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Game Vet Blog

November 2018: Take a Stand Against Mycoplasma

Dr Ben South BSc (Hons) BVetMed MRCVS 

Shoots across the country are now at their busiest and at this time of year we see the greatest number of Mycoplasma outbreaks. This year has been no exception, with the highest level of outbreaks seen.

Mycoplasma or ‘Bulgy Eye’ is the common name for a wide range of specialist bacteria found across the animal kingdom in the respiratory tract. In pheasants we mainly see Mycoplasma gallisepticum (Mg). Within this group there are multiple strains that we can identify and often are geographically restricted.

Mg is the most common bacteria consistently identified in wild game birds in the UK and may exist in the respiratory system of birds undetected and without causing clinical disease. Mg is an opportunistic bacterium and will start replicating when its host is immunosuppressed. Damage to the upper respiratory system by common environmental viruses such as ART (Avian Rhinotracheitis) and IBV (Infectious Bronchitis virus) will be enough to allow Mg to multiply. We often isolate other opportunistic bacteria alongside Mg such as ORT (Ornithobacterium rhinotracheale). Poor nutrition and overall poor gut health can also cause a bird to be weak enough for Mg to develop and the disease if often worsened by stress trigger factors such as worm burdens or a change in weather.

The avian sinuses are a labyrinth of channels running from the nostrils through and around the orbit of the eye and down beneath the skull. When the delicate respiratory membrane becomes damaged and inflamed the resulting swelling appears in one place, and that is around the eye. The term ‘Bulgy Eye’ comes from this clinical sign and it is often associated with an Mg infection. As well as the eye swelling and sinusitis other clinical signs include sneezing, head shaking, eye rubbing, nasal and ocular discharge and ‘wet shoulders’ where the birds rub their irritated eye.  It is highly contagious and is spread via open water sources, bird to bird contact and open feeders. To complicate matters, a bird that is Mg positive can pass the bacterium through to its young via the egg. 

If birds are found with clinical signs then it is highly recommended you contact your vet to organise some diagnostic testing. Swabs may be taken to identify the presence of Mycoplasma via PCR. However, it would be more prudent to identify the bacterium via culturing. Positive cultures will allow for strain isolation testing and the potential to develop an autogenous vaccine for specific estates that incur regular reoccurrence of Mg infections year on year. Commercially available vaccines are used but are developed for commercial poultry and may not provide adequate cover. The BVPA (British Veterinary Poultry Association) are continuing their study into the epidemiology of Mg in game birds and it may be possible to join their diagnostic scheme. More information on this can be found at

Confirmed Mg outbreaks at this time of year are difficult to manage and I suggest getting diagnostic confirmation from your vet to be a top priority. It is imperative to identity what respiratory diseases are present now in order to evaluate and investigate the best prevention method for next season. Antibiotics will only help to alleviate symptoms and reduce shedding, leaving most birds as carriers. There are a few antimicrobial options but Aivlosin is the only licensed product for pheasants.

Preventative measures for Mycoplasma control, like many other diseases, is focused on good husbandry, the purchasing of clean stock and being strict with an all-in, all-out system. Culling of infected birds is advised as well as maintaining good biosecurity, especially considering where your beaters and picker uppers have been previously in the week. Alleviating stress will help prevent clinical outbreaks and I would consider resting areas of the shoot that do become infected. 

There are currently discussions between the major organisations of the industry on how best to reduce this problem and St David’s is heavily involved in these projects. If you require any more information, please do not hesitate to contact our team of vets.

In brief: keep vigilant for clinical signs, diagnose and prevent. 


October 2018: Top Tips for Moving Pheasants onto Wheat 

Dr Ben South BSc (Hons) BVetMed MRCVS 

As we soon drift into November you may be forgiven to think that as vets our work in game bird health and disease control has all but ended. In actual fact, it is at this time of year that we, alongside game keepers, face some of our toughest challenges in controlling pathogens and maintaining ultimate bird health for flight. Partridges and pheasants are well on their way into adulthood, but as the climatic conditions cool and their distribution across different habitats expands they become exposed to greater threats of disease, predation and nutritional variation. 

During rear, game birds are fed a pelleted ration. This feed has been designed, manufactured and processed into a consistent concentrate containing high levels of proteins, minerals, oils and fibre that are essential for growth and development. The pellet is very palatable and easily digested by the birds. Quality feed comes at a cost, this is why traditionally at release pheasants are moved on to being fed whole wheat.

Whole wheat is often inconsistent in quality, has a hard fibrous outer shell and contains high levels of carbohydrates (sugar) and B vitamins. The change from a high protein diet to a high carbohydrate diet can and will disrupt the bacterial colonies within the bird’s digestive system, leading to gastrointestinal changes and potential bacterial and protozoal disruption. This feed change is coupled with an increase in natural foraging. This year, wild berries have had bumper yields and I have seen some severe gut disruption and ill health from birds gorging on sweet blackberries. When it comes to changing diets I highly recommended keepers do not force birds off the concentrate pellets. Instead this transfer should be dictated by the birds. Provide additional hoppers with wheat in and let the birds make the switch. Slowly remove access to pelleted feed until the transfer is complete. This process may take between 2-4 weeks. During these transfer weeks I suggest supplementing the water with Ultimate Acid, this will help maintain a low gut pH and has shown to help reduce gut instability during this time.

The health of wild game birds such as partridge and pheasants is heavily influenced by stress levels. Birds respond to stress acutely by releasing corticosterone causing physiological and behavioural changes to enable them to cope with the stimuli. When this response is elevated chronically it can be biologically costly and have negative impact on the bird’s fitness by weakening its immune system. In game bird production there are three potential chronic stress contributors: people, predators and parasites.

As vets, our major challenge is controlling the parasites. Gapeworm (Syngamus trachea) is the most common multicellular parasite we see and causes significant damage and irritation to the wind pipe and thus birds are seen to be ‘gaping’ or ‘snicking’. There are, however several other helminths that cause more, subclinical and chronic disease. The gastrointestinal worms such as The Caecal worm (Heterakis gallinarum), Hairworm (Capillaria spp.) and Roundworms all inhabit areas of the gut and causes chronic ill thrift in game birds. H.gallinarum is commonly found and can be picked up on a routine post mortem. The lifecycle is described below and once eggs are ingested lasts around 18-22 days in the bird, however eggs can stay viable in the environment for years.

Treatment can be successful with a licensed drug such as Flubenvet incorporated in the feed. Additionally, we can prescribe in water treatment such as Panacur aquasol under the cascade should this be necessary. I suggest worming the birds 2 weeks after arriving in the pens to give them chance to pick the eggs up and for the adults to emerge in the caeca. Continue to worm every 2-4 weeks until release. One way of keeping track of worm burdens is to collect faecal samples and send them to our laboratory for WEC testing. I would also suggest a routine post mortem prior to releasing the birds, this way bird can be given the ‘clean bill of health’ before released.

To reduce the likelihood of increasing parasite egg burdens in the soils in and around the release pens, consider moving hoppers and drinkers every week to prevent the ground becoming poached. Spilt feed should be removed to discourage wild birds feeding from them. 

Remember, the birds will be habituated to the release pens, any that are unwell or stressed will often stay around the pens as it’s their area of safety. Continue providing feed and water both inside and outside the pens, keep vigilant for disease and notify your vet if concerns arise. Early diagnosis and treatment can make all the difference to bird health and future viability of your released birds.


October 2018: St David’s Achieves Outstanding Reductions in Antibiotic Use for 2017-2018 

The 2018 antibiotic use figures for our industry were released this week with some outstanding results from all involved. In the two years since the game bird sector rolled out its voluntary campaign to reduce antibiotics, overall use has fallen by 51% with antibiotics incorporated in game bird feed slashed by 70%. The figures have shown that from 2017-2018 there has been a reduction in overall antibiotic use by 35% in feed and 10% in water. 

We are very proud to announce that as a practice, we have reduced our in water antibiotic usage by 29%. This is an impressive reduction and has been achieved not only through the supplementation of products such as Coccilin Plus from the Poultry Pharm range but also through the dedication of our vets in developing and advising the best husbandry methods and from you, our clients, who have invested in making changes where necessary. You can read more about the report here. Keep an eye out for our next article release for case studies on how this reduction was achieved.

