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Raise your game

Many DIY shoots are looking at ways of reducing costs, and one way of achieving that is to rear your own birds. There are other benefits, too: you know exactly where your birds have come from; you don?t need to spend a fortune on equipment or have acres of ground available; and it?s not hard to do. Your birds will thank you, too.

That?s because birds that are reared close to their release site do not have to be transported long distances, so potentially experience less stress than those travelling for several hours from a gamefarm to the shoot. When released, a poult reared on site will settle down, eat and drink faster than those that have spent a long time in a crate. It should also make them less susceptible to disease.

On our shoot, we crate our birds on the morning of the release. In our experience, this is a better method than crating birds the night before, even if it means they are released a little later in the day. Birds that haven?t been unduly stressed often walk out of the crates immediately, wander over to the feed and start scratching about, or head straight to the feeders and drinkers.

A reduction in costs is a clear bonus to rearing your own; you can potentially make significant savings, but it does take commitment by one or two shoot members to undertake the day-to-day management of the chicks until their release at seven weeks old. Having one or two people in charge of the rearing will work better than a rota system, though the latter does work well once the poults are in a pen.

Those doing the rearing need to spot any potential health problems or changes in the behaviour of the chicks early on; this is why it is better for a couple of people to be responsible rather than the entire shoot. Other shoot members will be needed to help with preparations for the rearing as well as the release. This also happens to be an ideal time to have a spring/summer catch-up in the pub or at a barbecue.

The perfect rearing shed

The cost of setting up a mini-rearing field is not huge. Buying new equipment may be easier, but it will be at least five years until you have covered your costs with the savings. Rearing sheds can be made easily by a competent carpenter if the shoot is fortunate to have one as a member, though materials can be expensive.

Good second-hand rearing sheds, which are my preference, are not easy to come by, but are worth the money if you can get some that have been well looked after. They should be made from treated timber and stored when not in use. A deep clean with a pressure washer and a hatchery-grade disinfectant will get rid of any bugs, and then you can make any minor repairs needed. A good second-hand hut will last for years.

You don?t need to have a purposebuilt rearing shed. The first chicks I helped rear were raised in old pig arks. I?ve also seen them reared in cowsheds, garages, barns and garden sheds, all of which worked perfectly well. But the conditions inside the building are vital ? contentment reduces stress and this reduces the likelihood of disease.

An 8ft x 8ft hut is large enough to rear 300 chicks, and if you add
on a sun-parlour/night shelter and a decent grass run, it will suffice until the chicks are seven or eight weeks old. The size of the hut is important. While there will appear to be lots of space in a smaller one early on, when the chicks grow, it will become cramped ? and that is asking for trouble.

If the shed or hut is large enough, you can partition off an area for the first few weeks and open it up when the poults need more space. A sun parlour is essential; it?s the halfway house between the hut and the grass run. The chicks can be let into it in their first week; it gets them on to the grass. It is also useful for a part-time keeper or DIY shoot, because the person looking after the chicks may not be able to drop everything and dash back to get the birds into the hut if it looks as though it might be about to rain.

Out to grass

The final part of the rearing shed is a grass run. I?ve seen birds reared on concrete and I wasn?t impressed. I?ve also seen birds shed-reared without a run ? they were sprayed with water to simulate rain on their backs.

The best way to get fit, healthy poults that are used to local weather conditions is to give them access to an outside grass run
where they can peck about and get used to different weather conditions. As with the shed, the bigger the grass run, the better, though of course it shouldn?t be so large that they get lost. A 40ft x 40ft run will be plenty for 300 to 350 chicks and will allow some extra space for them if the weather turns wet and release is delayed for a week.

You will also need a heater and a few other bits and pieces, such as feeders and drinkers, but nothing too expensive and once you?ve bought them, they?re yours. Most of these things are built to last, so little will ever need to be replaced.

Rearing your own birds takes commitment from some, or all, of the shoot members, but it will save money if done correctly. It will also bring shoot members together during the close season ? and everyone will get satisfaction out of the achievement. A bird you?ve reared yourself, flying over the line in January, will always appear to be a little bit higher and going just that little bit faster than anyone else?s.