Water may be relatively cheap, but it can cost you dearly if you fail to get it right with pheasants.

It’s that time of year again. The release pens are looking immaculate, drinkers are sparkling clean and feeders brimming. The rides have been swiped and the electric fences checked and re-checked. This season’s poults will soon be delivered.

With seven week-old pheasants nudging £4-a-piece, stock losses need to be minimised and every step has to be taken to ensure your newly arrived youngsters mature into strong high flyers. Practical hints and tips, including some exciting new research into alternatives for traditional medications, were recently presented to a meeting of around 100 Sussex gamekeepers and shoot managers by specialist gamebird vets Dr Mark Elliott and Dr Kenny Nutting.

Water supply in pheasant pens

Water can be costly

Mark dealt with water; one of the cheapest “ingredients” in the release pen, but one that can cost dearly if you fail to get it right. Like all animals, pheasants need fresh, clean water every day. Without a safe place to drink, an otherwise perfect habitat will hold far fewer birds.

Now most keepers know that pheasants don’t like drinking warm water, but Mark was a little more forthright: “Water is the ‘essential nutrient’ we tend to forget about. Growing birds consume twice as much water as food. Pheasants would rather die than drink water a degree or two above their body temperature,” he said.

At the other end of the temperature scale, gamebirds are less fussy and will drink water near freezing point, but get your supply too warm and you are in trouble. He also pointed out that some keepers exacerbate this problem by using black plastic IBC tanks as headers for the pen supply.

Water supply in pheasant pens

Painting head tanks white can keep your water cool on hot days

Paint header tanks white to keep water cool

Black is often chosen in the belief that stopping light entering the tank will reduce growth of green algae. However, on a sunny day the black surface absorbs heat and your water can warm up rapidly. His advice: “Paint black header tanks white to reflect sunlight and keep your water cooler.” He knows of one keeper who freezes huge five-litre blocks of ice and drops these into his header tank on hot days – with good results. “Birds will not eat without access to water and they will not drink without access to food. If there is not enough water in the pen, their growth will slow and they will be more susceptible to disease.”

Mark is a great believer in “hat” covers on bell drinkers to prevent the water being fouled and in keeping drinking lines clean. A problem he sometimes sees when visiting shoots is failure to completely flush cleaning chemicals out of the lines. Pheasants have a strong sense of taste and will ignore a tainted drinker and not go back to it.

They also prefer an acidic water supply, a problem for shoots using borehole water because this tends to be alkaline. Overall he says that too many drinkers are better than too few; birds should not be jostling or queuing for a drink. Sometimes just putting out a few more drinkers can make a world of difference to poult survival rates.

Mark’s final tip was a reminder to avoid another killer of gamebirds – aspergillosis. This fungal infection of the respiratory tract is caused by the aspergillus family of fungi – moulds which grow rapidly in piles of damp straw or wood chips. Leave these lying around the release pen and you are at serious risk of dying poults.

Water supply in pheasant pens

Gamebird vet Dr Mark Elliot examines a poult

Antibiotic alternatives

Dr Kenny Nutting – like Mark, a keen shot – grew up around rearing, shooting, beating and picking-up gamebirds. As a vet, he has been involved in many trials of new feed and drink additives for use in the poultry industry. Results from these trials are now starting to filter through to gamebird rearing.

He is a firm advocate of preventative up-to-date medicine rather than firefighting diseases with drugs such as antibiotics. “Antibiotics knock out ‘bad’ bacteria, but the problem is that they also knock out ‘good’ bacteria which are essential to gut health,” he said.

A novel product trialled last season was a drinking water additive called Coccilin. This is made up of plant extracts and B vitamins, both of which help to lower the bacterial load in the gastrointestinal tract around coccidial challenges. Shoots that have used this product have noticed a dramatic  eduction in reliance on traditional coccidial treatment chemicals. The only disadvantage noticed so far is that it seems to mask signs of hexamita infection, he said.

Another promising water additive is called Ultimate Acid. Dosed in drinking water at 1ml per litre this reduces the gut pH (more acidic) in birds, helping deter growth of potentially harmful bacteria and encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria. This aids digestion and reduces enteritis.

The only drawback of this product is that if administered continuously, a hydrogen peroxide based sanitiser should be used to prevent build up of algae in drinker lines. One large shoot that has been using Ultimate Acid over the last four seasons has seen a dramatic reduction in medication bills.

Probiotic feed additives like Biacton, which has been used for years in the poultry industry, has now shown promising results in gamebird rearing. This probiotic contains live microorganisms to seed the guts of poults with “good” bacteria. The product is stable in food for up to 12 months and can be added to food or water.

“It is part of what we call a seed, feed, weed, approach. We seed the gut with good bacteria, feed them to make them grow and weed out the bad bacteria. A bird with a healthy gut can fight most diseases. This approach is starting to show great success in game bird rearing when combined with all the other elements of good husbandry. Stronger birds fly better and there can be massive cost benefits [to using probiotics],” said Dr Nutting.