August 2018: Positive Summer for Patridges 

Dr Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS 

For once, the harvests are ahead of schedule and this has allowed, in most circumstances, the slightly earlier release of partridges. There is always the next reason as to why someone cannot take the birds and this year it has been poor cover crop growth. The sites that have or are mid-release of partridge have shown relatively little disease issues. With the strong summer weather partridges have reared extremely well and in doing so have ideal body weight to take on any small challenge faced during the transfer from rearing site to release/holding pen. The majority of shoots under our care have now adopted the use of Ultimate Acid for the first 2 weeks of release for both partridges and pheasants. With sites that are likely to be under greater than normal levels of stress, I have also been advising the use of Coccilin Plus alongside the acid. This adds another layer of bacterial control and allows the intestinal immune system to fight off other diseases such as Hexamita.
Interestingly, in years gone by, we have tended to treat heavily for reoccurring high levels of Hexamita on rearing sites in partridges. I have several partridge rearing sites where the levels of stress on the birds are relatively low and if the weather holds, we do not treat the high levels of Hexamita seen but maintain good gut health on the Ultimate Acid and Cocillin Plus combination. This has allowed for just one treatment at point of release to reduce the levels of Hexamita present so that they do not take advantage of partridge during this stressful period.
With the good weather about, there seems to have been periods of excitement and the trialling of new release methods for both partridge and pheasants. This year I have seen 10,000 pheasants released into an open valley with only one line of fencing at the bottom of the valley to stop excess wandering. The birds here were released in 10ft by 10ft pens and after 24 hours these were opened out and the birds remained within the steep valley sides for at least 2 weeks. By this time they had adapted to their new surroundings and were happy to go home back to roost. It comes as no surprise that this pen had no diseases issues.
I have seen other sites that release partridge solely into thick Miscanthus/maize cover. They place the crate facing into the crop and have a line or two of feeders and drinkers the other side. They then walk away and come and collect the crates later in the day. Of course this method requires a lot of fox control, but these sites often report just the same level of returns on partridges at the end of the season. With tighter controls on medications, trials such as these aimed at reducing stress levels on the birds during release can only be a good thing for the progression of the game sector.
Globally, the disease currently affecting poultry in general is Newcastle disease, which for Europe and North America has been quiet over the last decade. However, this year we have seen a rise, with 1 case in Los Angeles in May of this year of the Virulent Newcastle disease (VND) in a small back yard flock of chickens and there has also been 13 outbreaks of VND in Belgium with 2 of these sites being of commercial poultry and the remainder small back yard flocks. VND is what is known as a mild Zoonosis. This means that mild respiratory signs such as conjunctivitis can be seen in humans, however severe symptoms are unlikely to occur.
Interestingly, Belgium vaccinates their birds and therefore there has been some questioning about the efficacy of vaccines against new and emerging strains. Symptoms seen in chickens during this current outbreak have been mild with low mortality, mild respiratory signs or neurological signs. Similar signs can be seen in game birds including unexplained death.
The UK government via DEFRA has declared the threat level to now be MEDIUM to our UK poultry industry. There are several pathways by which the disease could be introduced to the UK: through the movement of live birds, the movement of wild birds, contact with fomites and contaminated equipment, clothing or transport or contact with infected meat and meat products. Since the beginning of June there has been 7 consignments of poultry from Belgium of which 12,000 were gamebirds. These all carried appropriate movement certificates.
As ever we will keep the game industry up to date with any disease developments. In the meantime, I best get off to dusting the gun and getting some clay practice in!

August 2018: Time to Change the Game 

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS 

As a long established veterinary practice specialising in the care of game birds we have seen a further reduction in the use of avian antibiotics as a result of the summer’s benign weather. While this is excellent news for the shooting industry, it is clear we are facing challenges and threats to our sport on many fronts. I am pleased to be fighting those threats through being on the British Game Alliance (BGA) Board of Directors.

Our elected representatives – whether they reside in Westminster, Cardiff or Edinburgh – are making threatening noises and we should be listening. The Welsh Assembly is supporting the ban on reared pheasants on Government owned land and Scotland looks set to follow. Meanwhile, Labour’s recent Animal Welfare Bill is a worrying stance on the banning of intensive game rearing,
We should treat these moves as a clear warning to game shooting – both as a sport and an industry. If we can’t sell our shot game, there is no moral justification for shooting.

The British Game Alliance has made enormous strides in a few short months. Its principal objectives are to ensure there is a growing market for shot game with a value being returned once again to its members and to bring in achievable yet credible level of self-regulation that will give us security against our political opponents.

Already 180 shoots have joined the BGA, both small and large, which is well on the way to its target of 500 by the end of the first year. At the same time, efforts of the BGA to open new as well as expanding existing markets for game are bearing fruit, as the national marketing board for game. It won’t happen overnight, but the foundations are being laid for a secure national game market. We have to remember we are all in the same boat whether or not you have a market for your game, this initiative represents us all and so should be backed by all.

We need to work together under one united umbrella. As an industry we need to demonstrate to politicians and opponents alike that we are capable of meaningful self-regulation. Our Quality Assurance scheme is the perfect opportunity to do so and should be embraced by all whilst we have the chance. We are the only unregulated food producing sector left and to think this doesn’t affect us all is madness. With an audited best practice approach in exactly the same way the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme regulates the farming industry we can continue to enjoy our sport on our own terms.

Audits only lasts three hours with 25% of shoots being audited in year one, this figure will rise in time to come. If a shoot fails to meet the pre-determined standards, the auditors will work with you to get it right, rather than remove you from the BGA. That is unless shoots are in serious breach which means they shouldn’t be operating anyway. We should all be striving for best practice.
Of course, all this needs funding. Membership costs are tiered and relate to the size of shoot, but I hope you can join and be part of a sustainable future, even for a large commercial shoot fees are relatively modest particularly in relation to what guns pay for their day’s sport.
The BGA is also asking shoots to offer paying guns an opportunity to contribute too through a voluntary donation of 50p per bird shot. We believe this will only be a short-term measure until such time as the BGA becomes self-financing.

The threat to our sport should not be underestimated. As the Rt Hon Richard Benyon MP succinctly said: “From where I sit in Parliament, I really feel shooting is in the last chance saloon. I am getting a little weary of a small number of those I talk to in the shooting world who think everything somehow will be alright. I can tell you it won’t. I really hope that if there are still some who think that ‘it does not really affect me’ or who are quibbling about the details of what you are doing, that they soon get the message that the BGA is a lifeline for all, yes, all, who love our sport.”

I hope you can be part of a sustainable future by joining the BGA today:


June 2018: Pre-release and Preparing for Bird Movement 

Ben South BSc (Hons) BVetMed MRCVS 

The most stressful time for all bred game birds is the point at which they are moved from the rearing sites to the release pens. I think the best way to describe the level of stress and changes these birds have to face is to imagine being sent to live on a remote desert island tomorrow for a year. Not only do you have to face the stress of travelling there but once you’ve landed, there’s a completely different environment to deal with.  There would be a number of stress factors; where will you take shelter, what will you eat, where you can find water that is safe to drink and what predators you need to look out for. Consider this when you are planning the release of your birds and the importance of eliminating these potential stress factors. A lot of it is down to planning.

The Rearing Field

By now, both pheasants and partridge have been in the pens for several weeks. Many sites will run several staggered batches through the rearing field and depending on the size of the flight pens and the weather conditions, some pens can be quite poached. Ensure wet areas are cleared and give birds more space if possible. Clean and accessible water is essential out in the flight pens and good access to dry pellet. There are several factors managers must consider two to three weeks before the birds are caught up and moved.

  • The ClientHave you contacted your client in good time to discuss when the birds will be ready for transfer?
    • Remember, you have taken a lot of time and expense to grow these birds to the condition that they are in and you must ensure your client is ready for them to arrive when they are at their best. We are often called to sites due to delays in transfers. Birds that are over-crowded and stressed often lead to disease outbreaks and pecking.
  • Bird AgeAre all your birds of the relevant age for moving?
    • Birds that are too young will struggle to cope with the stress of transfer and will not do well once released at wood. Pheasants should be around 6-7 weeks and partridge can be anywhere from 12-18 weeks old.
  • Bird ConditionAre all your birds fit and in good condition?
    • Never consider moving birds that are weak or in poor condition. If a pen looks poor due to disease, give them more space and time along with some veterinary input before transferring them. A strong bird will travel better and find shelter, feed and water quicker once at wood.
  • Weather ForecastWhat is the forecast for the next 7 days?
    • Do not just consider the weather for the day of transfer. So often birds are moved on a good, dry day but then spend the next 5 days in rain and break down in disease. Avoid moving birds when it is raining.
  • Distance to ClientHow far are you travelling?
    • If you know you have travel far, start catching birds earlier. You do not want to be releasing birds to wood after around 11am. These young poults need time to find feed, water and a safe roosting site before it goes dark. The more time they have the more likely they will stay strong.
  • StaffHave you enough numbers to ensure an efficient catch?
    • Ensure that during catching you are as quiet as possible, no loud radios! Do not try and catch excessive numbers of birds in each hand and ensure you handle them with care when placing into crates.
  • Intestinal SupportAre you giving your best support to the birds?
    • Gut health often becomes compromised during stressful periods, especially at transfer, which can lead to gastrointestinal disease. I suggest in the weeks leading up to transfer date, birds are supported with an organic acid such as Ultimate Acid in the drinker lines. If you know your site is particularly susceptible to protozoal outbreaks then consider enhancing this support with the addition of Parazilin or Coccilin Plus. 

