This summer, around 30 million pheasants and 10 million partridges – mostly the redleg variety, but also some grey partridge – will be let out by gamekeepers in readiness for the upcoming shooting season.
Some of these gamebirds will have been raised by the gamekeepers themselves, using eggs from laying birds caught at the end of the last shooting season.
But the vast majority will come from around 300 specialist game farms in the UK, many of which hold back a closed flock of breeding birds and sell either day-old chicks or fully reared poults. Combined, these farms have an estimated turnover of about £160m, contributing to a UK shooting scene worth over £1.7bn a year to the UK economy.
“Gamebirds only produce young in the spring, so game farming is necessarily a seasonal business,” says Charles Nodder of the Game Farmers’ Association. “Doubtless the production window could have been lengthened by selective breeding, but shooting is itself seasonal, which determines the period of production and release.”
” This is an industry aimed at producing a sporting target, not a piece of meat “
Charles Nodder, Game Farmers Association
To be considered “sporting”, farm-produced gamebirds need to be close in performance to their wild cousins, so over-domestication would be counter-productive, he adds.
“This is an industry aimed at producing a sporting target, not a piece of meat. And although everything that gets shot enters the food chain, with only damaged birds being graded out, the finances are ‘interesting’.”
For example, a “gun” will pay £35 for the experience of shooting the bird, whereas the game dealer will pay only about 50p for its carcass. Breeding selection therefore focuses on disease resistance, survivability and flying performance. The best flying pheasants are very light indeed and meat quality is barely considered.
Fertile eggs are often imported from France, where parent birds are typically kept in cages for the four-month laying season, before being released for shooting.
With the fertile eggs costing about 40p each, and day-old chicks retailing off the game farm for about 80 pence each, the margins are tight for anyone whose focus is on hatching alone.
As a result, most game farms concentrate on selling poults, which at eight weeks of age will be priced in the range £3.50 to £5 each. The main rearing costs are feed, labour and energy (for heating the brooder houses), in that order.
- The Game Farmers’ Association represents the profession and also does much to improve standards. Members of the GFA each get a comprehensive ring-bound game farming guide which covers everything from egg production, disease management and rearing to staff training and summaries of the laws relating to waste disposal and pest control. For more information call 01189 797 255, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.gfa.org.uk.
Figures from the Game Farmers’ Association indicate that the majority of game farms produce between 30,000 and 150,000 birds a year, typically with a husband and wife team supported by casual labour in season. Some farms are bigger, however, and at least two now rear over a million birds annually.
The production methods vary too, with differing degrees of intensity and sophistication, although to succeed all must reflect the aim of producing a wild-type bird rather than an out and out food product.
Some challenge to the growing chick from common diseases and, later on, the weather is part and parcel of producing a gamebird that will go on well once released into the wild.
A few rearers keep poults indoors until four or five weeks of age, but traditionally the best results come from getting chicks out on to grass at just a couple of days old, with access to a heated brooding area in which they will be confined at night.
Many game farms still use small wooden brooder huts, each containing about 300 chicks, with a simple gas heater and pop-hole access to an outdoor run, perhaps with partial shelter provided by a night ark in between.
Others have larger brooder houses for a few thousand birds, with grass runs radiating on all sides. Yet others use large indoor poultry type facilities for chicks up to a few weeks of age, at which point they move them to grass rearing fields elsewhere.
“There is no set way of producing gamebirds and each system has its own advantages and drawbacks,” says Mr Nodder. “All game rearing, however, must comply with the Defra Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds Reared for Sporting Purposes – or its equivalent in Scotland and Wales.”