GOOD ANIMAL husbandry and effective disease monitoring has ensured Scotland’s shooting season has got off to a good start, despite the challenges posed by Covid-19.

Game bird veterinarian Matthew Balfour of St David’s Game Bird Services in Edinburgh told The SF how the firm's team of veterinary surgeons covers clients across Scotland, focusing on managing the wild habitat of grouse to protect and encourage their numbers, and to monitor any risk of disease within the birds.

“We carry out a number of post-mortems on shot carcasses, either on site or in our practice base, which involves carrying out a number of tests to assess their general health, and to review the levels of parasites such as worms, that are present within the birds,” said Mr Balfour. “Through close monitoring of the worm levels within the bird population, we are able to prescribe medicated grit, if necessary, to feed to the birds to ensure that any infestations are kept under control. We can also take samples to look for diseases which they may have been exposed to. Of particular importance is blood sampling in order to assess for Louping ill antibodies.”

The results of this testing are then used to make decisions on grouse management and this season Mr Balfour reported variable worm levels within the Scottish grouse population, sometimes with marked differences across different moorland within the same estate.

“We are also seeing lots of positive Louping ill antibody results, which indicates exposure of the bird to this disease previously in its life,” he continued. “Louping ill affects both sheep and grouse and has been shown to cause high mortality in grouse chicks. It is important to control the disease within grouse, and this is done most effectively through giving tick treatment to sheep grazing the same moorland."

Covid-19 put a stop to many overseas shooting parties for the 2020 shooting season and domestic restrictions added its own restrictions with social distancing and catering challenges. However, Mr Balfour added that the industry has proven resilient in the testing times.

“All game seasons are now off to a good start, and similarly to the rest of the UK, Scotland are seeing low Mycoplasma levels which is a big improvement on last year. A continuation of preventative testing this year will help to keep this figure low for the next season, which is a stark contrast to a few seasons ago when the disease posed a threat to the bird population,” he explained.

Mycoplasma is an emerging disease that Mr Balfour reported is being seen more often in the UK. The disease if often worsened by stress trigger factors such as worm burdens or a change in weather, for instance around October/November time.

“With disease and worm monitoring an ongoing task in the management and monitoring of the grouse population, it is important to continue to record numbers and treat where necessary to maintain the wildlife and their habitat for years to come,” Mr Balfour concluded.