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Management of Game Birds for Breeding

The correct management of breeding stock can greatly affect the subsequent success of the rearing of the young game-birds. Both the number of young birds produced and their subsequent health can be adversely affected if the management of the parent stock is poor. Conditions vary widely as to the source of the breeding stock and the conditions under which they are kept but certain basic principals need to be followed whatever the circumstances

Source of breeding stock:

Ideally all breeding stock should be over-wintered in pens where they can be regularly checked for signs of disease. Birds caught up in January for breeding stock are more likely to carry disease and this is particularly true if birds from a variety of sources are mixed just prior to the breeding season.

Before entering the breeding pens all birds should be carefully checked so that only the best are selected for breeding. Any bird with obvious signs of disease or in poor bodily condition should be rejected. Birds from varying sources should be kept in separate breeding pens, as should new stock bought in from other shoots.

Breeding Pens:

Breeding pens vary considerably in size and construction but there are a number of basic principles that should be applied to every pen:

  1. Allow sufficient space for the number of birds to be held in the pen. Red-legged Partridges are best kept in pairs or in small groups of about 10 birds (8 hens, 2 cocks). It is not advisable to keep Red-legged Partridges in groups of more than 40 birds as females are particularly prone to show signs of stress in larger groups. Grey Partridges should be kept in established pairs.
  2. Provide sufficient cover when birds are kept in groups both for egg laying and for birds to establish their own territories so that bullying can be minimized. Shelter also needs to be provided for use during inclement weather.
  3. Provide sufficient food hoppers and water containers so that competition for food and water is minimized. (A minimum of one food hopper and one water container per 15 birds for birds kept in groups)
  4. Maintain correct cock to hen ratios. For birds kept in groups, start with a higher ratio of cocks to allow the removal of surplus birds if necessary.


Birds should be on a rising plane of nutrition up to the start of the breeding season and hens should increase their body weight by about 15% between the end of February and laying their first egg. It is important that the birds receive a balanced diet and that they do not become too fat. Pre-breeder diets are available or breeder diet may be introduced about two weeks before laying commences.

Disease control:

Preventing sick birds entering the breeding pens by careful screening and preventing wild birds having access to the pens are the two most important factors in minimising disease in the breeding stock. Birds should be routinely wormed on entry to the breeding pen and veterinary advice should be sought prior to the start of the breeding season. Any birds that die should be submitted to your veterinary surgeon for examination at the earliest opportunity so that any diseases present may be identified and treated if necessary.

Contact your veterinary surgeon before submitting birds to ensure that the birds submitted are those required to reach a diagnosis.

Handling and Storing Game Bird Eggs

Where breeding hens are kept in captivity, many potential chicks can be lost due to the poor handling and storage of eggs. A lot of these eggs are recorded as being infertile but close examination often shows that they were in fact fertile but events after the eggs were laid resulted in their failure to develop.

It is important that game bird eggs do not become unduly contaminated. It should be remembered that in broiler production ‘floor eggs’ are never used as they are regarded as potentially contaminated. Game bird eggs therefore start with an immediate potential disadvantage.

Partridge eggs

Eggs must be collected at least twice a day from the start of the season and the last collection should not be before 6pm so that the number of eggs left overnight is minimal. If the last collection is earlier, then a proportion of the eggs will be laid before 6pm and if incubated overnight will start to develop. These eggs are less likely to start development again when artificially incubated than eggs that have not been pre-incubated. At times of peak production and in poor weather conditions (either very wet or very hot) collections need to be more frequent.

The newly-laid egg is very fragile and if roughly handled the chick will fail to develop. The shell does not need to be damaged for this to occur. Unless great care is taken, eggs transported from the pens to the hatchery over rough terrain on the back of a pick-up truck are likely to show a reduction in the number of eggs that develop successfully.

Once collected, the eggs need to be washed either by hand or in a commercial egg washer. The wash solution needs to be warmer than the egg to prevent contamination being sucked into the egg via the shell. Always follow manufacturer’s instructions when using solutions to clean eggs as too strong a solution or washing for too long will damage the outer layer of the shell. This will result in increased chick mortality. Fresh solution should be used for every batch of eggs washed.

Commercial egg washer

Eggs should be stored for at least twenty-four hours before being set. Many eggs, particularly early in the season, are stored for far longer periods and the number of eggs that fail to develop will rise rapidly if eggs are stored for more than a week.

The ideal egg store will maintain eggs between 13oC and 17oC and at a relative humidity of 75%. If eggs are stored outside these ideals, then again the number of eggs that subsequently fail to develop will increase.

As the numbers of eggs produced per hen is limited, it is important to maximize the hatchability of those that are laid. Where problems exist, it is important that they are investigated at the earliest opportunity.

Rearing Field Preparation

The prepartion of the rearing field plays an important part in the future sucess of the rearing of young game birds, so time taken to prepare the field correctly can significantly reduce future problems.

