Where previously our aian influenza concerns were focused on France, unfortunately the situation is now directly on home soil in the UK. We are therefore encouraging businesses to plan now for next season’s laying flocks in order to future-proof and secure self-sufficiency in light of the avian influenza (AI) situation.

We’ve had three unstable years and businesses are fragile as a result. While the AI situation is changing rapidly and constantly, it’s important to recognise that every crisis brings opportunity. We need to use this time to reflect, and come up with a strategy that brings businesses to safer grounds. 

Due to our wide geographical coverage of the UK, Ireland and our international work, here at St David’s we are well linked with various committees, shooting agents and organisations, which enables us to have a good grasp of any challenges both current and ahead of us. Defra are currently working on a number of risk assessments, looking at how we can best manage the situation and adapt to future-proof the shooting sector as a whole. 

We work very closely with the Game Farmers’ Association (GFA), who we have been leading discussions with around adapting the UK breeding programme and implementing a strategy to protect our sector from bird flu and mycoplasma and secure self-sufficiency going forward for years to come. Working with the likes of GFA and stakeholders across Europe has led to an awareness of how shoots internationally are coping with the situation. We know, for example, that Hungary experience bad years on a two-year cycle, yet they have made certain changes and adapted to ensure that the good years cover the bad – making sure each good year provides enough margin for shoots to reinvest.

Overwintering gamebirds

It is important for UK businesses to plan now for next season’s laying flocks with particular emphasis on moving to overwintered stock rather than caught up stock. 

George Davis of the GFA, a fifth-generation game farmer in the UK, has been overwintering stock since his family began the business in 1875. He said: “2022 has literally been a game changer, and as a result we need to look ahead. We are so focused on the here and now, but we need a vision and direction. I think it is important at times like these to ask ourselves some honest questions. We need to support the sector towards building a sustainable future.”

He explained: “Caught up game stock has generally been the main route for breeding until now but that is something that needs to change in light of avian influenza. Overwintered stock allows for better disease prevention and eradication methods such as vaccination, selective breeding for the best flying traits and breed characteristics, and, importantly, public assurance, meaning public acceptance is more likely.”

Other livestock sectors build their successes from very structured breeding programmes, but historically in the UK we’ve had the temptation on our doorstep of having plenty of birds left over in the countryside where people can catch them up and send them to game farms. On face value, a second-hand breeding stock doesn’t look much different to one that has been overwintered.

However, you are essentially pooling different diseases from up and down the country into one spot.
Our country has relied on France and other European countries because they put so much effort into their laying stock. Genetically, and when it comes to disease status, they have often been ahead of us and more up to speed. Hopefully, this will change. It is important that now, post-Brexit, we become more self-sufficient and support our farms. Equally, we have to accept the benefits of the French and our European counterparts and split the risks so that there is enough supply to feed the demand going forward.

Calculations conclude that overwintering will cost an extra 25p per egg compared to catching up stock. This price is reached by taking the current poult price at £5 and adding feed cost up to October, feed cost for overwintering, labour costs, equipment costs, vet fees, vaccinations, and bird losses. This brings the total price of an overwintered bird to c.£15 for next March. There will be an average of 40-45 eggs per £15 bird, once you’ve allowed for mortality and rejected eggs. Take the £11 difference between a £15 overwintered bird and a £4 caught up bird and divide by 45 eggs and you come out with a 25p difference.

While there is this cost implication to moving away from caught up stock, if overwintering helps to increase security and disease prevention, and therefore promote sustainability for the game farms, the shoots benefit and so do the Guns. It is, therefore, a cost that should be accepted in order to create a more robust business.

George Davis commented, “If you’ve ever previously pondered which came first, the answer is plain to see this year. Hens are a precious commodity and how we look after them is more important now than ever. But we know it is not as simple as that. Overwintering stock and running a breeding unit is a lot more commitment and with our climate has plenty of pitfalls. Our sector has certainly taken some knocks over the last few years and the challenge can seem daunting at times.”

He continued, “Making profound changes to your business such as developing a breeding programme will require more financial and physical commitment. This can only start from one place: confidence. Game farming is not for the faint-hearted, nor is it for getting rich quick. So, what is it we are looking for, and where is the source of this confidence? 

"We all have different answers to this question and mine is simple. I am an integral part of a way of life for many people who enjoy the countryside. My customers depend on me to help replenish their wild stocks so that they can enjoy the autumn and winter months trying to find them. What is your answer?”