In 1985 I was a young lad on a YTS scheme, working on an estate in Gloucestershire. The YTS scheme was viewed at the time by some people as a means for some shoots to get a source of cheap labour. Perhaps it might have been for some, but for many aspiring keepers, myself included, it provided a route into the industry. I was lucky in that, while I had the ‘boy’s’ jobs as you would expect, I also had a chance to work with keepers who looked after me and shared their experience and knowledge.
Prior to going there I had spent some time helping a local keeper, and based on this I thought that everyone used 8×8 brooders to rear birds. Having gone to Gloucestershire, I thought that the large row of wooden building in which we did much of the rearing were a special sort of hitherto-unknown special rearing system called the Lapstone buildings. They were, in fact, a converted set of ‘chicken sheds’ acquired by the head keeper from a farm called Lapstone! I think he probably had a chuckle to himself when I showed my naivety and asked him, but there is no such thing as a daft question when you are keen to learn.
Over time, there have been many advances in rearing, but the basic requirement is the same: getting a top-quality poult to the release stage. These developments have seen the industry move from open fields onto coops with runs, both using probably the most natural alternative to a wild reared bird, which is a surrogate mother in the form of a broody hen. Then there were Rupert brooders using paraffin, brooder sheds and buildings using electric hens, and – more often nowadays – gas is used as the brooder heat source.
In my area I can think of many shoots which, in the past, have done the whole game production process from catching up laying hens, incubation, to rearing and release. A couple of the bigger shoots still do this, but a greater number now do only part of the process, or buy poults from game farms or other, bigger shoots.
There are important considerations to think about before you are tied to the task. Their wellbeing is your responsibility, and it all takes time.
When you consider these factors, along with others such as the cost of labour, the price of the basic materials such as gas, and the fact that there are many excellent game farms that will provide first-rate poults, it is easy to see why buying poults is an option that many will go for.
In late June I went to Oxfordshire with two keepers, who are very experienced in rearing game, to look at a new rearing system. There are already many reputable makers and suppliers of rearing equipment which, in the right hands – whether that is on the shoot or at the game farm – produces first-rate results, so it was going to be interesting to see what this new system would be like.
From the outside, with a sturdy galvanised frame and green panels, it looked like many well-made traditional large brooder houses capable of handling a couple of thousand birds. It was, on closer inspection, where an innovative and alternative approach became obvious. As well as being insulated, it has clever features like a bespoke watering system, including a clever adaptation which makes administering any water additives such as vitamins easy. There is also a feeding system available, which minimises the need to enter the unit, which is a plus from not only a biosecurity point of view, but also simply helps prevents stepping on small chicks or spooking your birds.
Like many other systems, LPG is used to provide the warmth, which the growing chicks need. The interesting element in this unit is that this gas is not used through conventional heaters inside the building. These heaters have their own safety issues, and there is a potential risk to the chicks of a loss of temperature should the flame go out. In this new setup, it is used in conjunction with a dedicated heating and control system contained within a separate part of the building. This supplies heat via a bespoke under-floor system, and it is all easily controlled via a special control box. There is a need for electricity to operate this, but many sites are easily connectable to a supply source. This approach to heating has potential benefits in that, coupled with an effective ventilation system, the air within the shed easily stays ‘fresh’ and any moisture on the floor dries quickly. All of these are positive points, but probably the headline fact is that the amount of gas used is drastically cut.
The manufacturer is quoting figures of using one bottle of gas to heat the whole unit for over five weeks or, to look at it another way, potential heating costs of only one pence per chick. This could offer massive savings on one of the major costs of rearing.
The outdoor run is also a change from the norm. Instead of separate pen sections with a net over the top, the whole run is netted. I would describe it rather like one large ‘marquee’ made from netting. It was interesting to see birds in this run; when they walked to the perimeter and met the net they seemed to simply turn back, rather than walking alongside the boundary. This whole run was held up by a few large support posts, and an added bonus is that there is no stooping involved as it is high enough to stand up in.
Unlike 8×8 pens, this system needs a machine such as a tractor to help in setting the system up, but with one the maker says two people can get it up and running in less than a day.
You might assume that the designer of this system is a game farmer or keeper but, in fact, the designer is a keen shooter who has a background in designing and building animal shelters and pens for a variety of animals from cows to chickens.
Being able to approach ‘rearing’ with fresh eyes and no preconceptions, he has spent a huge amount of time, money and effort developing ideas and then working with keepers and game rearers over a five-year period to come up with a new approach and design for rearing game. Certainly the birds we saw in the pens looked healthy and thriving.
After all this development this system will shortly to be available to buy. The manufacturer is also looking at innovative ways of getting it to market and making it available with some special purchasing options. It will be interesting to see how it is received by game rearers.
For more information about this type of rearing pen, visit