Did we really need the Met Office to tell us it had been the wettest summer for 100 years? Probably not. I think anyone who worked outside had probably guessed already.
Last season was one of the driest I can remember, so we went into the New Year with dry ground and happy pheasants, made an early start on the catching-up and finished in record time.
After wintering well, the birds went into the laying pen in great shape and the catching-up was done in the dry instead of the usual January rain. This made life much easier. The pen looked good, the birds looked good and everything seemed to be pointing towards another dry spring.
Then, with the birds a couple of weeks off laying, it started to rain and continued to do so, barring two weeks in May, until we picked the last eggs in June. The rearing season and release periods were equally wet, disease was a continuing worry and the logistics of simply getting around was difficult, even using quad bikes and ATVs.
Our laying pen problems were really all about egg production rather than disease, though the wet weather meant we wormed more than we had in previous years. The number of eggs produced by each hen was down and, as the quality of these eggs was also poorer, it had a knock-on effect and we produced fewer chicks. Fertility was about the same, but hatchability was down. Our birds had weeks at a time when it was wet, cold and windy and just didn?t produce the same number of decent eggs.
Rearing field problems started locally before anyone even had any chicks. The ground was so wet, friends of mine kept getting stuck just taking out trailer-loads of sections. Erecting sheds, shelter-pens and runs in the wind and rain really tried the patience of everybody and putting up rearing fields became a hard, muddy slog.
Rather surprisingly, most people had a relatively disease-free rearing season, but it was a constant worry, with wet runs, flooding and damp birds causing lots of keepers more than the odd sleepless night. Anyone who wasn?t on top of any disease challenges as soon as they appeared would have really suffered. The biggest problems weren?t when the birds were small, as they were protected from the elements by the huts and night shelters, but occurred when it came to hardening them off.
Dry nights were a rarity and it was a brave man who?d leave his birds out for their first night when it was raining. When it came to it, most poults actually did okay ? they?d been rained on nearly every day they?d been out, so a bit more at night didn?t make any difference.
Once released, our poults did okay on the whole, with the exception of one pen, which had a touch of coccidiosis. Treating it in the wet was difficult because the birds, having access to puddles and surface water, drank less of the treated stuff, which probably tasted a little bitter, and more of the smelly, stagnant stuff which laid on the surface.
We pulse dosed our header tanks with multi-vitamins as a matter of routine and added solulites to the header tank that supplied the pen which had the coccidiosis, to help replace any lost body salts. In a year such as this, a good rapport with a competent poultry or gamebird vet is essential (and I emphasise the gamebird and poultry bit). Not only do they have an idea of what the problem might be before they perform an autopsy, but also, they?ll probably have in stock something to treat it. A farm vet might be great with other livestock but it doesn?t necessarily follow that they?ll be accurate when diagnosing problems in pheasants or partridges.
Worse than this is the keeper who tries to self-diagnose any problems, has a look what he?s got in the shed and tries to work out a treatment himself. Very often, by the time they?ve realised that whatever they?ve treated the birds with isn?t working, the problem has spread to every bird in the pen; the losses are several times worse than they could have been and treatment takes twice as long and costs twice as much. The other advantage of a good vet is that they can write prescriptions and recommend feed-based treatments based on past history.
In-feed treatments for Hexamita and Trichomoniasis have improved in recent years and most vets are happy for the poults to be on medicated feed (at a preventative rate) for the first week of release. This is a huge help in years such as this when they do not really want to drink the water.
Every year is different, which is just as well really, because I don?t think anyone will want another like this one.