Disease can be easily spread to and within the field on contaminated footwear and hands from apparently healthy adult birds so if breeding birds are present they should be kept isolated from the rearing field.

Ideally different staff should work on the breeding field from those on the rearing field but, if staff move between fields, they should wear different protective clothing; particularly different footwear. It is important that strict isolation between the fields starts before the first chicks are placed. If staff tending the breeding birds help to set up the rearing field, they may have carried disease to the rearing field even before the first chicks arrive. Rotavirus could easily be spread in this way, resulting in early disease being seen in the chicks. Biosecurity must therefore be implemented before chicks are present and preferably before work on setting up the rearing field has started.

All huts and run sections for use on the rearing field should have been disinfected as far in advance of the coming season as possible, with a DEFRA-approved disinfectant and where necessary with a disinfectant that kills coccidial oocysts. A calculation as to the number of chicks to be reared will have been made and the necessary accommodation checked as being available.

It is not easy to give general advice on the ideal stocking density with so many variable factors, such as the presence or otherwise of shelter pens and the variation in the age at which the birds are destined to leave the rearing accommodation. As a rule of thumb, the birds should have sufficient house / night shelter for all the birds to be able to return for heat and shelter if necessary and to be able to move about the accommodation to find food and water at any age. This means that there must be the facility to have sufficient feeders and drinkers for all the birds in the accommodation if this becomes necessary.

The quality of the housing and brooders largely determines the heat, light and ventilation for the young birds. With the great variety of weather conditions we can experience in a British summer, the housing must be able to cope with the extremes and not just the ideal conditions we all hope to enjoy. It is important to assess the suitability of housing and heaters and if necessary make improvements before the new rearing season starts. The first few days of a chick’s life are going to be critical if it is going to develop into a healthy, quick growing bird that will be able to withstand the stresses and disease challenges that it will encounter during its life. Unnecessary stress due to poor environmental conditions caused by poor housing is avoidable and is one factor that needs to be eliminated before the chicks arrive.

Game Bird Medicines

A Veterinary Surgeon may prescribe medications only to birds that are under his / her care.

For the birds to be considered to be under his / her care a veterinary surgeon must have been given responsibility for the birds by the owner or the owner’s agent. In addition the veterinary surgeon must have acquired from personal knowledge and inspection an up to date picture of the current health status of the birds. Hence it is not legal for veterinary surgeons to supply medicines on demand for birds about which they have no detailed knowledge.

This discussion of medications is for information only, and is not to be used as an aid to diagnosis or treatment, nor as a replacement for Professional advice from your Veterinary Surgeon.

As game birds are considered food animals, it is important that medicines are supplied according to legal requirements.

The ‘cascade system’ of dispensing drugs by Veterinary Surgeons restricts sales to medicines that are licensed to a specific condition in a specific species. If a suitable product is not available, a Veterinary Surgeon may use an alternative product according to a set formula.

This limits the products used in treating birds to medicines that are licensed for other species of food animals or for the same species but an alternative condition. As few medicines are licensed for use in game birds, the majority of medicines used are prescribed under this ‘cascade system’.

All medicines used to treat game birds must be obtained from an approved source:

Routes of administration

Medicines may be administered via the food, the drinking water or by injection (for individual birds).

Vaccines may be administered via the drinking water, spray, eye drops or injection.

The use of the correct medicine is essential to ensure the welfare of the birds. Treatment should always follow veterinary diagnosis of the condition as many diseases give a similar clinical picture.

The route of administration depends upon:

  1. The medicine being used.
  2. The number of birds being treated
  3. 3.  The practicalities of the particular farm.

Food medication requires a Veterinary Prescription (MFS) which must be obtained before the food is made.

General Rules and Guidelines

    1. Use medicines only as advised by your Veterinary Surgeon, Pharmacist or Agricultural Merchant.

    2. Do not mix medicines without taking veterinary advice and ensure that withdrawal periods all medicines are strictly adhered to.

    3. Read and follow the guidelines given with the medicine

    4. All medicines used for game birds must be recorded in a medicine record book within 72 hours of administration.

    5. Store all medicines according to manufacturer’s instructions.

    6. Do not store medicines in the same fridge as food and drink.

    7. Ensure that the cupboard or room in which medicines are stored is kept locked when not in use.

    8. Ensure all medicines are stored in a dark cupboard or room.

    9. Ensure that medicines are kept out of the reach of children at all times.

As there are few licensed medicines for game-birds, in many circumstances unlicensed products may have to be dispensed by a veterinary surgeon under the ‘cascade system’.

In these circumstances a standard mimimum 28 days withhold period has to be observed before the birds can be shot for human consumption.

Always check the withdrawal period on the container before using a medicine, particularly as the shooting season approaches.

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  Sandhill Veterinary Services 14 Long Street, Topcliffe YO7 3RW telephone 01845 578710 fax 01845 577685 email