Behind the scenes at SRUC Elmwood’s Game Bird Hatchery

Ian Hutchinson and May Fujiwara

Lecturer Jim Goodlad recently gave EPIC scientists and members of Scottish Government’s Animal Health and Welfare Division a tour of SRUC Elmwood’s game bird hatchery facilities and a local release site. The purpose of the visit was to help inform a veterinary risk assessment around the risk Avian Influenza poses to the game bird industry. During the 2016/17 Avian influenza 'season' a number of game bird rearing facilities in England become infected with Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N8. Around 63,000 pheasants, partridges and ducks were culled as part of the disease control measures. Understanding potential disease risks in the game bird industry, and how they are managed, is therefore really important for EPIC scientists as well as Scottish Government policy makers when developing effective disease control plans and trying to minimise the impact on the industry.

Every year, Elmwood campus rear 7,000 and release approximately 2,000 pheasants for local partner estates. Jim has been in charge of the game keeping course for 18 years, having previously worked in the industry for 17 years. Sharing his extensive knowledge of game bird rearing, Jim was able to give the scientists and policy makers a greater understanding of the industry’s workings, practices and processes from egg to releasing birds. Although the Elmwood site is a teaching facility, the principles and practices remain the same for commercial operations which are on a much larger scale. The egg incubators and release pens were empty at the time of the visit in November, but at least this meant that scientists and policy makers could have a good look round without worrying too much about biosecurity.

The gather


In January, preparations begin for the start of the next pheasant shooting season in autumn. Laying stock are caught up, with all birds accommodated into pens. Maintenance pellets, followed by laying pellets are introduced to condition birds for egg production in early April. Birds are selected for breeding in a ratio of 10 female birds to 1 male, housed until late June, then liberated back on the estate. Pheasants start laying eggs from early March, but they are often infertile for the first couple of weeks. Fertile eggs, laid from the beginning of April, are collected in baskets and brought to a hatchery. Eggs are then washed in a proprietary disinfectant using an industrial egg washer.

Perfect conditions 

The washed and disinfected eggs are transferred to an incubator where eggs are automatically turned; with temperature and humidity critical, both are carefully controlled to provide the optimal conditions for embryonic development. Candling (shining a light through the egg shell) enables a visual check that the egg contains a viable embryo.

Prior to hatching, the eggs are transferred from setting trays, to hatching baskets. Eggs are then transferred to the hatcher for the last 4 – 5 days of the incubation process.

Emerging into the world


Once the chicks have hatched they are gathered and leave the hatchery for the first time. Heat source, welfare, and dietary requirements are key for a healthy gamebird poult. Many commercial game bird rearing facilities will purchase young chicks at this stage for growing on.

Preparing for the wild

As the chicks grow, at three weeks of age they are given access to grass rearing fields for optimal growth, until 8 weeks of age. Poults are then liberated to release pens within the estate for the next few weeks where eventually they will be trickle released into the surrounding environment. Upon release the birds are dispersed by moving feed stations away from the pen to establish birds throughout the estate. Feed stations are provided randomly at chosen locations, as a supplement to the birds diverse dietary requirements. This also helps with bird welfare and helps to retain birds for the Autumn / Winter shooting season.

Captive or wild birds

Rounding off the visit to Elmwood discussions almost inevitably turned to the definition of ‘when does a bird reared for release become a wild bird?’. The distinction of when a reared bird becomes ‘wild’ from a disease prevention and control perspective centres around the provision of food. Only following both release and feed being withdrawn are the birds regarded as ‘wild’ in terms of the notifiable disease legislation.

Views expressed are those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of the EPIC project or funders.

Many thanks to Jim Goodlad and SRUC Elmwood for hosting such an insightful and interesting visit.

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