 The Release Pen

 It should never be overlooked that estates and gamekeepers have as much responsibility in ensuring good transfers of poults to wood as the rearing fields. Blame is so often thrown around from one side to the other when poults start dying, but if both parties work together and maintain good communication, many issues will never arise. Consider the following points well in advance of taking your delivery of birds this season:

  • PensAre your pens ready and suitable for young birds?
    • You are responsible for providing an adequate environment for the young poults that are arriving. There should be good areas of low lying cover and low perches for them to roost. Predators should be controlled and pop-holes all closed up. Take a look at our Pen Assessment piece in our Game Vet Blog for further advice
  • StaffHave you enough staff to help release the poults?
    • Ensure you are there to oversee the release of poults. If you have any concerns at this point, make them vocal and speak to everyone involved including your vet. 
  • TimingWhen have you requested your poults to arrive?
    • Avoid taking poults to wood in the afternoon. There isn’t anything more important than ensuring your new poults are in the pens on time and when you have agreed with your rearing field. Delay will cause disease.
  • WeatherDo you know the predicted 14 day forecast?
    • At this time of year you should be more knowledgeable of the weather than an arable farmer. Precipitation is not our friend and if it is unavoidable, ensure dry pens are filled first and provide extra cover from the rain. Wet poults will become cold and compromised allowing disease to take over.
  • FeedHave you provided enough access to feed?
    • Remember these poults have been reared in simple pens with only feed bins and water drinkers. Ensure hoppers are covered, flat and easily accessible for young birds. Always provide plenty of hoppers. I suggest one per 100 birds. Do not spread pellet on the ground as this will attract wild birds, rodents and slugs. Consider providing feed around the perimeter of the pens as well up the rides. Often poults will dispense to the fences where they cannot find feed.
  • WaterIs it clean and is it free flowing?
    • Water is vital for young poults. This is even more crucial if the journey has been long or the weather is hot. Find out what the poults are used to drinking from on the rearing fields and try and emulate this at wood. I would recommend priming the clean drinkers with Ultimate Acid and keeping the birds on this through to release.
  • WormsHave you ordered your wormer?
    • Gastrointestinal worms will severely compromise even the strongest of poults. As soon as birds arrive on your site they will be picking up eggs from the ground. Allow this to happen and start your worming regime after 10-14 days after the poults have arrived. I suggest using an in-water wormer like Panacur AquaSol. 

Remember planning and communication is key. With all this in mind, I hope the weather behaves and that the young birds get the best start they can out in their pens. 

May 2018: Can Technology Help on a Game Farm? 

One of the big lessons learnt over the last few years within the poultry industry is that to control disease in chickens and to reduce antibiotic use we have to have more control over our environment. Broiler sheds are now fairly complex with the ability to monitor air flow, temperature, humidity, ammonia and light continually through a built-in climate monitoring system.

While traditional rearing of game birds in the UK is still generally carried out in small outdoor sheds, it is very difficult for us to control heat, light and ventilation whilst outside temperatures fluctuate so much. My visits to partridge rearing sites in the South West of England in May showed frost on the keepers’ windscreens…Looking forward to my visits this week in Inverness and the Cairngorms!

St David’s Game Bird Services has always had an interest in finding ways to monitor performance in livestock and we have been developing relationships with a number of companies to investigate this further. This took me recently to a conference in London where climate systems are used in shopping centres to make the environment more comfortable for people to spend more time buying goods. I’m not convinced it will work for me unless of course it’s an interesting gun shop!

Hatchery egg shell temperature monitorThe next interesting fact is that the sensors can have parameters set so if the temperature is too low or too high, a text message or phone alert can be sent. Wireless sensors currently available are temperature, humidity and water flow with several others being developed including a 4G camera.

More information on these devices can be seen at our website   

Ultimately, we will need to look again at how we rear birds especially in the early stages where heat, light, water etc. are critical. To help with this and as birds are now coming onto game farms, my colleague, Kenny Nutting MRCVS, has produced a range of short videos, the first of which is available at Our brooding packs created for chicks can be ordered from   

I will inform you of progress utilising technology over the next year as well as other initiatives St David’s Vets are developing to assist in improving health and reducing antibiotic use in the game Industry.      

May 2018: Preparing for Rearing Season

The last few months of weather have not been kind to rearing farms and keepers across the country. I don’t know of a site that is ahead of preparations for this season’s rear. The wet, water logged ground has delayed many sites on their cleaning and disinfecting regimes to prepare for the early batches of chicks. Let’s hope for a brighter May. 
Despite the delays it is crucial corners are not cut to get the job done, this will inevitably lead to problems further down the line with bird health.
We’ve discussed in previous articles the importance of getting management and the environment right for early brooding. The naive chicks rely on you to provide them with the perfect start in life. I will re-iterate some management points that I believe to be crucial to brooding:

  • Ensure gas heaters are at the correct height. Often they are too low, leading to intense areas of high heat in the middle of the hut and large perimeters of cold.
  • Try to aim for 36-38°C directly under heater moving to 29-31 around sides.
  • The house should be pre-heated at least 12 hours prior to chick arrival.
  • Huts should ideally be lined to prevent ground contamination.
  • Use new, clean shavings and protect corners by rounding them off with cardboard or excess bedding.
  • Ventilation should be enough to replace stale air, but not compromise heat.
  • Avoid cold drafts at all costs.
  • Water supply must be easily accessible and clean, free from contaminates.
  • Clean open drinkers regularly (4 times a day) as bacterial levels will elevate quickly as contamination increases.
  • Provide probiotic support for the first week of life.

Once the birds are through the first week or two of life we must be preparing for the next challenges ahead. If we have used the appropriate probiotics we have successfully established a beneficial microbiome in the birds gut that is helping to out-compete potential harmful environmental bacteria and improve metabolism and nutrient conversion. The challenge now is to maintain it.
During this time, the birds have grown almost twice the size and pecking behaviour is more common as birds are investigating their surroundings. 

Chicks will be pecking at bacteria and pathogens from their environment as well as each other. By acidifying the water lines we can help control the pH of the birds gastrointestinal tracts and help develop an environment that favours the more beneficial bacteria that we seeded there in the first week. Ultimate Acid can be used continuously from now until release to facilitate this process.
Controlling the amount of light in the sheds can directly influence the aggressive pecking behaviour. Pheasants tend to be worse than partridges and I have seen many techniques to create dappled light in the house without compromising ventilation and airflow. Using external angled baffles on the window and door vents stops penetrating light beams into the house and allows air to continue moving. Red light has a calming affect on birds and can be created with coloured plastic or red light bulbs. Once the birds are old enough we can, of course, use biting methods.
The period over which the birds are having bits placed is the first of several highly stressful events that occur through their life. Pheasants are generally bitted around 3 weeks old. Over the years, we have seen many explosions of disease at this time, especially as many sites will allowing the birds to roam into the night shelters at this time too. The stress of being handled combined with the new environmental challenges of being out leads to bacterial changes in the gut and a misbalance in the balanced microbiome. I suggest over this time pheasants are supported with both Coccilin Plus and Ultimate Acid products to control the imbalances of the gut flora. We have seen great success in previous seasons with this and it has helped us reduce the quantity of Coccidial drugs being used.
With the early rearing of birds the time that they are let out into the night shelters and the flight pens is crucial. Weather plays a huge part and should influence your decision. Provide adequate drinkers and feeding space as well as ensuring the ‘pop-holes’ are large enough to allow more than one bird through at a time.
Veterinary advice should always be sort if you have concerns over bird health and/or welfare. Post mortem examinations can be performed on site or at your nearest regional office and can tell you a lot about the health of the birds.

April 2018: Chicks in Spain 

As part of our ongoing research and development programme at St David’s Game Bird Services, my colleague Kenny and I decided it was time to go and see how the Spanish rear and release over two million red leg partridges.

Luckily, we chose a time of the year which is relatively quiet for us, very wet and dismal in the UK and lovely in Spain. We headed to Madrid and drove to the facility to see what it was all about.

The first striking point was that the hatchery, the rearing site and the release were all about a four hour drive from each other, had single access roads and we were given protective clothing on arrival to prevent disease transmission. The biosecurity was obvious and with that number being reared we could see why!

IMG_2506The rearing site was vast with twelve long sheds divided into smaller units so that each hatch had a separate facility with two people looking after each house. The set up was similar to ours however with traditional brooding, night shelters and long runs.

However, the stocking density was much reduced as the birds are kept to 18 weeks before being delivered to their customers. Stocking density as well as climate must play a significant role in their success.

The other interesting factor for me was that this business has its own feed mill and uses locally sourced raw ingredients of the highest quality. The vets are working closely with the nutritionist and produce a diet very different from that which we feed to our birds in the UK. They have significantly lower protein levels in all their diets as well as introducing maize and wheat to the birds at a young age.

Spain - April 2018All the breeding birds are housed in relatively barren raised systems and are in these for four years before new stock is added from their grandparent sources. This allows them full control over disease such as mycoplasma (swollen heads). The traditional partridge systems in France and the UK keep the birds in units for two years so it is interesting to see that these birds were seemingly very happy in their environment.

My interest in the visit was primarily to understand their system better as I was very sceptical that partridges reared in the south of Spain would survive our climate when released into the UK. It is now our fifth year of experiencing these birds and they have performed very well and in some cases, have transformed shoots in climatically hostile areas of the UK.

There has clearly been a significant investment into their facilities, biosecurity and incredible attention to detail to achieve this result and I have to say it was a very encouraging experience.

The major point of difference revolved around their multiple release system to maximise returns and our Code of Good Shooting Practice that prohibits such activity. The Spanish were bewildered as to why we do not keep topping up and after much excellent wine, I decided it was best to agree they were correct!

