or swollen head disease, in red-legged partridges and pheasants. For the past two years, an extensive investigation has been carried out to consider all the factors responsible for the disease outbreaks. It was interesting that stocking density was not an issue in itself but the numbers of feeders and drinkers, and their placement, turned out to be critical. The presence of other diseases was also an important consideration. In the Hungerford and Newbury areas there were several cases where birds affected by swollen head disease already had high worm infestation, particularly capillaria.

Gathering up last year?s stock for breeding birds was also noted as a possible contributing factor as the disease can travel from parent stock to chick. Sourcing all birds from a single respected breeder was critical in trying to manage the problem. Many shoots buy from several sources and, I believe, this is bad practice. Mixing stock from several different gamefarms will often create problems,and if you are in a mycoplasma affected area you are more likely to suffer an outbreak.

I often find that at the more informal events keepers make a comment about how they are managing their shoot and thereby unwittingly reveal why a disease problem exists. In another recent meeting in the Chalk Valley, kindly hosted by Mathew Pickford at his shoot lodge at Stoke Farm in Wiltshire, it turned out that many keepers had had problems with a pneumovirus, in this case avian rhino tracheitis (ART).

One of the keepers asked about using chicken muck to fertilize covercrops and suddenly we understood more about why the outbreaks had occurred. ART can be spread to game through broiler muck. Many other possible contributing factors were discussed at the meeting and there was a positive feeling that some of the causes would be acted upon in the forthcoming season.

I would encourage other shoots to follow this practice and organise similar meetings with a local vet present, as the outcomes can clearly be invaluable.