The height of the shooting season, falling in line with the end of the calendar year, is the opportune moment for reflection. This year, the season succeeds and carries with it a long period of concern relating to the impact of COVID on the shooting sector, but this has essentially enabled a heavy focus on research and development too. Across the country, the team have been putting continuous, rigorous, and innovative research methods into practice. This is integral to finding the best answers regarding the health and disease of gamebirds, and ensuring that the knowledge gained from each study is put into effect for an improved season to follow.

As a result of the difficult breeding and rearing season we saw this year, there were unfortunately very reduced numbers of grouse, and consequently, grouse shoot days. We measured high T tenuis and tapeworm results in August which, so early in the season, was a harmful opening to further disease along the way.

The poor grouse counts and spreading of disease unfortunately forced additional pressures all round for shoots, gamekeepers, and vets, following a year already filled with disruptions and restrictions. The workload increased due to the necessity for more sampling and disease investigations having to be carried out. However, we were able to carry out useful, in-depth research on some moors which weren’t running shoot days because of the low numbers. More clients led full health checks on shot birds compared to previous years to investigate these lower bird numbers. 

With more birds left on the ground at the end of the 2020/21 season due to the early end, alongside a warm autumn 2021, we have seen an increase in respiratory diseases. Any disease challenge can create added stress among keepers, farmers and rearers and we believe this should be combatted by openly discussing the challenges faced and providing support for the appropriate methods of management and prevention of the disease.

Mycoplasma Prevention Plans have progressed and the first ever-gamebird calibrated blood test to identify Mycoplasma Gallisepticum in game birds has now come to market. The consequences of this on flocks is encouraging and the uptake of the test across the sector, which shows the commitment from the industry to reduce the prevalence of the disease.

To date, whilst our work on mycoplasma prevention continues, what we are seeing nationwide among game birds, as well as other commercial poultry and wild birds, is a rise in Avian Influenza. It is typical of the current weather and time of year, but this year (2021) the vets are seeing a particularly sharp rise in bird flu cases. As a result, a national housing order has been put in place for poultry and we encourage gamekeepers to keep a close eye on their birds, while putting the necessary biosecurity measures in place.

The research and trials of alternative products to tackle common disease challenges have proven to be incredibly valuable this year, and specifically where we have investigated the role specific essential oils-based supplements can have within a typical rearing set up. What we are seeing is that they can be cost effective, can lead to a significant reduction in amount of medication required, as well as a marked reduction in mortality amongst the flock. There is always more research to be done however on the best products and combinations, as well as management practices, to create the optimum gut health for the birds to thrive. To do this, we are therefore involved in trialling new set ups and equipment, and increasingly our role as vets moves further away from reactive veterinary care as we are well placed to advise on a number of aspects of a rearing or shoot operation that can have an affect on flock health.

Now is a great opportunity to speak to your local vet to review the season and to carry out your Veterinary Health Plan (VHPs). These visits are designed to provide you with a thorough overview of your site and to work closely and proactively plan with your vet to improve bird health, welfare, efficiencies and returns for the following season. During VHPs, we often speak with clients regarding training requirements and how we can best help them to improve the overall handling and management of the birds throughout the season.

Our vets have been involved closely with the BGA and alongside other game bird vets across the country, we have assisted in setting up a series of training profiles for both game farmers and gamekeepers. There are 3 separate BGA-approved courses: one relating to laying flocks and hatcheries, one for rearing and one for release. These courses incorporate best practice principles taken from the welfare codes, and attendees can expect to gain in depth knowledge of key aspects of bird health, management and equipment for each of the relevant life stages, with key debates in the industry also being covered as a part of the course. It’s a great training profile for game farmers and keepers depending on which of those three operations they’re involved in. This training programme aims to help gamekeepers, across the country, to maintain standards and become certified under new auditing standards.

The COVID-19 pandemic although very worrying and concerning has led many to have had the time to stop and think and this has led to them moving forwards, creating change to become a more efficient, more sustainable business with solid foundations. We as vets are becoming more heavily involved in this change, giving advice to promote the best health possible, to allow shoots to obtain best practice and lead to better sporting birds.