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Poults and release pens – a guide to managing the transition

Paul Quagliana speaks to Mike Appleby about how to look after your poults once they are in their release pens

When it comes to putting your poults out in the release pens, the golden rule is preparation. 

Ensure that all hoppers and drinkers are filled and that your electric fencing is working. It is paramount that the new home for the poults is secure and ready for them to move into. Be sure you know exactly where you will feed the birds. It is a good idea to rehearse everything that you need to do when the birds arrive as it will mean you will have less to distract you at this busy time. 


Poults and release pens – check

When the birds arrive, it is important to check that they are fit and healthy, and that you know what to do if there is any sign of illness. While in the pen, you have a degree of control over the well-being of the poults as they only have access to the food and water in the pen. Should a problem arise and the poults need to be medicated, it is easier and more effective to deal with while the poults are contained. Once they leave their pens, some of that control is lost. 

Warning signs of disease are yellow, frothy droppings near drinkers or feeders. The birds may appear hunched and morose, and their food intake will drop. Disease spreads rapidly. Tomorrow may be too late, so contact a game vet at the first hint of trouble. A vet can do an on-site autopsy and advise on the correct course of action and medication. When the game farmer arrives with the birds, check when they were wormed.

Poults and release pens

Where there are gates next to roads, adding some netting will help stop birds
straying onto the road

Treatments for worms such as gapes normally last for five days and can be dealt with through the water or the food on prescription from your game vet. Poults will need treating for worms regularly as worms have a 21-day cycle. Two treatments should be sufficient, but this is weather dependent. If it is particularly wet, they may need treating further. The worm can be the root of all evil and, combined with stress, it can lead to a downward spiral in the well-being of the birds.

Mike likes to hopper feed in his pens, trail feed alongside the hoppers, and, after about 10 days, along tracks in the pens. If your poults have come from a game farm, it is a good idea to keep them on the same feed as they were reared on at the game farm. This will help to reduce stress on the poults in their new environment. 

Poults and release pens

Mike fills the hopper on the trail feeder with pellets

The birds need to be well fed and fit, so Mike uses protein pellets to start with. At around 16 weeks, he slowly introduces wheat, mixing it with the pellets at first. Mike uses the same vehicle all the time, so the birds get used to it. He also whistles as he trail feeds, so the birds get used to being fed and come running for dinner. It is important that each pen is fed at the same time each day, so the birds get used to being around.

Over time, this gets them used to being trail fed away from the pen to cover crops and woodlands that make up the drives. It is important not to overfeed the birds and keep them ‘tight’. There should always be enough food for them, but not too much that they do not want to respond to the whistle at the next feed. Ensure they are always keen to return to feed rides.

Poults and release pens

Trail feeding along a track in a release pen


Poults and release pens – signs to look for

If there is uneaten food on the trails, it may be a sign of disease as the birds have stopped eating, or it may be because you are using too much. This will waste money and is more likely to attract vermin. For example, members of the corvid family can pass on disease by leaving their droppings on the feed ride, which poults will peck at. Getting it right can be difficult, but it will come with experience. Mike feeds twice a day, seven days a week. It is laborious, but it keeps the birds where you want them to be.

Water is as important as food. If the birds lack clean, fresh water, they may go elsewhere in search of it. Mike uses barrels that work by gravity. They are designed so the birds cannot stand in them and contaminate them with mud or droppings, which may also carry disease. In keeping with feed hoppers, it is good practice to move them every few days to avoid any build up of droppings and, resultantly, disease. 

Poults and release pens

Trail-fed poults congregate along tracks next to release pens. It is important not to overfeed them

Mike adds an electrolyte formulation to the water in hot weather, which helps to prevent dehydration. It is also important to keep the water flowing and cool from a header tank, for example. 

Mike allows a certain amount of drips from his pipework, so that water keeps flowing along them. In hot weather, Mike may even drain the warm water out of a header tank and replace it with cooler, fresh water. He does this at midday, so the water doesn’t have a chance to heat up before nightfall, when it is generally cooler. 

Mike says: “Would you prefer a pint of water that has been kept in the heat of a rearing shed, or a pint that has been kept in the shade?” 

If the water gets too hot, the birds won’t drink it and either become dehydrated – which will cause problems as they will not want to eat, which in turn will have a knock-on effect on their well-being – or they will go looking for water and stray off your ground.

Poults and release pens

It is essential to keep poults well-watered; this blue barrel drinker works on gravity


Poults and release pens – letting them out

When it is time to open the pens and let the birds out, plan it properly. Stagger the release over a week between your pens. However, in wet weather it is better to get them all out as soon as possible. 

One aspect to check is when farmers are harvesting crops. It is not a good idea to release birds next to a field of wheat only for it to be cut a few days later. It can disperse the birds and confuse them. Wait until it has been harvested.

Poults and release pens

If there are any crops near release pens, wait until they have been harvested before setting the birds free to minimise disturbance

The birds want as much peace and quiet as they can get to become familiar with their surroundings. If there is long grass or a cover crop adjacent to the pen, the birds may ‘jug’ in this overnight. In which case, electrified sheep fencing around these areas will keep foxes at bay. Ideally, they should be flushed back into the pen. 

Also, consider putting up signs saying ‘private woodland’, which can help to keep disturbance from walkers and their dogs to a minimum. 

As the birds start to move away from the pen, clap and flag them back to begin with. If there are estate workers around, ask them if they will help with this. After a few days of clapping the birds back to the pen, introduce your dogs. The birds will associate the dog with clapping and move more readily back into the pen. Dogging-in is an endless but essential task. 


Mike’s top tips

Mike trail feeding along hedges that lead to a drive

  • Use the same vehicle and the same whistle each time
  • Use correct medication if disease or parasites become evident
  • Don’t skimp on feed; use the same pellets as the game farmer, then wean the birds onto wheat
  • Feed enough but not too much – the birds should be ready for dinner, not overfed and lethargic
  • Keep dogging-in the birds
  • Consider fox control once crops have been harvested – poults are at their most vulnerable when released