The visit highlighted many areas for us to focus on in the next year. St David’s Game Bird Services are working with our clients to investigate the effect of nutrition and stocking density as well as good biosecurity to maximise health in our stock.

March 2018: Brooding Best Practice 

The first few days in any animal’s life is challenging. For young game birds, this is no exception and the chick’s first week of life is reliant on a good healthy yolk, a non-stressful environment and plenty of easy access to food and clean water. They are completely reliant on you to survive.

Chick brooding is the most important stage in rearing game birds and often developments of methods and systems have not accelerated as fast as the challenges that shape our sector. However, we have been working hard over the past season and identified key areas that will help you tackle these challenges.


The internal temperature of a chick is between 39 and 40.1°C. They have a higher surface area to volume ratio which leads to rapid heat loss. They rely entirely on their external environment for warmth and therefore rely on you to ensure it is adequate, but not too warm. Chicks can easily be over heated as well as chilled. Annually, we see more chicks that have been overheated than we do those that have been chilled. This is often because it is harder to appreciate when they are too hot. If they are too cold generally they start to pile which can easily be recognised. We often see secondary poor gut health related to batches of chicks that have been overheated in transport or during the first week of life.

Consistent monitoring of the temperature is crucial and technology can be a useful aid such as thermal laser guns or Avery Dennison temperature loggers. These temperature loggers can be obtained from PrognostiX at

As well as temperature, remember to carefully control ventilation and carbon dioxide levels. A detailed plan for ventilation and light control should be discussed with your vet, and is an area covered for those that choose to have an annual health plan visit.


Undoubtedly, one of the most important factors in successful brooding is providing accessible, uncontaminated water for your chicks. A chick will consume roughly 1ml of water per hour in its first 24 hours. If a chick is unable to find water it will die from rapid dehydration within hours.

Day old chicks are naive to the world and their surroundings. It is important to give them every opportunity to find water. In the commercial poultry industry nipple bars are used from day one with great success. Chicks are attracted to the bright metal nipple and soon peck at it causing water to spill over their beaks. Your vet should be able to suggest the correct nipple bar set up for your site and type of housing, as well as provide help on setting the system up. 

Additional water drinkers can be used such as open floor drinkers. However, as discussed in our water sanitisation article, the levels of bacteria per 1ml of water can exceed 1.2 billion bacteria units even if they are cleaned twice a day, so the small ‘runts’ that might be saved by providing an open water source, do not equate to the damage to the gut and body systems of the entire shed that can result from poor contaminated water.

Over the years, we have trialled new products and methods of improving bird health. We focus heavily on gut health and encouraging a good start from the very beginning, often before the chicks have even hit the floor. We have found that providing the chicks with a pre and probiotic works best. There are several combinations that work differently and we are able to advise depending upon the system and shed set up on site. Give your designated vet a call to discuss the options.


Once hatched, a chick will instinctively peck at its environment to investigate potential feed and water sources. Getting the chicks to consume a good level of crumb in the first 24 hours is vital. If you have ever sat and watched chicks feeding you will have noticed that they often fail to pick up the object they are pecking at. This is often because they cannot separate it out from the surrounding environment, so often miss it. It is important that in the early stages of brooding we give the chicks every chance of isolating single crumbs of feed.

The best method, and one that has again been used in the poultry industry for years, is the use of chick paper. A fine, biodegradable paper is laid down on top of the bedding and chick crumb is spread out across it.

We hope this article has provided you with some useful information heading into this year’s rearing season. It is an exciting time and we thoroughly look forward to supporting you through 2018. Feel free to contact us to discuss your site specific issues and the various ways in which we are helping sites overcome them. We’ve also created a Brooding Pack which includes Chick Start Plus, Biacton/ZooLac Plus Combo and Chick Paper which have all been tried and tested and used for several years by clients with the lowest antibiotic usage. 

At a discounted price, our Brooding Packs have been created in three different sizes; 1,000 birds, 5,000 birds and 10,000 birds to tailor to your needs.

To find out more or to order, visit or contact dispensary on 01392 872930. 

February 2018: Game Layer Management 

As the season has now finished, it is time to plan for next season and prepare the hens that will shortly be caught up or moved from overwintering pens into laying pens. I aim to share with you some aspects of management which we have found to be beneficial to hen health leading to egg and chick quality.

Catching up hens or moving them from overwintered areas is a common stress trigger point. It is often the time when “bulgy eye” or signs appear suggestive of Mycoplasma. We would recommend using Ultimate Acid in their drinking water from the moment the birds are caught up or 2 weeks prior to their movements from overwintering to laying pens. Ultimate Acid helps to acidify the gut environment and helps to promote a positive gut flora. Maintaining good gut health will help aid overall bird health and reduce the stress on the birds.

If bulgy eye is seen, as per figure 1, it would be worth getting them tested to identify what pathogens are involved and how and what we could vaccinate the following year. This has proven to be beneficial sites I have worked with recently and has allowed for a site specific vaccine prevention programme. If you would like more information on these tests and what is involved then please call your direct vet or Head Office on 01392 872932.

The worming of caught up or transferred hens should also be undertaken using the licensed product Flubenvet. However, if this is unavailable or not possible in your system then in-water Panacur AquaSol can be used. It disperses much better than traditional Panacur medication and is ultimately the most cost effective method for worming birds for laying.

I often get asked about whether or not eggs should be washed. I would always advise not to, unless the eggs are extremely dirty. Washing eggs can lead to inappropriate heating of the eggs; the eggs then cool and suck in external bacteria or can damage the natural protective cuticle on the outside of the eggshell. Fumigation using a fogged disinfectant will often produce good results and greater hatchability. For more information on which fogging disinfectants work best, call your vet who can advise you further.

Figure 2 and 3 show an excellent example of how to still have the floor laying systems which, although not ideal, it can produce some quite clean eggs. Here the half barrel cover has a sunken floor, over which lies a chicken mesh framework covered with straw. This prevents moisture getting in contact with the eggs and produces a clean egg.

If you wish to discuss any other aspects of laying management then please do not hesitate to get in touch!

figure 1

figure 3

January 2018: Pen Assessment 

So the season is going well, the birds are flying high and we finally have some cold weather to bring the birds home! Release pens and alterations is the last thing you want to think about. However, to combat the encroaching in feed prescription restrictions, as a sector, we must begin to look at ways of improving these areas.

I have been looking into clients that have been using in feed medications over the past three years on a regular basis. This is a common picture, and as a result, there is a large list of sites. We have approximately two years to show the government our voluntary self-regulated antibiotic reduction achievements. If it is not substantial enough, then we may have legislative restrictions placed upon us. With this in mind, we must adapt now in order for the birds post release to survive and thrive.

Making pen adaptations is a one to five year approach, and for this reason we must start the process now. We, as a practice, have decided to approach our clients and offer phone and on site advice to target every pen and work out why specifically that pen(s) on their shoot break down with diseases year on year. We have already undertaken this approach with several large and small shoots and have made great headways into reducing medicating of poults released, in fact some of the clients who were using high volumes have said their birds have flown the best in years since not having medication.

It seems every pen is different and there are no one set of rules that works for them all. For this reason, we have found this tailored on site visit approach works best. We can justify the use of medications if we are physically trying to prevent the diseases from entering the birds via various strategies advised. Each release pen health plan will include tailor made advice covering the following areas, there are of course several hundred ways to improve pens but these are the best and most common we are finding:

1. Quantity, location and type of feeders and drinkers that are best to use.
2. A robust and practical programme of change
3. Predator prevention/management techniques
4. Proactive preventative programme of alternatives to antibiotics for use in water and feed.
5. Water system, hygiene and approach.

I have provided some simple points to think about next time you walk around a pen. We are able to offer pen assessments for our clients to help you adapt to the challenging industry changes ahead of us. If we have not been in touch regarding this and you wish to discuss this further, do not hesitate to contact us on 01392 872932.

December 2017: Good News from the Game Sector in Antibiotic Reduction, 

We were very pleased to have been able to announce that as a sector we have reduced our usage of antibiotics both in feed and water by 36% compared to the last year.

The largest proportion of this reduction was in feed at over 50%. The prophylactic use of medicine, that is the use of medicine in feed to prevent a disease before it has been diagnosed, is now not possible. As a result, we are spending a lot of time at present investigating problem shoots from last year and helping them with practical advice in anticipation of the challenges again next year.

While we are pleased with the reduction achieved, we are still very much higher in usage than other sectors and as antibiotic resistance remains a high priority on the Government’s agenda, I suspect this topic will continue to be at the forefront of what we do.

In many cases, the pressure to reduce the use of antibiotics has had some great success stories. Simple changes in management resulted in improved health, better flying ability and better cash flow. Other cases have been more complex, require more work and we are also increasing our knowledge base at the same time.

At a recent meeting between UK game vets we also agreed that next year we would only prescribe the maximum amount in feed for use. Although this sounds like an increase, we felt it was illogical to treat a disease with a suboptimal dose rate which may require more time or with the addition of in water medicines as well.

