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Avian influenza – how it has forced shoots to adapt and innovate

Avian influenza has forced some shoots to switch to sim days or to shut up shop, but it has led to innovations too — necessity is the mother of invention

Smaller releases of birds and changing drives has helped some shoots to cope with the avian influenza epidemic

We have had a pheasant season here that I would rather forget. Mercifully, we have not had a repeat of last winter when we were picking up dead geese everywhere and the pheasants seemed sickly, though I never actually found any dead ones. But the avian influenza that curtailed operations on French game farms last spring has had a long tail, with knock-on effects all winter for us here in south-west Scotland. 

When it became apparent that poults would be non-existent, rationed or painfully expensive, some shoots stopped altogether. At least one near here has invested in clay traps and run simulated game days instead. 

We took the view that we would not cancel days and would carry on going through the motions with a far smaller release of pheasants — most of which disappeared — because the actual shooting is only a vehicle for entertaining our friends. And we persuaded ourselves that bag size doesn’t matter; the tally at the end of the day has no bearing on the enjoyment. 

Well, up to a point. I think and hope that my guests took that view. Certainly when I have been to shoot at other places, where the bag has been a fraction of what it is usually, that has held true. 

The fellowship of friends and their dogs, both faithful and wilful, the feasting and the sights and sounds of the countryside are all there. You forget, in your keenness to engage with dozens of tall pheasants and fast partridges, that a ‘game drive’ is something safari-goers will pay good money for without any guns in their hands at all. 

A line of beaters may not produce any pheasants in this non-event of a season thanks to avian influenza but a blank drive can nevertheless be remembered for the roe deer crashing through the undergrowth, effortlessly sailing over the fence and bounding across the field. Or for the flocks of tits, finches and thrushes pushed through the line. One drive here during the big December frost was graced by a little egret. Very special, or so I tell myself. 

Yet as the host, it doesn’t feel like it. I will remember 2022-23 for the extreme anxiety of trying to find a dwindling number of pheasants in our coverts as the season went on and the crushing disappointment when nothing came out. And the challenge of jollying along glum teams of beaters and pickers-up when there has not been any action, plus putting a brave face on amid the teasing of my friends. But this has been matched by the buzz of excitement when things have gone well. And necessity is the mother of invention.


Avian influenza and adaptation

I took the decision to deploy the beaters more widely so we did two drives — both relatively narrow strips of woodland — simultaneously rather than consecutively. Before, both drives were disadvantaged by some Guns being in hot seats and others out of it. But by doing it as a single drive everyone is more likely to get shooting. It’s an innovation we will keep, one we would never have stumbled across if we hadn’t been desperate to find birds during the avian influenza epidemic. 

We have also tried to make the most of other game, refining snipe drives and teal ambushes. It has served to improve the shoot for future years and will make us more appreciative of what we have.

We have had our last family day now and there is only the beaters’ day to go. I hope the snipe and teal are in on that day so they find something to shoot, then we can put this season behind us. As ever, I can’t wait for the next one.