Avian Influenza, often called bird flu, is a virus that can make birds sick, sometimes severely. It’s similar to the flu viruses we’re familiar with but mainly affects birds. On the other hand, Mycoplasma is a type of bacteria without a typical cell wall, which can cause breathing problems in birds. Both can impact the health of bird populations, but they’re caused by different microorganisms: one by a virus and the other by bacteria.

There are many various old wives’ tales that wind their way through the shooting sector, often embellished or lost in translation within the broad scope of the internet about these diseases. As an active online community, we wanted to set the record straight as we know how important it is for those within the shooting sector, particularly as many live in rural areas, to have access to informed guidance on game bird health. We therefore spoke to Dr Kenny Stokes-Nutting, Director of St David’s Gamebird Services, who here gives us some expert veterinary advice, debunking some of the most common myths and misconceptions we often hear within the shooting community, and putting us back on track.

From conversations with customers, colleagues, and observing things online, I have seen and heard a fair share of tattling tales in my time. Often these come with goodwill but can cause negative end results. Here, I want to run through a few key areas of our sector which are often misunderstood and iron out the creases so that rural communities can feel safe in the knowledge that they are doing the right thing. 

This advice applies not only to those working directly with gamebirds, but also to those who work indirectly with them; those working more closely with gundogs, or more generally on shoots and estates throughout the UK. No matter where you sit within the shooting community, everyone plays a part in maintaining it and securing its future and having a strong awareness of the health and welfare of the game birds is a good place to start. 

The Pros and Cons of the Internet

I often get asked if I am a Google doctor, which is quite a questionable label…and to clarify, I am not. I am a vet and Director at St David’s Gamebird Services, so am able to provide some help and advice to shoots and businesses across the UK.

As we well know, the internet can be a good thing and a bad thing. It can be a brilliant place for connecting people, and also sharing advice. When it comes to gamebird disease, however, there is a lot of scope for error…

Often when people spot a diseased bird and aren’t sure where to turn, they naturally direct their concerns to google and the wider shooting community on online forums. I’m on some of these forums and have seen people posting pictures of diseased birds, asking the community what the issue might be. Inevitably, 10 different diagnoses come rolling in as many minutes and not only is this confusing for the person posting, but for onlookers too.

I would strongly encourage you all to be wary of what you read online, and to just pick up the phone if you have any concerns – you can get a quick, accurate answer to your questions from your local vet, remove any uncertainty, and act with confidence. Time is of the essence when it comes to things like Avian Influenzaand Mycoplasma, and you don’t want to be going down the wrong route off the back of someone else’s advice, doing something with the bird that then prolongs the disease.


How will Avian Influenza affect this season?

There has been, over the last couple of months, a rapid rise of bird flu in Southern France. Their second-largest duck area has increased significantly in cases, primarily due to being a densely populated poultry area, and also because ducks are particularly good at spreading AI. It’s concerning that the level of bird flu is not only active but also has been rising at these temperatures when really it should be declining at this time of year. While this has not affected the mid-west of France where most game bird breeding takes place at the moment, and while we are getting to the end of our laying season now, this does give us an important warning not to be idle. There is nothing to say that this time next year such a rapid rise in bird flu couldn’t happen in mid-west France, Hungary, Poland, or other areas of densely populated poultry areas and have severe ramifications on us again.

There are also a lot of wild birds that are still affected both in England and Europe which suggests that bird flu is probably going to continue to show over the summer period and therefore over the winter. At the moment, farmers on the ground are saying that they are seeing fewer dead seagulls than this time last year, which is certainly a positive to hold on to, but across the world, the situation is getting worse and AI is spreading into new areas such as South America where it hasn’t been before.  

France in particular obviously has a huge impact on us and our supply chain. Businesses there will likely continue to diversify their breeding stock to spread the birds out into other areas and protect themselves, and our UK businesses should do the same. I wouldn’t say there are any “safe” regions – everywhere carries its own risk.

While there are vaccines out there with relative efficacy, and there are countries around the world that do vaccinate against Avian Influenza, the UK does not do so. This is because with the testing we currently have, once the bird has had the vaccine one can’t tell if that bird has been vaccinated or if it has been infected with a wild strain. This lack of ability to differentiate means that we can’t export the poultry because we wouldn’t be able to prove AI negative status.  

Everyone who works directly or indirectly with gamebirds should be precautious. We strongly recommend limiting wild bird contact and reporting Avian Influenza if you see it in the birds. Clinical signs can be seen as soon as 24 hours after initial infection (usually in cases of a ‘high pathogenic’ strain). Sudden death is the most dramatic effect of Avian Influenza. Dullness, a loss of appetite, depression, coughing, nasal and ocular discharge, swelling of the face, nervous signs such as paralysis and sometimes green diarrhoea are all also clinical signs. However, birds infected with ‘low pathogenic’ Avian Influenza may not show any clinical signs at all. 


How does Mycoplasma affect gamebirds?

Mycoplasma is in the reservoir of the birds themselves; when a bird is positive for mycoplasma, it has got that disease for life, and it will transfer that through its droppings, saliva, and mucus secretions for life. The science has clearly shown that mycoplasma doesn’t last in external environments for very long e.g. shed walls, or the bottom of boots, because of how it is made up. It doesn’t have a cell wall which means it is very susceptible to environmental conditions. It only survives from year to year on a shoot or game farm in the reservoir of the birds themselves. 

Do Mycoplasma vaccines work?

I get asked this question a lot because it can be quite controversial. It’s a difficult one because I don’t want people to ever think that the bird is never going to get the disease if it’s had the vaccine. That’s not what happens at all. It’s the same with all vaccines – we’ve all experienced it recently with COVID, how the vaccine doesn’t do everything but is an integral part of a prevention programme.

Like the COVID vaccine, Mycoplasma vaccines have their place and from our clinical experience on the ground, and the science behind what they do in poultry, they do work. Importantly though, gamekeepers have to have good husbandry, cull birds, and continuously test to make sure they know what’s going on in that flock.

The research behind the mycoplasma vaccines or any vaccines used specifically in gamebirds is very small, but that’s the same with pretty much everything we do in game because it’s a small market and very unique to the UK. There isn’t the same money, science, and research as in other sectors but a lot of clinical experience and science can be translated from the poultry world to the game world. 

No vaccine is ever going to solve every disease. So, to be clear, the mycoplasma vaccine is not a plaster that is going to stop the bleeding so to speak, but it is a tool to help us fight the disease. We’ve got to have good biosecurity, and good husbandry to support its efficacy.

Whatever your role on a shoot, everyone has a vital role to play in protecting the future of shooting, and this starts with having an awareness of the challenges facing our sector. If we can work together to minimise those challenges, lower game bird disease rates and mortality, and share our knowledge, we are making progress. All in all, I hope this helps to give some guidance to those concerned. If you have any further questions or queries, please do get in touch.

For more information on disease and gamebird health and welfare, you can contact St David’s Game Bird Services by calling 01392 872932 or emailing marketing@stdavids-gamebirds.co.uk 

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