We are keen to progress this route to reduce antibiotic usage further, as in the long term it will benefit the shooting sector as it becomes more efficient. However, it is imperative that any disease is treated quickly, correctly and effectively and this still remains our primary focus. The important thing then is to really analyse what went wrong and correct it.

As a practice, we continue our focus on gut health in game birds and further develop our Poultry Pharm range of products to assist in times of challenge and stress. We have had some very positive results with these products in preventing coccidiosis and reducing the incidence of hexamita.

We have also carried out a lot of work this year with worm egg counting and discovered periods when it is advantageous to treat worm burdens to prevent hexamita outbreaks.

At present, we are spending time with overwintered flocks in the UK and abroad and we are hoping to spend some time discussing adult birds and chick quality in the next article.

August 2017: Big Changes in the Game Season, Though There is Light at the End of the Tunnel! 

Dr Kenny Nutting BVet Med MRCVS

A lot has happened since our last article, so I thought I would summarise what we are finding out in the fields and how our aims at reducing antibiotics are going.

Since mid-July, the weather has taken a turn for the worst, as it often does in the UK. I have to say, I have not seen as much rain in the last two months as I have since the summer of 2012- when a boat was a better form of transport around the game farms than my 4×4! It has not been an ideal summer to aim for our 25% reduction in both feed and water antibiotics. However, early information both from vets and feed mills suggest that we may be on target, which is encouraging to hear. 

Visiting approximately 20-25 game farms and shoots a week I get to see the good, the bad and the ugly. It is clear that there are many shoots that, despite the poor climatic conditions, have not noticed any negative effects on their birds without antibiotics in feed. However, several changes and supplements have been used to cope with the removal. I have had daily chats with, and quite rightly so, worried gamekeepers convinced that their birds will die uncontrollably through release. Luckily, in the majority of cases, this has been proved wrong. Either the birds were supported well via gut health products in feed or in water, or in water medication was used early on. Of course, with the removal of any medication, it has highlighted the cracks in both the rear and release pens on some sites and the mortality has been far higher than we would aim for.

Noticeably, the game farms with the highest number of different age groups have struggled to contain diseases such as Hexamita the most. Game farms with up to 4/5 batches have coped much better. Discussing this with the game farms, it seems often that the shoots are demanding certain dates to fit in with events such as game fairs, harvests or festivals on their land and dare I say, because the release pens have not been put up yet!

As discussions have progressed it seems many game farms are deciding to have more birds in an age group and less age groups on the farm. I think this is a wise decision from a disease perspective and a husbandry approach. Fewer age groups mean less disease, less challenges for the birds, less antibiotics used and stronger healthier birds for release. I wonder if it is better to have a stronger healthier bird earlier (or later) or a slightly weaker and smaller bird on time. Maybe a little more understanding from both sides of the fence could help solve this one?

As with all products and services, traceability is more or less a common demand and understanding when exchanging money. People wish to know where their item has come from, been produced and using what components, especially true for food producing animals. It is therefore unsurprising, especially given the increased demand on antibiotic reduction, that for the first time I have had shoots requesting a full clinical history with their birds from game farms. If you spent £40,000 on a car would you not want a full service history, repair history and MOT? Would you not pay more if some level of guarantee came with the car?

I work closely with a very good game farm in the Oxfordshire area. The main manager and part owner has an incredible attention to detail. We have a specific rearing protocol for all birds on site. When the birds are then delivered to their customers they are provided, if asked, with a verbal or written guidance on what the birds have had and what they should be continued on in the release pen for the first few weeks to reduce the stress of transfer. 

Over half the batches of birds have had no cocci or antimicrobial medications and have reared well on a combination of Ultimate Acid, Coccilin, probiotics and high quality feed with minimal feed changes. This programme has been recommended to their clients, which have removed in feed antibiotics and these have not suffered with diseases, other than “the gapes”.

If ever their clients get an issue, they send me out on site to visit the client. I make a fair judgement whether it is the game farm’s or the shoot’s issue and then I advise and treat appropriately, the service is quick and effective. This transparency and attention has meant we have not seen a case of Hexamita on site for 3 years, even in a year such as this. The system has been invested in well, with nipple bars and a mixture of barns and traditional wooden buildings, and it has taught me that game rearing with reduced antibiotics can be achieved with the correct guidance, dedication and as always, investment. 

There is without a doubt light at the end of what seems at the moment a very long tunnel, and I look forward to the period of change upon us and how we can all work better together to keep this industry expanding as it is!

March 2017: Is Bird Flu the Biggest Disease Threat? 

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

As a game bird practice we are experiencing a high volume of calls relating to all possible scenarios as to ‘what will happen if.’  The answers are always negative and there are few solutions to limiting the wild pheasant and partridge population from seeding infection from migratory birds.

There is much mileage in considering factors such as biosecurity controls. For example, reducing spilt feed, limiting movement of birds, assessing the risk of ponds etc.

However, the common diseases that we can control such as worm infestation, hexamita and mycoplasma are rarely covered in such detail. Actually, the wild bird population will move home in the next few weeks and the Bird Flu risk will diminish until next winter but the likelihood of having a preventable and costly disease that we can control is taking second place.

The proactive shoots and game farms are already planning a strategy for prevention and this is beside the backdrop of a Government scheme to reduce antibiotic usage in the food producing industry. The Government has advocated a level of less than 50 mg of medicine for 1 kg of meat produced. Many practices are now measuring usage and we are assessing how this can be reduced to comply.

There are many success stories, and with a detailed plan and some proactive advice (and some luck) we have achieved a number of large shoots to get to a point of using no medication. The results with respect to the birds flying ability was marked and a very exciting outcome for the project.

The lessons learnt have been very informative as well, with some associations made very clear. One that I was interested in was that stocking density in a pen does not always have a direct association with disease as management factors became more important. With good management the birds in a pen can be made disease free by reducing stress.

Careful attention to detail from the supply of day olds through to the final product will have a great influence on your shoot day and there are a number of things we can change as we have control.

Over the next few months I will discuss specific aspects of what you can do to help improve the performance of your shoot through attention to detail. The next article will focus on choosing your chicks for optimum performance.

Sept 2016: Review of the Rearing Season from the Vets

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

The most significant aspect of the rearing season for us was the apparent increase in numbers of birds reared for supply to the shoots. All areas of the system have been increased from laying hens, to hatching and to poults supplied to shoots.

This has placed demands on operatives and cash flow and while some businesses can apply themselves well to expansion, others have not fared so well. Simply increasing stocking densities in rearing sheds or into release pens we know does not work but requires more space, equipment and infrastructure, as well as cash.

The increased demand for chicks and a limited supply meant that chick quality was about average and we experienced some high mortalities in the early days of life. The knock on from this is that the birds that remain tend to be stronger and better for the shoot but leaves the game farmer somewhat out of pocket!

The other issue that became more evident was that some shoots ask for specific breeds and sometimes this can be difficult with a poor hatch or increased demand. As a result, we are starting to see some shoots with breeds that were not requested.    

From a disease point of view, we have seen a reasonable weather pattern with some great rearing programmes. There were the usual issues with parasites and we seem to be able to deal with worming issues better as we understand the management techniques required to control this problem in release pens that have been used for many years.

The swollen head issues reported from last year increased again this year as the disease is transmitted vertically. This means that the problem is passed from hen to chick via the egg so it is essential that we test the hens and start to control the disease at this level. As vets, we meet to discuss the season each year and start to put together a programme to try to control this dreadful problem. We also discuss issues such as this with all other game bird veterinary practices and research institutes to gain as much knowledge as possible.  

The Spanish partridge trade appears to be becoming stronger as we see more birds arriving this year. Our decision to leave Europe and the subsequent currency changes may well impact on this trade next year as the birds will increase in price if the pound is weak. The converse, I guess, is that shooting is more affordable for those guns visiting the UK to enjoy our sport.

As I write, partridge shooting has just started, our work is almost finished and we start to work with those game farmers who are holding hens and cocks for next year’s chicks.

Have a great season, from all at St David’s Game Bird Services.  

June 2016: 2016 is turning out to be a rather busy season!

Dr Kenny Nutting BVet Med MRCVS

Along with the political disruption affecting England, there seems to be variance in extreme weather where five inches of rain in an hour has become common place in recent weeks. As expected, this has created a lot of issues with birds on rearing fields and some of the early birds just going to wood. The warm and wet temperatures have been especially ideal for bacteria and worms. I have been seeing gape worms on rearing fields, in places that have never experienced these problems. With this in mind, proactive routine visits have come into their own this year with us constantly monitoring every age range of birds and reassessing our approaches to keep the birds as healthy as possible, given the weather. Interestingly, a recent site that had a heavy delude of rain and flooding of 60% of the sheds, have actually had relatively few issues post flooding, as their gut health was extremely good before the flooding. It just goes to show good gut health is a major player in keeping birds alive even in extreme climatic conditions.

Hoping to get the shorts out next week, fingers crossed that things will start to improve.

May 2016: Strong signs for a sustainable future in the game industry. 

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS 

The rearing game season has set off at quite a pace with many rearers having increased capacity and many poults now at bitting stage ready to move onto grass runs in preparation for transfer to release pens in early June. The threats of bird flu and transportation issues seem to have taken something of a back seat and chicks are arriving thick and fast.

