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