It can be time consuming, but it's easy to do and the satisfaction will be immense, says Liam Bell
Hatching and rearing your own birds isn’t as hard as you might imagine. It takes time and there will be the inevitable ups and downs, but rearing your own has its advantages: you can save money, you can guarantee the birds will be the age and strain you want, and you will be aware of any rearing-related problems before the poults are released. More importantly, hatching and rearing allows you to keep in touch both with the seasons and with other shoot members. It will also give you a huge sense of satisfaction when the birds you’ve reared cross the Gunline in December.
Less need for guesswork
Incubators, heaters and brooder houses have moved on considerably in the past 10 to 15 years. Admittedly, this has made things more technical, but for amateur keepers it is a huge advantage. There is less need for guesswork and trial and error. Generally, things are easier to control and keep an eye on, and there is less mystery associated with incubation and the rearing process itself.
Producing your own eggs is only worth it if you intend to have eight or nine hatches. If you only want to set eggs once (so that you have a single batch of chicks to look after) it is far easier to buy them in. Decide which strain you want, then look for a gamefarm or shoot that can supply them. If you do it the other way round and find the gamefarm first, you may well end up with a strain of bird that doesn’t suit your ground.
Eggs during the 2014/15 season were trading at 30-45p each, depending on when you wanted them and how many you wanted.
Filling an incubartor to capacity will give the best results
Modern incubators tend to double as hatchers as well. Buying a machine and filling it to capacity will give you the best results. Overloading a small one will reduce the percentage that hatch, and it will be harder to maintain a constant temperature and increase the humidity in a larger one that is only part filled.
Incubators don’t need to be in a special shed or room, but they do need to be somewhere where the temperature is constant. Sheds and garages are okay if they are fairly well insulated. Sunshine on a tin roof will raise the temperature excessively and the incubator will overheat, while a late frost could lower the temperature inside a poorly insulated shed so that the incubator struggles to maintain its temperature.
A brooder house doesn’t necessarily need to be wooden and purpose-built. It can be a shed of any sort as long as it is big enough to house the chicks and, more importantly, the poults when they are six to seven weeks old. It will need a certain amount of natural light and a door or pop-hole arrangement to connect it with an outside run.
A night shelter, sometimes referred to as a sun parlour, isn’t essential if there is someone nearby who can attend to the birds when the weather turns nasty. For amateur keepers who aren’t always close enough to the rearing field to get back to run birds in when it starts raining, they are quite important. They are also good for hardening the birds off when they are three to four weeks old and off heat during the day.
If you don’t want to buy a new heater, they can be picked up and bought second- hand, especially the smaller ones which are better-suited to DIY rearing. The pipes and connections will need checking for leaks, and the filters will benefit from a blow-through with an airline. They can be professionally serviced and most parts are replaceable. The newer models have thermostats, which can save on the cost of gas, but they are more expensive and tend to be a bit big unless you are planning to rear 1,000 at a time.
Feeding and rearing pheasants
It doesn’t matter if the drinkers are automatic or not, as long as there’s plenty of them. Be cautious about putting automatics inside the brooder house unless it is well-drained — for example, on pea gravel — in case the float sticks, causing the shed to flood. Day-old chicks are like blotting paper, and it doesn’t take much for them to become wet and cold.
I prefer to use manual drinkers inside and automatics outside in the shelter pens and runs. Multi-vitamins are relatively cheap and can be added to the water and used when the birds are experiencing some sort of stress.
Feed is fairly easy to sort out. You will probably get a better price if you order direct instead of through a third party, but it will depend on the firm. There is little to choose from as far as quality goes between the feed firms at the top end of the market, and as you will only be using a relatively small amount for the first six or seven weeks, using decent feed can make all the difference. Don’t be tempted to use chicken or turkey food to save money or because it is easier to get hold of. The way the two feeds are compounded are very different, and pheasants have different requirements from poultry.
Again, bedding is cheap and easy to get hold of. What you actually use is up to you. There are lots of different types, most of which are suitable for day-old chicks. If you can get hold of some corrugated cardboard for the first few days it will help. The bedding can be added later, once the birds have started to eat.
Don’t be tempted to use farmyard straw because the birds will try to eat it and it may contain bugs, which will make them ill or kill them. The same goes for sawdust and shavings from a sawmill or a friend’s planer. Shavings used for chick bedding should be of a certain size and dust-free. Using shavings from your local joiner (which will probably contain too many small particles and dust) could result in the birds getting compacted gizzards. This happens when they pick up and try to digest the small pieces of shaving, thinking they are food. The gizzard becomes compacted, they can’t feed and eventually they die. It is far better to spend a little on proper bedding.
It is a rare year when birds on the rearing field don’t face some disease challenge or other, so it is a good idea to get the contact details of a good gamebird vet just in case — having the number handy will save you time if the birds fall ill.
You can ease the disease threat by using runs made with pen sections rather than having permanent ones in place. Sectional runs can be taken down, washed, disinfected and re-erected the following year on fresh ground, something you can’t do with a permanent one. Putting the hut and run on fresh ground will reduce the worm burden and lessen the chances of the birds going down with something left in the ground from the year before.
Auctions and gamefarm sales are the best places to pick up some second-hand sections. You can make them or buy new ones, but there is usually someone upgrading their rearing system who may have a few to get rid of.
A soft net for the run is essential. Birds will damage themselves on a wire roof, and while it may look stronger and last longer, it will prove a false economy.
The final thing you will need is crates. Whether you buy them or not is a matter of choice. Sometimes it is easier to borrow some from a neighbour. They are expensive, and while they will last for years, it is quite a lot of money to spend for what is only going to be one or two days’ use a year.