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Rearing in the rain

The recent weather has presented many challenges to both gamefarms and shoots across the country. Initially, the weather was good for laying systems as we experienced a nice spell of dry, warm conditions and birds laid in almost ideal circumstances. The night-time temperatures did fall quite low and this may have had some impact on numbers of eggs laid and on fertility.

There have been two interesting facts this year with respect to chicks and weather. First, when the weather changed and eggs were laid in wet and muddy conditions, I predicted that we would see more chick quality issues with the onset of rotavirus ? I warned my customers to take some precautions and consider the use of antibiotics to start the chicks off. However, the birds did not show signs of disease and still continued to brood well, with few issues. Second, mortality rates of chicks in brooding systems have been low. I think that there are two reasons for this: we have seen less than optimal numbers of eggs laid and fertility has been generally lower, which may be nature?s way of keeping the status quo by having more viable chicks produced. I also believe that the lower temperatures have helped us with brooding by not getting the chicks too hot, which is a common mistake in years when we have a ?normal? summer. So in many cases, it was a good start with respect to brooding and survivability in the pheasants in the poor conditions. However, the same cannot be said of partridges, which often became chilled and died out with starve-outs (emaciation) in sometimes quite disturbing numbers.

Continuing cold conditions

The weather continued to be cold and wet in the early rearing season, and several of my customers experienced the sudden onset of extreme conditions. In the West Country, we experienced high winds that removed sheds entirely from the fields or created a lot of noise that caused birds to pile in sheds. We have had sudden downpours of rain that have led to sheds flooding and in extreme cases, the whole field has flooded with resultant losses.

Despite these harsh conditions, there were few disease problems recorded, and birds seemed to rear quite well in the colder temperatures so long as the immediate effect of the elements could be controlled.

There are, however, a number of current difficulties now in progress. Birds are eating more food and have grown more slowly. Many rearers are keeping birds longer to get better body weights and delivery of poults is about a week to 10 days behind, which has led to some tail and back feather picking. In some cases, when birds are then delivered into extreme wet weather, we are seeing some mortalities.

Holding partridges longer is also starting to be discussed as harvest is likely to be delayed and covercrops have failed. This is of some concern as these birds have done well to survive the rearing conditions and could do with moving to fresh ground.

The pheasant pens I have visited year after year have changed this season, with springs appearing and torrents of water where I have never seen them before. Tracks that have been stoned to remove puddles have formed lakes, and still the rain fell.

High worm burdens

Our major current issues have been the onset of hexamita and high worm burdens. I would advise worming heavily in the feed and looking at getting a strategy with your vet to get a good preventive programme in place. A robust worming programme has benefited the shoots well and reduced problems dramatically. Hexamita can be controlled with in-feed medication and we are using several drugs, often in combination, to help birds through current conditions. In dry pens where water consumption is still in place, water medication is effective but in wet pens, we are recording water consumption at less than 10 per cent of predicted intakes and clearly medication through this route is not effective.

It is vital to find out what medication your rearer has used in feed and water in rear so that you can form a plan for preventive medication with your veterinary surgeon and work together towards a successful release.

I am examining many release pens now with respect to the placing of feeders and drinkers in the correct areas of the pens. It is important to realise that, on delivery, birds will disperse to the outside of the pen, and feeders and drinkers need to be placed at these limits.

Placing the feeders correctly

In many cases, pheasants do not want to feed in certain areas, especially in relentless rain so the feeders need to be taken to where the birds want to eat. However, there are difficulties in actually getting feed to the birds as vehicles are struggling in the amount of mud, and keepers have to carry the bags to the feeders that the birds are favouring. Small changes in the layout of the release pen are vital and the correct numbers of feeders and drinkers placed in the correct way in the pen can make the difference between success and failure. Moving feeders regularly and taking out mouldy feed as well as examining drinker hygiene is most important.

This is a very challenging and extreme year to date, and we are now making decisions that we have never considered before. For instance, on some shoots we look after, we are considering a quick release from the pen assuming we can hold the birds. Letting the birds out early has helped reduce disease challenges and allow the birds to find favourable areas of habitat. On a positive note, the jet stream has moved north. If the fine weather continues, the partridge release will be aided and everybody would feel more content and look forward to a successful shooting season.