Those of us who are shooting this season will be settling into the routine of feeding and getting ready for shoot days and the camaraderie that comes with it. The banter on the beaters’ wagon, the smiles of the Guns and the feeling that all your hard work over the summer will now bear fruit. For those who were not so lucky, next season is not really all that far away in terms of gamekeeping. The shooting season kicks off as we all know on the Glorious Twelfth, but for the bulk of those that shoot, the real kick off is a few weeks later on 1 September or even early October. For shoot managers and keepers, however, the year starts in February, just as many shooters are thinking about pigeon shooting or summer holidays.

There is an awful lot of planning that goes into a shoot, no matter how large or small. The first thing to do would be to review the seasons past and what you need to change. Even if you have made the decision to cancel your 2022/23 season, now is still a wise time to reflect.

We have had quite a few difficulties over the last three years, with COVID-19 and then the avian influenza outbreak in France. This affected pheasant and partridge egg production for many game farms in the UK, which in turn hit some shoots. Although quite a few more birds were available towards the middle of August than was expected, lots of shoots had already decided to mothball their operations.

COVID-19 and avian influenza are pretty much out of our direct control; neither of these things could have been stopped, but with the latter we could have been more insulated and the shoots that saw things coming early had created as much protection as possible around themselves. The bird flu outbreak in France was known about in January (admittedly it hadn’t taken hold quite like it had there and in the regions that many game bird eggs are produced).

A group of medium-sized shoots in the south of England who were all 100% reliant on French pheasant eggs decided to pool resources and catch up some hens during late January. The shoot which had two full-time keepers volunteered to have the laying field, and as a reward for doing the work were alloted the bulk of the eggs. Each shoot spoke to their respective game farmer and made arrangements for custom hatching and rearing, which basically made them reliant only on themselves and their UK game farm. In this instance, the system has worked incredibly well, with all four shoots having a full season and the game farms having spare eggs at the end of the season to rear and offer to their other customers.

There are, of course, risks with this type of joint working. What if you don’t get the number of eggs you were expecting? Or there is a disease problem on the rearing field? Or heaven forbid, an avian influenza outbreak on the shoot with the laying flock or on one of the game farms? I suppose that the way they planned it out, and having the foresight to carry that plan through as a group or co-op, meant that more was in their control than not. I think I like this plan for small- to medium-sized shoots, working closely with each other and their own game farms, but there are pitfalls other than those I have already mentioned.

I think that the shoots who are catching up (and remember, legally, this has to be done during the shooting season) need to know that the birds, and the entire local area, are clear of diseases. You will need to have a very good vet to come and check the birds before they are moved anywhere to make sure that they are clear. You will also need to accept that, seeing as these birds have now been caught up, they will be unavailable to shoot at the back end of January and you will also need to understand the extra workload that you are putting on yourself. 

There is another option, which is to send the hens to a game farm. However, many game farms are set up to receive just eggs and don’t have the facilities to take adult birds to produce those eggs, so you will need to have that conversation with your breeder.

The big question is if next rearing season will be normal – and the answer to that is simply unknown. None of us have a crystal ball where we can tell the future but to have a plan in place that will insulate your shoot from the vagaries for avian influenza will be crucial going forward.