As a vet involved primarily with gamebird health, it is always a slight relief when the month of October arrives and the work starts to diminish. This year, however, was a bit different.

I have always maintained that most of our problems are weather-associated ? and this season seems to have bornethis out again. Generally the laying season went well, with nice, dry weather and clean eggs gathered from the grass. Laying numbers were encouraging and hatching was successful. The chicks were as strong as I have ever seen them, positively buzzing in the crates as they were delivered to the rearing establishments. There was a great deal of excitement as the first week ended with few, if any, disease issues and no indication of rotavirus or scour.

The weather at this stage was cold and dry with favourable conditions to prevent birds getting overheated, a common problem at this time of year. The summer continued dry and not too hot, and pheasants went well on to the release pens and out into the woods.

There were some issues with trying to get birds ?off heat?, and with high gas prices this was a tricky balance to meet. Some sites showed early signs of spironucleus (hexamita) as birds struggled with the cold nights. In deepest Devon we were still experiencing frost in the deep valleys in May. In many cases birds were under heaters for longer than we would normally wish and budgets started to look strained.

In addition to this, we recorded higher feed intakes for birds up to delivery as they ate more feed, presumably to develop body weight and maintain temperature. It was a double blow as gas and feed prices were placing pressure on the cost of a reared poult. The season, from a veterinary point of view, looked good as birds were delivered with few issues.

Partridges, on the other hand, did not like the cold weather and looked a bit miserable without actually being particularly ill. We had some customers with ongoing coccidiosis problems, which appeared to be related to the lower temperatures.

Grass-reared birds presented more problems than those on verandas, and we waited with some anxiety to see how they performed in the release pens. The transfer to the pens went well, and birds settled in until the torrential rain suddenly arrived, mainly in the North.

Then came the cold and wet in September. The partridges were put under added pressure in the new environment. We were very interested to note that, over a period of five to six days during early September, we had difficulties across all our centres ? from the South-West of England to Scotland. Analysis suggested that no single factor could be related to the problems, and so we looked at geography, altitude, cover, the type of feed used, medication programmes, rearing issues and management.

Further work on some shoots indicated that attention to detail could make the difference between a small problem and a more difficult set of circumstances. In these cases quite a lot of advice can be given on release-pen management for the future ? and we also gained a lot of knowledge as vets, understanding the environment that the birds are in. What was common to all the partridge shoots was that they all experienced the same problems during the same time, which was related to a sudden change in the weather.

Associated with this weather pattern was an increase in the number of diagnoses of worm infestation and mycoplasma in pheasants. It was again interesting to note that shoots with a robust worming programme had few issues, while many shoots with an ad hoc policy of worming when the disease was upon them had been caught out, as the challenge appeared later and birds were already changed to wheat. In addition, we noted that, although the classical signs of gaping were obvious, some keepers had been caught out with scouring birds having a roundworm gut infection.

Meanwhile the pheasants were going well, and having been let out of the pens they were managing to move great distances. The phone calls from keepers were now much less frequent and were mainly later in the day. Several had difficulties in making conversation as they struggled for breath, having covered three counties dogging-in. Recent client meetings to assess the season have displayed a new, leaner, fitter keeper, although slightly more worried as birds seem to have dispersed with an abundance of natural food. We are eager for colder weather to bring the birds back in and have a more relaxed time.

We are currently investigating some customers who have been worming for gapeworm and rasping cough, only to discover that it is the onset of mycoplasma and swollen heads.

It is my belief that the mild weather and the problem-free rearing season may be responsible for the later development of problems. One Devon keeper used to inform me that he was always relieved when the chicks did not do well, as this assured him that the rest of the season would be problem-free.

Alan Benyon is a senior partner and founding member of the St David?s Poultry Team veterinary practice in Devon.