DAVID WHITBY

Head­keeper David Whitby on a De­cem­ber break, wan­der­ing birds and storms on the hori­zon.

Shooting Gazette - - This Month -

De­cem­ber is the month that fills the game larder, the month that we get our num­bers in. Hope­fully it will be dry, cold and cloudy, with a breeze in the right di­rec­tion, the weather that not only puts birds in the coverts but al­lows us to show them at their best. Tra­di­tion­ally, num­bers were al­ways shot be­fore Christ­mas, with Jan­uary be­ing a ‘cock’s only’ bonus, but not now.

Guns now ex­pect good bags through the sea­son, ide­ally nice evenly spread days that both start and end well, with an ex­cel­lent mid­dle. For all but a hand­ful of wild shoots, we are ex­pected to both hit the ground run­ning and at least be jog­ging at the end.

I sup­pose the rea­son for De­cem­ber days be­ing many peo­ple’s favourite is that game should be plen­ti­ful and weather should be suit­able, un­like Oc­to­ber, which for the most part is any­thing but in­ducive to pheas­ant shoot­ing. In­creas­ingly, early Novem­ber har­bours a leafy canopy and may still pro­duce mild, high-pres­sure days, par­tic­u­larly in the sunny south.

Like most, I shoot hard in De­cem­ber, when overuse of favoured coverts and per­haps shoot­ing more days than is wise re­sults in a shell-shocked pheas­ant pop­u­la­tion run­ning up to Christ­mas. For sev­eral years I have then rested the shoot be­tween Christ­mas and into the New Year. This re­ally works for Jan­uary; birds pull back, set­tle down and it pays div­i­dends where the last month of the sea­son is con­cerned.

Pheas­ants are not renowned for their mem­ory and are far from the bright­est of birds. Give them chance and with oth­ers shoot­ing around, they will re­turn and calm down, giv­ing a great Jan­uary in real shoot­ing weather.

My­coplasma, or in­fec­tious si­nusi­tis, has reared its ugly head. My­coplasma gal­lisep­ticum is a res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease and the costli­est in do­mes­tic birds world­wide. It may be spread from the egg or from di­rect con­tact with car­ri­ers and man­i­fests it­self with cough­ing, sneez­ing and dis­charge from both eyes and nos­trils. As if that alone is not enough, it is of­ten ac­com­pa­nied

by sec­ondary in­fec­tions. An­tibi­otics are the treat­ment of choice.

The in­ci­dence is cur­rently quite low but ap­pears to have spread to much of the shoot. The or­gan­ism does not survive long out­side the host, so I am hop­ing that a cold spell and some rain will help. We have no idea where it has come from; our poults were per­fect and chicks from a reli­able source.

A real mys­tery

The first early in­di­ca­tions may have been mis­taken for gapes had an ex­pe­ri­enced beat­keeper not been alert; wa­tery eyes in some poults soon be­came ev­i­dent fol­lowed by the clas­sic ‘bulgy eyes’. We treated but it was well into Oc­to­ber and our birds were ev­ery­where, not us­ing drinkers and in­creas­ingly tak­ing less food, so it made lit­tle or no dif­fer­ence. This is the fourth case in as many weeks that our vet has been made aware of; the other three were di­rectly traced back to a game farm, but ours re­mains a mys­tery.

The ques­tions re­main as to where it came from and why we got it. The dis­ease is as­so­ci­ated with stress and over­crowd­ing — nei­ther ap­pli­ca­ble to us. It can cross species, though re­search part-funded by the NGO has shown that corvids are un­likely car­ri­ers. The most ob­vi­ous an­swer is other pheas­ants. Ask any keeper if pheas­ants are

“All but a hand­ful of wild shoots are ex­pected to hit the ground run­ning and at least be jog­ging at the end.”

tran­sient in the au­tumn and he will ask you if ducks can swim. They go through a pre- and early-sea­son mode of wish­ing to spread out, it is a con­stant bat­tle of dog­ging-in wan­der­ing birds. The in­ter­est­ing thing is just how far they will wan­der; the fur­thest I am aware of is some 80 miles.

What­ever the source of this dis­ease, it is an­other ex­am­ple of shoot­ing’s sit­u­a­tion. I re­cently cor­re­sponded with a man who felt that ‘we should not wash our laun­dry in pub­lic’. Though a cliché, it has much merit but so does ‘not bury­ing your head in the sand’. I care greatly about the fu­ture of the fine sport of game shoot­ing; I care greatly about the dif­fer­ent red- and am­ber-list species that survive on the back well-man­aged shoots. We have codes of con­duct in place, but they are tooth­less. I have no idea how we should set about cur­ing shoot­ing’s malaise other than to re­lease far fewer birds, but how is this en­forced?

I have read that where game shoot­ing is con­cerned ‘we are all on the same side’. We are most def­i­nitely not all on the same side — there are those who are on the side of a large profit mar­gin and those who gen­uinely love and re­spect game shoot­ing. I fear we will end up at war. Over­com­mer­cial­ism and greed will take with it all the fine ex­am­ples of well-run shoots that are such a bonus to a host of crea­tures and we will ‘all be tarred with the same brush’. There is an­other cliché for you.

Is unity within shoot­ing a gift too much to ask for this Christ­mas?

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