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How to buy high-quality poults

With shoots of all shapes and sizes facing rising costs, Mike Swan shares his tips on how to get the best possible birds this season

For most lowland shoots, the cost of pheasant and partridge poults is probably the biggest single outlay in the annual budget, so you want to spend your money wisely. Shopping around is clearly sensible, but beware of going on price alone. All poults are not equal and it is an ancient axiom that the cheapest price is rarely the best value for money.

I am often asked about strains of pheasants and what sort has those magic qualities that we all want. For the gourmet, they need to eat well, but I think they all taste much the same, so what we are interested in is that they fly like dingbats. We also want them to hold to the shoot like glue and for those left after the season to produce big broods in the wild.

It is important to understand that many of the so-called strains are really brand names, rather than descriptions of a particular breed. A couple of decades ago, people talked of Scandinavians, Michigan bluebacks and Kansas. Nowadays, we have Bazanty, supposedly from Poland, and French common. Since pheasants originated in Asia, we can safely say that none of these terms describes a properly recognisable race of pheasant — even the name old English blackneck is spurious.

Against this background comes a complex taxonomy, with up to 30 described subspecies of the common pheasant, plus two of the Japanese green, which is usually considered to be a separate species. All sorts of different subspecies have been imported into the UK and, while specialist pheasant keepers may well have kept some of these properly distinct, most of the pheasants in both game farms and our countryside could reasonably be described as mongrels.

There are up to 30 subspecies of the common pheasant, but strain alone is no guarantee of performance


Redleg Strains

Compared with pheasants, there are no ‘strains’ of redlegs, but do be aware of hybrid blood. An experiment in the 1970s and 1980s using the chukar partridge (right), because it is cheaper and more productive, has left a legacy of genetic contamination. It is now illegal to release chukars and their hybrids, but you would not want to anyway, because they do not fly like pure redlegs. Hybrids usually have at least a shadow of a second black bar on their flank feathers. Any decent game farmer will be on the lookout for this, culling any suspicious birds from their stock.



It is fair to say that blacknecks, the ones with no white neck ring, were the first to come here. Whether they really came with the Romans, or later, is lost in the mists of time, but they were surely the first pheasants to make it into Europe, simply because they are the most western race. In Victorian times, when pheasant releasing for shooting kicked off, all sorts made it here, including what, in its day, was called the Prince of Wales’s pheasant, plus lots of paler Chinese ring-necked types.

I long ago came to the fundamental conclusion that strain alone brings no guarantee of performance. I don’t think there is much to choose between them, although I have a hunch that the palest of pheasants, with their origins in continental China, may be a bit more prone to wandering. They clearly do not migrate, but having bred in the hills of their homeland, they may be programmed to walk downhill to more sheltered winter homes.



I am also convinced that domestication is not good if we want our birds to perform like real wild ones. Aside from racehorses and working dogs, almost everything we have domesticated is fatter and slower than the wild originals.

In the breeding of pheasants and partridges, we ignore this trend at our peril. The simple business of keeping birds in captivity adds an evolutionary selection pressure that works against the most difficult or flighty, but on top of this comes the issue of catching-up.

From the start of pheasant rearing, keepers have caught birds from the wild to place in laying pens for egg production. Way back, when most of the pheasants out there were wild-bred, that probably did no harm to stock quality, but now that the majority are released birds that have survived the season, a different perspective arrives. We are now mostly catching-up the ones that would not or could not fly high enough to tempt the Guns. In other words, we are catching-up from the fat and lazy leftovers.

One or two of the oldest established game farms have always maintained a closed flock, keeping back their breeding stock from year to year and not importing any extra birds. This means that, compared with caught-up hens, they are not importing the fat and lazy, while also avoiding any parasites and diseases that come with them.

So, my first question when looking for good birds is not about strain, but about whether I am buying from a closed flock. Having had an assurance that this is so, you could be cheeky and ask if they are in the market for some caught-up hens, or whether they would custom-hatch some of your eggs. If the answer to either question is yes, they are fibbing about the closed flock. My next question is about whether they are a Game Farmers’ Association (GFA) member, because this gives a good indication that they follow the GFA code, rearing their birds to a high standard.


Price hike

This attention to detail is likely to add to the cost, but a good-quality bird competitively priced is far better than cheap rubbish. Prices for pheasant poults have gone up significantly this year and the combined impact of hikes in the cost of feed and fuel will probably add a bit more yet, even if the current supply crisis due to bird flu restrictions in France resolves itself. Published prices for 2022 at around £4.50 may well no longer apply if you are still shopping.

Being caught, bundled into a crate and transported to a very different environment from the rearing field is stressful, so adding any other pressures is not helpful.

Poults should be sleek and well-feathered, with birds from the same batch all roughly the same size



Same food, same feeders, same drinkers are well-known mantras, but keeping travel distance short should be another. The longer birds are in transit, the more tired they will be on arrival. If it is warm, heat stress is another risk you would rather avoid.

A visit to the game farm becomes much easier if you shop local and a proper, professional game farmer should welcome you, but do expect to play by the rules. Every visitor to the premises is a potential source of infection, so make sure your vehicle is properly clean and that you wear clean clothes and boots.

Expect to be asked to dip in disinfectant footbaths and perhaps even to don a set of clean overalls supplied by the farm. All this is good hygiene and an indication of a well-run operation in which you can have confidence.

I would also ask about any medication that may have been used during rearing. Hopefully, none has been needed, but a proper treatment history for your birds is important. Another value in going local is that you can use the same vet if the need arises, confident that they know the history of the birds.

A visit to the game farm provides an opportunity to gather information about the poults that you are buying


Under scrutiny

When your poults arrive, take the time to sit back and watch them for a while after they have been liberated from their crates. Do they look like a good sample? Are they sleek and well-feathered? Are they all much the same size, with no obvious tiddlers or much bigger ones. Size disparity can indicate a mixing of batches, or variable growth due to a disease outbreak.

Also, are they lively and up on their toes? Taking time to watch soon reveals if there are odd ‘slouchers’ that are feeling poorly — the first indication of a possible health issue for the rest.

Keeping up the good husbandry and hygiene is important. If you have shopped well and you then put in the effort and look after them, the birds will be a tribute to you when the shooting season comes around.