The British climate has ever been fickle, but the unremitting rain and cold winds that have prevailed since March are extraordinary. April was the wettest for a century, and the coldest since 1989, and though there was a dry, warm spell at the end of May, June was a complete washout, with 5.7in of rain ? double the norm ? in the West Country. The first two weeks of July saw unrelenting waves of rain driven west and north by the jet stream. Even East Anglia, normally quite dry, has had constant rain. Scores of country shows have had to be cancelled causing severe financial losses and disruption, estimated at £240million by the CLA, while in the shooting world, the rearing season for many shoots has been disastrous.
A national shortage of birds
Chris Bird of Beech Tree Game Farm, in Devon, says this is the worst season he can recall. Egg-laying was down, hatchability poor and he believes there will be a huge shortage of birds nationally, probably running into the millions. He has been overwhelmed by requests from shoots for birds. He has not yet had any outbreaks of disease, but poults are constantly wet and he fears the worst.
West Country vet Alan Benyon told me that several shoots have suffered massive losses, including more than 3,000 poults on one shoot and 12,000 birds on one gamefarm. Rearing fields, pens and sheds have been flooded, the birds cannot get dry and disease is breaking out. For Paul Messenger of the Beckland Shoot in North Devon, some 3,000 birds arrived five weeks ago, but hit by rain and cold, coccidiosis broke out and more than 400 have already succumbed.
There is also a desperate shortage of partridges and, with a predicted late harvest, those available will probably not be put out until later than normal. Bigger shoots will survive, but smaller shoots are struggling to cope and those that have lost birds may not be able to replace them, or even afford to be able to do so.
I talked to a number of keepers about the problems they have faced and nearly all have suffered from the appalling weather. Brian Mitchell, headkeeper of Castle Hill shoot in North Devon, told me that his first birds went out on 7 June. The early start meant they grew strong and have survived well but the pens are in a state. The only consolation is that the rain has been so unremitting that pools of water have not had the chance to become sufficiently stagnant to breed disease, but many other shoots have suffered severe losses through coccidiosis and hexamita.
Caleb Sutton, manager for Chargot, West Molland and Molland confirmed that north Devon had suffered particularly badly from the rain. He wasn?t too pessimistic but he had had some losses through birds becoming wet and chilled, and his covercrops are struggling.
In south Shropshire, keeper and Shooting Times contributor Liam Bell told me that while he has heard of no major bird losses in his region, the main problem is logistics. With mud and water everywhere, it has been difficult to get to pens, while trenches have had to be dug in fields to try to drain off running water. Coccidiosis is spreading among birds that are constantly soaking wet and becoming run down and weak. He has also heard that some standard coccidiosis drugs are no longer proving effective. On the Herefordshire/Shropshire border one keeper suffered from 2in of rain in 12 hours, and gamecrops are all in poor shape, though kale is surviving.
Brian Hardcastle, the National Gamekeepers Organisation (NGO) South Wales chairman, and himself a headkeeper near Llanwrtyd Wells, in Powys, said: ?The weather in Wales has been dreadful. We had our summer in March and it seems to have rained ever since. We run a closed flock and the balmy false summer early on brought our hens into lay sooner than usual, but egg quality vanished with the sun, as did the hatching rate. With the muddy conditions, it?s been a nightmare trying to get birds off the rearing field to wood. I hope the nasty protozoan diseases don?t break out, but if things don?t get better it might push back the start of the shooting season.?
David Pooler, headkeeper at Rhug estate and NGO North Wales chairman, confirmed that many people are struggling with waterlogged crops that desperately need sun. He has heard of disease breaking out, and as he borders the river Dee, flooding has been dreadful.
In west Dorset, an area that has been badly affected by flooding, several keepers reported severe damage to release pens as streams turned into rivers, piling up debris against the wire, with wet birds huddled on any high ground. Martin Taylor, headkeeper of the Parnham shoot, had only released a relatively small number of birds in early July and while one small pen was badly flooded, he lost only a handful of poults, though feed bins were swept away. Fortunately, in the light of weather forecasts, his gamefarm had kept back the majority of his birds. Some shoots have held back on receiving birds from their gamefarm suppliers and so will put back their opening day.
Struggling with covercrops
Ian Lindsay, director of advisory and education at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, said millet, sorghum and maize have made little progress due to the cold ground, while kale is being attacked by slugs. Attrition in the eastern counties has tended to be local with one shoot surviving while another has been badly hit. On some heavy ground, such as in Herefordshire, it has been impossible to get machinery on the ground to put in covercrops and the only hope, for many shoots, will be to sow late ?rescue? crops such as Utopia and winter-hardy mustard.
All is by no means lost. Some days of sunshine will transform the situation and hopefully see a marked improvement in released birds. Some shoots have, of course, held back on receiving birds from their suppliers and, as a result, it is likely that many shoots will put back their opening day.
It should be remembered, however, that though this summer has, so far, been appalling, spirits will rise with the first decent weather? and that must surely come soon!