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Innovations in game husbandry

It's said that there's nothing new under the sun. That may be true to an extent, but game rearing disproves it.

pheasant shooting

It’s said that there’s nothing new under the sun. That may be true to an extent, but game rearing disproves it. Over the past 20 or so years great strides have been made in terms of efficiency and effectiveness based on the principles established by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) in the mid- to late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Fordingbridge system, originally modelled on a small 5ft x 5ft brooder hut and night shelter linked to a 30ft x 30ft run, has formed the basis of most modern-day pheasant-rearing systems. This was later improved by the GWCT to an 8ft x 4ft brooder house, shelter pen and 30ft x 30ft run when plywood became more available. These dimensions were based around the size of plywood sheets available, to cut down on wastage. From these beginnings, the Fordingbridge system became the link between the labour-intensive Victorian brooding system and modern rearing methods, and there have been many other advances in gamer earing since then.

1. Feed and drink supplements

The advent of additives – those designed to supplement our growing birds through those first few important weeks of life – have been a great boon. Any number of off-the-shelf tonics and pick-me-ups are available, designed to increase food palatability and fluid intakes, as well as improving the gut flora of our birds. While these products are not necessarily designed to treat diseases, they can do a very effective job of preventing illness – particularly bacterial problems. These ‘friendly bacteria’ colonise the gut and help prevent disease-causing species, such as salmonella, clostridia and E. coli taking hold. Several scientific studies have shown the benefits of competitively excluding pathogenic bacteria, and the birds in these studies showed reduced disease symptoms, ate more feed and converted that feed into body mass more efficiently. The availability of these products has led in turn to a reduced reliance on antibiotics and this has a knock-on effect to bird welfare and lower costs. The problem is simply deciding which supplements to choose,f rom a bewildering array.

2. Nipple drinker systems

All game rearers will appreciate the necessity of providing good-quality water to birds to ensure their good health during development. Fortunately, there are now a multitude of drinkers available based on hygienic nipple systems. Gone should be the days of drinkers accumulating a nice coating of algal slime and heaven only knows what else after poults have finished paddling around in their open troughs.

Nowadays, the widespread use of nipple drinkers has ensured birds get access to the highest-quality water, through which a multitude of vitamins, tonics and medications can be administered. Thanks to innovations in the commercial poultry industry and the efforts of a few entrepreneurial game rearers, we now have a suite of different designs of nipple drinker. These lend themselves to everything from small-scale rearing in individual houses to large automated systems that are capable of servicing the needs of many thousands of birds in more industrial-sized units.

The microbiological quality of water these systems supply is a huge improvement on open-source systems and has reduced disease transmission in flocks. The adage of not asking birds to drink water you wouldn’t consume yourself is now achievable.

3. Brooder house systems

Since those early attempts at intensifying the rearing process, the game-rearing industry has made some huge strides. One of the greatest is in terms of space for rearing. The old Fordingbridge system of 8ft x 4ft brooder houses and night shelters, which made economical use of the available off-the-shelf materials at the time, restricted the space for birds and the quality of the air inside. Anyone who has spent time tending chicks in this type of set-up will testify to the decrepit state of their backs afterwards, as well as the dusty and often cramped conditions.

Nowadays, the option to walk around inside brooder houses, blessed with plenty of fresh air and room for developing poults to spread out, is a benefit enjoyed by birds and rearers alike. Walk-in brooder houses capable of producing several thousand gamebirds in a batch are now common, allowing economies of scale to be made, in terms of manpower, equipment, and heating costs. Some operations have taken this significantly further, and for those with deep pockets there are climatically controlled rearing sheds available, capable of housing upwards of 100,000 birds.

4. Improved codes of practice

Government codes of practice and the efforts of industry bodies such as the Game Farmers’ Association have helped raise welfare and husbandry standards higher than ever. These advances produce better chicks, reared in superior conditions. The knock-on effects are reduced rearing mortality and improved post-release performance. High-quality poults, grown on without let or hindrance, go on to make good flyers if similar efforts in post-release care are made.

5. Incubation equipment

Not only have huge advances been made in rearing birds, but similar improvements have been made in the all-important stage of incubation too. Largely gone are ether capsules and mercury cut out thermometers, to be replaced by digitally controlled thermocouples capable of adjusting temperatures in incubators to a tenth of a degree. The scale of these devices has changed radically, too. Many older machines, which could produce a few thousand birds in a season – provided the operator had issued the correct magic words and not recently crossed the path of too many black cats – are slowly being replaced by custombuilt plumbed-in systems that allow the throughput of tens of thousands of eggs. This is another development the gamerearing industry has taken on board from commercial poultry growers.

What does the future hold?

The past 10 or 20 years have seen a move away from quite so many gamekeeper-reared birds towards more of a gamebird supply industry, at a smaller number of larger sites, run by fewer companies. On-going developments in integrated rearing systems mean labour and heating costs will be reduced further for those still wanting to home-rear their own birds. Using more energy-efficient, thermostatically controlled brooder lamps help cut down on excessive heat build-up in brooder houses, saving on stress to growing birds and reducing gas bills. Nutritionists continue to improve the quality feed rations formulated with game bird species in mind. The inclusion of better-quality protein sources, such as fishmeals, has made a big difference to feed quality and feed to weight conversion rates over the past 15 years.

Better medications that more effectively treat disease and replace older drugs to which microbial resistance has built up all continue to vie for their place in the market, particularly for the treatment of awkward-to-cure conditions such as mycoplasmosis. Investment in new drugs and vaccines for the treatment and prevention of disease should further aid game rearers in producing better-quality, higher flying birds that Guns love to see over their pegs come shoot day.

Des Purdy is a game and wildlife lecturer at Sparsholt College.