Partridges did not get off to such a good start with the cold conditions and some quite high early die offs. This has been seen across the board and often takes out the weaker chicks leaving the remainder which thrive.

We have been providing a lot of release pen advice over the winter and there seems increased enthusiasm for new drives and enlarged pens to increase numbers and improve bird hygiene conditions. We have also taken on a number of new shoots on ground never shot before and I am told there are several more to come but to keep it secret!

I am also noticing new entrants to the business with many young lads interested in the sport and the engagement of the year’s cycle from laying pens, to incubation, rearing, release and the culmination in a day’s shooting. There is a lot of work taking place every day of the year and as a Practice, we used to cover a six to eight week period and now much of our job is continued throughout the year, albeit a few months in the shooting season. Time we seem able to fill as well!

It is great to see so many youngsters getting involved and also that many are now female and it gives me great hopes for the sustainability of labour for the future. Several years ago, the job was apparently unwanted and now there is greater enthusiasm for getting involved at all stages of the annual cycle. As the business grows there is also an increased use of technology.

Many rearing businesses are now using sensors which can indicate temperature and humidity in the sheds as well as setting alarms to go off if the birds’ heater goes out or water flow alters significantly. This does not replace the old fashioned practices of checking birds regularly but does act as an aid to the management of these birds.

The weather now in May is warm and dry with some occasional showers is near perfect as it allows the cover crops to germinate as well as allowing the first chicks access to the outdoors and the lush grass.

We soon will be transferring to the release pens on the Devon shoots and I shall update at that time.         

January 2016: Bird Flu and thoughts for 2016. 

As you are aware there have been several cases of AI reported and confirmed in France that has caused some concern as to the availability of Game bird chicks in the forthcoming season.

Last reports confirmed a total of 61 cases based in the South West of France, including the Dordogne and Landes Regions mainly. Thankfully these are a long way from the areas where the Game bird parents are kept for breeding purposes.

The outbreaks have also been reported mainly in ducks used for fois gras production. Interestingly the areas have in the past shown positive to low pathogenic strains through the European Poultry survey which several of you may be familiar with having been contacted by DEFRA to take bloods for analysis. It appears that these strains have then become high pathogenic strains as they have mutated and then spread through the duck populations.

The bird flu restricted area is quite large and there would be no export of eggs or animals from these regions while culling, cleaning and disinfection takes place. We are confident that with increased bio security and the control measures in place that it would be unlikely that this will affect trade of day old birds or eggs to the UK due to differing geography.

The ban by Brittany Ferries to transport day olds from France is also a forthcoming challenge to the French and Game Industry in the UK.

The shooting season is in general going very well despite the mild and wet weather and with unprecedented low levels of disease, I find my vets out and about picking up and enjoying their shooting!

The forecast is that 2016 is strong for bookings for days shooting and we are busy talking to shoot owners about expansion, the creation of new drives and ways of differing the shooting experience for guns. 

We rely very heavily on the French for our genetics and for supply of our raw material. They are very good at what they do and concentrate on the detail required while we are best at running shoot days.

That said we are detecting a movement within the customer base as many shoots who traditionally caught up birds for breeding are now focussing on improving the shooting for next year and deciding to buy poults from Game Farmers. In the meantime, those in the UK focussed on breeding hens and cocks are increasing flock sizes as the French supply appears challenged by transport and bird flu issues. However any expansion is a mere blip compared to what we buy from France!

Best of luck for the rest of the season which appears to pass more quickly each year!

December 2015: Bird Flu… Another reason to support British Game Farmers.

Dr Kenny Nutting BVet Med MRCVS

Pheasant in the snow

By now, any regular readers will be aware that we at St David’s are passionate about supporting British game farms and reducing our reliance on imports. 

There is currently an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the French Dordogne region which is considered to be the centre of foie gras production. There are currently three sites under movement restrictions with Protection and Surveillance zones set up around each of them. The first Farm infected was found to have highly pathogenic H5N1. The two recent farms approximately 50km and 90km away from the original farm have both been found to have highly pathogenic H5N2 which is a slightly different strain. Further testing and investigation is currently underway.

If it is found these cases are linked, it highlights how quickly this disease can spread. The region where the farms are located are still approximately 300km+ away from the main region of French pheasant farms. However if an outbreak like this was to occur during the imports of chicks, eggs or poults it would severely affect the supply of birds for the UK shooting industry.

From my perspective as a vet, this is a very real threat and something we as a team are working hard to help our clients prepare for, when it occurs over here. Speak to your vet about how you can best prepare both financially and physically on site against Bird flu. This is a chat you should be having when creating your annual health plans. These health plans are vital to justify the use of medication with an aim of reducing the reliance on antibiotics.  

Hope all is going well with your birds and they’re flying high. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many fly extremely well this year and look forward to many more days supporting this great industry this season.

October 2015: Do Chicks Need to Fly?

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

GOP- St David's article

Recent press releases from the League Against Cruel Sports has highlighted the transport of game from the EU to the UK which has resulted in the ban on transport of live birds by Brittany Ferries. This will include both day old pheasant and partridge chicks and also the increasing number of partridge poults from Spain but not racing pigeons or hatching eggs. It will include any other poultry including chicken and turkey genetic strains.

One of the LACS concerns relates to transport of chicks into the UK and how they are transported. There are very strict Government welfare guidelines in place to safeguard the chicks’ health and conditions in transit and the lorries are specially adapted to facilitate this. There is continual temperature and airflow monitoring along with records of these parameters kept for reference. It’s a bit like a five star hotel with the biggest issue often being released into a rearing hut in the wet and windy British climate!

Although this might seem an easy win for UK game breeders, it has the potential to place a large gap in supply chains as we have a reliance on French imported day olds. I have been worried for some time that difficulties may exist in the future in this area, either through a difficulty with transport or the larger issues of disease control.

The recent outbreak of bird flu in the States, and to a lesser extent our outbreak in Lancashire, did impact on supply to the UK. The closing of areas of French chick supply due to an outbreak of bird flu would have long and sustained issues with respect to rearing and release of gamebirds into the UK market.

There would be no way that the UK could supply day old numbers into the rearing market in 2016 to fulfil the demand where we not to find a way to obtain day olds from France. However there are encouraging signs in our Practice that Game Farmers are looking to expand productivity and feel happy to invest into systems. We are increasingly involved with advice relating to the management and care of laying flocks and within hatcheries and with selection of breeds as each customer is looking to have unique genetic strains.

We have much to learn from the French who have been perfecting laying hen management and performance for many years and produce a high quality chick.  

With recent events the salient point, in my mind, we should start to consider buying local day olds form English sourced stock and help invest into UK game farms to supply birds for what we have- the best Game sport in the world.            

September 2015: Grouse Numbers…. A Changing Period?

Helen Errington BVMS Cert SHP MRCVS and Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

The ‘Glorious Twelfth’ was unfortunately a disappointing day for many upland gamekeepers and moor owners this year. Bag numbers were lower than they have been for years and the ratio of old to young grouse shot was higher than desirable. Consequently, many moors have now cancelled any further shooting days.

It is easy to blame the very poor spring weather and indeed up here in the Pennines, we had baby chicks hatching into snow cover. Keepers have been reporting a higher than normal percentage of infertile eggs and fading broods.

At the practice, we have had a number of shot grouse into post-mortem and we can report that there are still high levels of the Strongyle worm, Coccidiosis, Bulgy Eye and Tapeworm infestation. Tapeworms were always thought to be non-pathogenic in grouse but the sheer weight of infection seen in some grouse and the changes in the gut could suggest otherwise.

The data we collect from shot grouse, although interesting, is unlikely to be the whole story of why so many chicks were lost in this year’s breeding season. It is important that we investigate why we are losing these young birds and the way to do this is to try and diagnose the causative diseases and factors in the spring when the birds are dying. This depends on good collaboration between the grouse managers and their responsible veterinary surgeons.

Let’s hope that next season will bring some flourishing broods!

Meanwhile, in the slightly warmer but equally as wet England, a slightly more positive rearing period for both pheasant and partridge was seen. We have seen some of the best birds being released in years!

We also suffered with higher than normal chick quality issues, though these were not caused by the same factors as the grouse. The bulk of rearing was generally hassle free with coccidiosis a lot lower than last year. The rain came just at the moment when we had many of our clients releasing tens of thousands of birds. At one point we wondered if it would make financial sense to go into an Ark building business!! Thankfully, things are slowing down and it is now at the point where we can take stock of the season, evaluate the innovative trials we have been doing throughout the rearing season and find new ways to combat issues for next year!

Helen Errington BVMS Cert SHP MRCVS and Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

August 2015: Perfect Partridges and Another Outbreak of Bird Flu

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

At the Practice most of the pheasants have left the rearing fields and are now starting to leave the release pens. Many are beginning the transition from pellet and moving onto wheat. The rearing has been relatively straight forward again this year although chick quality was very average. Early birds were nice and even and reared well as did the late birds but the chicks in the middle period were less good.

Release has also been straight forward and although there was some challenging weather in early July most birds were old enough to cope.

On the other hand the partridges have been startling!

