Birds on the Ground – What to do Next?

Birds on the Ground – What to do Next?

Covid-19 has had long-lasting and negative impacts on almost every sector in the country, with game shooting being no different. Unfortunately, with the nation being locked down in November and January, it was near impossible to shoot the number of days that we are used to.

Looking on the bright side, you could say we were lucky to get in as many days as we did – considering we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. However, the reduced number of days in the field has seen more birds left on the ground than most of us are used to.

With these additional cocks and hens, could the pandemic see a boost in hens breeding in the UK, and if so, what is the best practise? Also, if this proves effective, could it be a way around the red tape of Brexit?

Birds on the Ground

Although we are not in the business of making predictions, early signs indicate more shoots are at least considering breeding some of their own chicks. We have definitely seen an increase in enquiries for our feed for breeding stock – with several of the enquiries coming from shoots that don’t normally catch-up hens and pick-up eggs. Fifteen years ago, most shoots were rearing at least some birds themselves, but due to lots of reasons this became less common.

Whether or not the shoots showing interest will go the whole hog and rear their own birds is another question. If so, we suggest that probably 8-10 hens are needed per cock – with breeder pellets needing to be introduced in February. Breeding stock will also need worming in good time.

The big question is feasibility. Rearing game birds requires the correct equipment, patience and, above all, the knowledge and best advice available.

Is it Feasible?

It is most certainly feasible if there is an individual at the shoot who has the skills, knowledge and inclination. And, if it is successful, this may well be a route to adopt moving forwards. Once the equipment is paid for and set up – it is considerably cheaper to do it this way.

If this is the way people are leaning, it is essential to be registered with a specialist game bird vet – ideally one that is a member of the British Veterinary Poultry Association (BVPA). There are also advantages to becoming a member of the Game Farmers Association (GFA) as this will provide extra support, it is not expensive and provides regular updates on legislation and the latest advice.  

As discussed, if everything goes well and the correct equipment is used, catching up and breeding chicks has a number of benefits against buying stock in. The obvious one is the price, once everything is paid for it is much cheaper than buying in.

Provided the right skills are in place you have control over what the breeding hens and the new chicks are being fed – it is easier to feel confident in having strong, healthy chicks from the start.  There is also the ability to have control over other aspects of rearing and, importantly, when birds can go to wood. A game farmer calling up a keeper to say their six-week-old poults are arriving Friday – just in time for a thunderstorm – is a common frustration and can be extremely detrimental. If birds are reared on site, poults can be released in a more convenient window.

If It Doesn’t Work

If considering this route, it is important to weigh up some of the negatives. If money is spent on equipment, time is spent rearing and possibly fewer poults are ordered and it then doesn’t go to plan – one could be left is a devastating situation. Biosecurity is paramount with no short cuts to be taken.

Likewise, if rearing in undertaken without the correct skill set and knowledge, the poults that are released could be unhealthy, weak and susceptible to disease – namely Microplasma which could infect other poults that would be otherwise healthy. It is hugely important to make sure rearing pens are safe and secure and protected from the worst of the outdoor conditions. One example, a long time ago, saw somebody put their rearing unit on a flood plain – this is not advised!

Other Considerations   

There are a few other factors to considering the number of birds left on the ground this year.

With more hens around, it is quite likely that the price of caught up hens will decrease on previous years. They are normally around the £4-£5 mark. If the plan is to sell caught up hens, it may be worth taking into consideration how worthwhile this is if the price dips below the norm.

If leaving birds on the ground and not catching up, several things need to be thought about. They will need feeding until late spring or early summer. Wheat is fine and probably preferred by most – but it is worth noting that the price of wheat is expensive at the moment. We’d recommend sticking with hoppers but remember to move regularly to avoid a build-up of dropped or wasted feed; to avoid a potential disease hotspot, as trailed feed can attract pests.

The other thing to contemplate is predator control. Carrion crows and magpies can be controlled to protect the eggs and chicks of endangered red or amber listed birds under the new general license than came in on 1st January. However, pheasants and red-legged partridge are green listed, so to protect solely these species you will need to apply for an individual license.

Brexit and Beyond  

We have not yet been through the stage of moving live chicks from France to the UK, as is done every year. The red-tape and paperwork may prove a problem and could prove more expensive. This thinking suggests that, long-term, a return to rearing chicks in the UK could be the way forward… But only time will tell.