Early cold weather led to tight brooding and small mortalities to the first week. On many game farms were we carry out weekly checks we have been surprised how healthy they have remained. Many partridges require medication for coccidiosis at around four weeks and we have seen several farms still have not used any!

In many cases the Game Farms have been using non medicated agents to help create optimal gut health but good quality chicks, cold weather late April and early May and improved husbandry have led to a bumper year for the health of these birds.

Our major cause of mortality at the moment is from birds dying as they hit sections at the end of pens as they try to fly out! So tomorrow starts the transfer to release pens and next week we will see many released and free to fly in the wild.

I have never seen such strong partridges both in rear and in release and would suggest that this year should be a bumper year for both flying ability and bird strength.

In the meantime the highly pathogenic bird flu outbreak in Lancashire appears to be thankfully contained and the birds have been destroyed and the site cleaned and disinfected. Vets have visited the in contact farms and it looks so far to be well under control.

Meanwhile the bird flu outbreak in the US still seems to be moving although the hot summer weather will slow the virus. The toll is close to 50 Million birds affected in the most dense egg and turkey producing States. The US Agriculture department feels the disease will be under control by September.

The virus now appears to be heading into Mexico and calls are being made to step up bio-security in the coming weeks.

We are thankful our outbreak has been controlled and looking forward to the end of the release period.

May 2015: Bird Flu Outbreak Starts to Make Us Think Again?

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

For many years, I have been campaigning for game rearers in the UK to buy high quality chicks from our own stock. We have relied heavily on French imports and we have hypothesised the effect of bird flu on supply chains, were there to be an outbreak in the French valleys. Thankfully, up until now, this has never been an issue but now we may well approach a shortage and it is not the French who have the bird flu virus but the US.

The H5N2 strain is mainly in Iowa and Minnesota States and has claimed the lives of many million birds to date. USDA confirmed that there are now more than 101 outbreaks affecting more than 15.7 million birds; mainly chickens and turkeys. All of the outbreaks are in the area of the Mississippi flyway for migrating birds. There is little information on how the virus is transmitting but some farms are heavily affected in the route and then many are not.

The virus is identified as the dangerous high pathogenic strain causing large drops in egg production and high mortality in broiler chicken and turkeys. Iowa Agriculture Secretary, Mr Northey said that he believes they are somewhere north of 15 million laying hens affected so far; that’s about one quarter of Iowa States chicken population and 6% of the laying industry in the entire US! 

The significance of this to us in the game industry is that the import of chicks and eggs from the US to the UK has been stopped, and we have game farms with no stock of the popular fast flying Kansas and Manchurian birds for rearing for this season. No game farms are currently affected in the US but the birds may be in an infected zone or in the incubation period (the time between getting the infection and showing the signs). We are all hoping that this restriction is lifted soon and the outbreak contained.

In this situation, we immediately turn to the French for supply but they are suffering a bad year with lower production than anticipated, as well as greater demand from the UK due to an increased appetite to shoot more in the coming season. The French supplier blame bad weather conditions and production is behind target.

In the UK, we are also experiencing poorer production as hens are late into lay but we also have few laying flocks compared to the number of chicks reared here. In most cases, we now rely on outside production for a sport developed and nurtured in the UK. The reason for this can be just a few pence difference in the price of a chick balanced against the risk that we now find ourselves in with limited supply and unknown disease status.

There is no doubt that the French and the US have very good breeding farms and do the job very well, at a reduced cost compared to the UK but a small investment in a UK game farmer and support may help us to start to build a better, more sustainable and more controlled supply route to shoots.

So with that, I am off to vote and it might be after the election that I join the Game Keeping branch of UKIP!  

February 2015: How The Portuguese Do It and How Should We Do It?

Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

How the Portuguese do it… How we should do it?

Over the summer, our Practice played host to João, a vet student from Portugal whose family own one of the most prestigious and largest game rearing farms in Portugal. Following João’s time with the Practice, I was lucky enough to be invited to see how the Portuguese run a game farm.

The family business is run by João’s father who has been trialling and selecting his parent stock for over 20 years, and he still has the same strains of genetics now as he did back then! They rear on an average year, 100,000 ducks, 200,000 partridges and 200,000 pheasants.

The Setup

The mallard ducks are reared on large 2-3 foot deep manmade lakes around three barns. There are no nets to stop them from flying off, and the only predator control is a perimeter fence. The birds are brooded in three large barns and are then allowed out onto the lakes when they do not require any heat. The birds are fed on pellets until adult size and are supplemented with tomato skins. This is a bi-product of the human food industry and helps to promote plumage colour.

Once the birds are allowed outside, they are fed several times a day but only in the barns. When the ducks are required for a client, the birds are fed and the doors shut on the barn, thus allowing them to be caught for the client. Years of meticulous parental selecting has created an adult mallard that weighs only 600g. This has, in João’s opinion, created a far superior flying bird to its larger traditional mallard relatives.

Selection & Breeding

The pheasants and partridges have gone through an equally stringent selection process including, genetic selection to ascertain the purist of each strain and to eliminate unwanted strains such as he chukka partridge.

Each bird is compared to breed standards looking at feather colouring, size and shape; any that do not meet the standards are removed from the parent stock. Parent stock is then divided into sections, and their eggs and chicks are followed through to adulthood. Traceability is consistent so that when the birds are released, their flying abilities can be monitored to ascertain which birds produce the best flying stock. The same traceability is also kept for diseases purposes so that any stock particularly good or bad against fighting disease can be kept or removed in the breeding stock.

Once the eggs from the completely closed parent stock are hatched, the chicks are moved to their brooding/rearing barns. The brooding is very similar to the English, with the only main difference being the style of barn and feeding/water systems used. They use similar heaters to the Sierra heaters and brood using only nipple lines.

The feeding system is totally automated across the line of barns, similar to those used in the broiler industry. Great effort is taken to maintain the cleanliness of the water lines using Hydrogen peroxide based cleaners. They also acidify the water to promote healthy guts and reduce the chance of secondary bacteria causing issues after a primary stress such as cocci. Since using this, they have drastically reduced their medication bill!

This heavily automated system allows 200,000 birds to be reared with only two members of staff.

What about disease?

Interestingly, the mortality is generally lower than many UK flocks but similar issues with diseases are faced, with coccidiosis being the main culprit. Hexamita is almost unheard of, and worms are few and far between because of the high temperatures (40°C) and constant sun, allowing both to kill any worm eggs that may be lying around. Unfortunately, coccidiosis often survives these arid conditions and reliance on medication in water and feed are still necessary.

High levels of biosecurity, including single members of staff per age group, reduced stocking densities and reduced mixing of age groups are some of the key principals João’s family have tightly enforced to reduce the spread of diseases. Fortunately, the Portuguese have plenty of cheap land available and so separate sites for laying, hatching and rearing have been easy to create.

The Portuguese system may still not be perfect but João’s family have spent many years trying to get perfection and from the level of parental selection and biosecurity that I saw, it seems the English may have a long way to go yet?! 

February 2015: Game Rearing- How We Fared and What The Future Holds.

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

As we see the closing stages of this year’s shooting season come to an end, it is with great pleasure that I can report no veterinary problems have been investigated. This is a first for the Practice and reflects the perfect weather pattern in 2014 for laying and rearing.

Production of eggs was good but not excessive and the chick quality was very pleasing, with an easy rearing year and a good release. I often believe that high hatching percentages can lead to less viable chicks and there appears to be a correlation in our records to this over previous years. There may be, in many cases, a disparity between breeding farms trying to maximise egg numbers and hatching percentages and their customer’s requirement for viability.

That said, last year saw a large number of partridges for sale as the hatching and laying was high and lower numbers of pheasants available on the market. With increased demand for shooting, this led to a shortage of poults at the end of the summer. Many shoots contacted us for extra birds as they were able to sell more days or bigger days and game farms with surplus saw brisk trade.

With high feed prices in recent years, we have also seen a reduction in the practice of game farms rearing more birds than required for orders due to a high hatch rate or the availability of “cheap” chicks appearing. This also contributed to the market often having some excesses.

The prediction for 2015 looks intriguing!

  1. The demand for shooting is strong, with many shoot owners reporting most days have been sold already – although the deposits have not always been paid!
  2. The large laying units are static, with no increase in numbers so supply appears the same.
  3. The weather is unlikely to be so favourable this year and rearing may be more difficult with higher losses.

This would lead one to think that we may find another year of shortages at the back end of the summer and ordering good quality chicks early should be a useful piece of advice!

October 2014: Rearing Season 2014: How Have We Fared?

Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

The rearing season has now finished and I have to say, what a quiet season, in general, it was. The weather has been very kind to game rearers and although this has been welcomed by many, as a vet practice, a sunny summer usually coincides with pay cuts and holiday reductions for the vets! 

Many comments were made this year from shoots that I had recently visited, that the size of the birds were smaller than usual, although perfectly healthy. Of course – this has led to a few raised eyebrows as to the actual age of birds being delivered but I can honestly say that I have to agree, many pheasant poults of 6-7 weeks have often looked like 5-6 week olds. This is especially true with the smaller strains such as the Kansas. Having looked further into this with a few large rearers, it seems that feed consumption has been lower than in previous years, despite having the same number of birds. 

We see this picture with meat birds in hot weather, when their feed consumption goes down. Much like humans on a sunny beach in the Bahamas, animals in general, are unlikely to consume three full meals a day and the same can be said for game birds. Due to the reduction in feed, birds are taking in fewer nutrients required to put on weight and increase bone structure. However, that said, I have now visited many of the estates that were worried about small birds and they seemed to have managed to catch up and are now looking well feathered and almost identical to the odd adult bird who has managed to escape the clutches of the gun line in previous years!

Along with reduced feed consumption, there were also some birds (regionally) that seemed to suffer with the intense heat during July and the early part of August. Looking closer into the set-up of many of these sites, it was apparent that some sites did not have the sufficient number of drinkers necessary for the birds who were near adult size. Under normal climatic conditions, the number of drinkers would be adequate, however under the intense temperatures experienced this year, it clearly wasn’t. Asking the manufacturers, local vet or fellow keepers is always advised when trying to work out if the number of drinkers is adequate for your flock sizes (as adult birds).

The shooting season, so far, has proved bountiful indeed, with many of the guns commenting on how well the birds have flown, whether it be partridge pheasant or grouse. Certainly, talking with keepers across the country, everyone has been pleased with this year’s birds so far. After the first few weeks of being pushed from one cover crop to another, some birds can be prone to a few diseases and as such, now is the prime time to keep a beady eye on the stragglers left at the back of a covey. Often, it is just the odd one or two but if more and more appear, it may be something more sinister and in my experience, waiting to “see what happens” will always end ‘fowl’.

July 2014: The Good vs. the Bad

Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

With the end of the rearing season in the not so distant future many shoots are now concentrating on the release.

Overall the weather has been kind to the majority of the country with high early temperatures from April onwards and continuing through early summer and looking set to continue. The good weather has generally allowed many rearers to use few drugs and produce excellent birds with some of the lowest mortality figures seen in years. 

There has been a few issues with the outstanding high daily temperatures and unusually fluctuating night temperatures it seems apparent that the smaller and often older sheds with little insulation and minimal methods of ventilation seem to suffer the worst. This is in striking difference to the larger more modern sheds being used which have several methods of minimising the difference in day and night temperatures.

The modern larger sheds have insulated walls and roofs that allow them to keep heat in at night and allow cooler air to be trapped in during the day when outside temperatures have been approaching high twenties. The added benefits of these new larger buildings is the ventilation designs, many but not all have roof ventilation systems that can be open or closed depending on what is required. These also have the usual window vents that allow air to be drawn in and hot air taken out via the roof vent. The added benefit of improved ventilation means these houses often have reduced dusty environments which can only be good for the birds and catchers! 

Birds in the more insulated and or ventilated houses seem to thrive that much better when compared to the fellow comrades. 

Will this spell of good fortune continue…?

Laying season went by with few issues seen, now the rearing season has generally been a good one all round. What will the shooting season bring?

Having had many conversations with keepers about the merits and pitfalls of a bad and good rearing season. I had an interesting conversation the other day with a well weathered keeper, as they say, who made the comment that in his experience the better the rearing period the poorer the shooting season. After much thought and deliberation I would tend to agree.

In a poor rearing season the birds who are weakest and have been exposed to more diseases tend to die off leaving the fitter and healthier birds to survive through all the challenges. This then leads to a fit bird when taken to wood. Whereas the opposite could be thought of when a really good rearing season is had where all and sundry survive including peg leg and tiny Tim. These smaller birds are undeveloped for one reason or another, it could be related to the hatching process or again reduced disease burden allowing them to survive. These birds when released are unlikely to ever produce the calibre of flight required and with the added stress of movement will either be the earliest to keel over or be the few birds that become the entry point for disease in the wood. 

I guess only time will tell whether the best shooting season is ahead of us, but until that time it’s something for us all to bear in the back of our minds when we watch the first birds fly over us!

June 2014: Troublesome Teens

Kenny Nutting BVetMed MRCVS

With the rearing season now well under way there has been quite a varied weather pattern affecting the birds. Localised flooding of some sites has prevented 4week old pheasants from even entering the night shelters. However Mother Nature has been kind to many with high recent temperatures and reduced rain fall in a lot of areas allowing the birds to finally get out and stretch their wings.

There is now a wide spread of age of birds being reared with the earliest now being released to woods this week and the youngest still being laid! The majority however are in their “teenager” phase with the ruffled feathers around the neck and the colouring up of the young feisty cock birds.

Unfortunately it’s that time of year again with plenty of coccidiosis floating about.  For those of you who have been luckily enough to escape the grasp of cocci, it is a Protozoa of the similar family to hexamita and trichomonas. Cocci are extremely fast at proliferating once they enter a bird and once inside the cocci will attack the intestinal walls and cause severe damage and haemorrhage leading to death or huddling.I often get asked why partridges seem worst affected with cocci when compared against pheasants with the same level? The simple answer is we are not sure. There are several theories including the theory that species affecting partridges are more pathogenic (dangerous) than those found in pheasants. In reality this means that when partridges are affected at the same level as pheasants it will often be the partridge dying at an alarming rate and the pheasants who just start to huddle and look ruffled.


Above: Coccidiosis as it appears under the microscope and to the naked eye. As identified by Kenny Nutting throughout the article. 

Getting on top of the cocci issue on your site is key. This little blighter is one of the main primary organisms that allow numerous other secondary organisms such as bacteria, hexamita and trichomonas to enter and proliferate compounding the current cocci issue. A cocci prevention plan, regular anticoccidial medication and high quality management systems are the three main areas to focus on.

Recent work carried out by Zoetis and our practice on coccidiosis in Red Leg Partridges has helped to identify the main periods when cocci is found at high levels in droppings. The trial found the the majority of high cocci levels were in RLP partridges aged between 6 and 12 weeks old, although there were high levels found in birds before and after this time period the majority were within this time frame. This helps to emphasize the importance of coccidial control during this time of rear. The trial also involved looking at coccidial levels in the soil on the rearing site before and 6 months after the rearing season. The findings revealed there was an obvious increase in cocci levels in the soil 6 months after when compared against what was originally in the soil before.

Interestingly the site which ploughed their rearing field had considerably lower cocci levels in the ground when compared with the ground which was not ploughed. This trial is planned to carry on through this rearing season to help us create a better understanding of coccidiosis and how treatments and prevention methods can be altered to ultimately reduce the cocci burden.

Don’t forget there is also a few other issues to look out for during this period of rear. As with many teenagers who keep untidy dirty rooms the same can be said for the birds at 3-4weeks onwards. There is more body weight per square foot, more food and water consumed leading to increased pressure of waste on the bedding, this mixed along with weeks of the odd leaking drinker or dripping nipple create the perfect environment bacteria viruses and other organism to proliferate. Fresh bedding, antibacterial desiccating powders and moving around of feeders and drinkers will all help to reduce the disease burden on the birds.

May 2014: Sex and Drugs

Alan Beynon BVM&S MRCVS

Cocks and hens are busy mating and the favourable weather is helping.

Results from layers are however variable with some flocks doing well and others about average or a bit below average. Egg quality is good but hatching is down. It is interesting that when the laying and hatching are just average, that the chicks appear full of life and energy!

There are now several age groups of chicks on the ground and both partridges and pheasants are doing well. The chicks are as lively as I can remember and are swarming around the food and water sources. It looks like we are off to a good start with steady weather.

We have been starting birds on “chick start” which is specially made with a mixture of energy, amino acids and electrolyte to help the birds get off to a good start. The first few days are critical in a bird’s life and if they achieve good feed and water intakes in this period this will carry through as increased growth rates and bigger birds and stronger birds for flying in the season.

The big issue currently in the game bird veterinary sector is the use of medicines in the rear and release of birds for sporting purposes. The poultry, pig and ruminant sectors have been under increasing pressure from supermarkets to reduce antibiotic inclusion as the use of medicines in our food needs to be reduced. Antibiotic usage is measured in these sectors and management changes are made on farm to reduce the trend and in some cases higher margins are paid for the food produced.

Concerns began as medics expressed their views that some diseases in humans were becoming more difficult to treat as multi resistant strains of bacteria were appearing. Although the veterinary sector was held responsible, the medics were also looking at whether they needed to prescribe antibiotics to all cases of “minor” illnesses in people attending their clinics.

It was decided amongst the game vets, as questions reached Parliament, that we need to at least monitor antibiotic usage in the first instance. A meeting was held at ABN Offices near Oxford and it was thought that medicines dispensed against birds under our care as well as feed inclusion could be assessed.

Once a starting line is established we can try to help facilitate a reduction in the amount used. Clearly weather is a large factor in whether a year is good or bad and in these instances it is difficult to avoid disease challenges, but using medication as a “prop” for poor management will become a thing of the past. Again medicating birds in anticipation of a problem period is also likely to come under increasing scrutiny as medication is only used to treat a clinical problem.

Work at the Practice into non antibiotic solutions continues and where this is accepted by the game farmer or the game keeper as a possibility the benefits are high as not only are costs reduced but also the flying ability is improved.  

Next month we will look at the best methods of reducing diseases faced by your birds in their teenager months.