Starting a business that’s a bit outside what might be viewed as conventional is always going to have its challenges, but New Zealand Game Birds owners Jeff Niblett and Bridgette Karetai have made it work for them. Colin Williscroft reports.
Game bird rearing might be a niche industry in NZ, but it’s a sizable undertaking for Jeff Niblett and Bridgette Karetai, who rear between 70-75,000 ring neck pheasants annually for hunting preserves around the country.
Although in the past the couple spent plenty of time during winter organising shooting days not far from their Hawke’s Bay property, today their business is largely based on breeding birds.
It’s a seasonal operation that starts in September, when their hens are put into laying pens.
By the end of the month the hens have started laying and eggs are collected daily until early January.
“We collect and wash/sterilise them every day, store them for up to a week and then set them in the incubators,” Jeff says.
“From then, we’ll hatch once a week.”
Once hatched, the chicks are put into small plywood huts, which are equipped with gas heaters and nipple drinkers and feeding trays.
They’re in there for a week and then they get access to a covered shelter with grass for another week before going into outside runs which are netted.
The birds still need to be “mustered” away every night until they’re about four weeks old and can cope with most overnight outdoor temperatures.
They are reared until they’re about six or seven weeks old, when they are supplied to people who mainly want them on their properties for shooting, although Jeff says others like to have them around to provide a bit of diversity and colour.
Chicks are hatched every week.
The couple also rear Mallard ducks, although that’s a much smaller part of the business.
Jeff says it’s a sideline they got into because duck numbers seem to be declining in the North Island, especially in drier areas like Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, East Coast and Hawke’s Bay.
“People have become interested in trying to re-establish their wetland areas and restock those areas,” he says.
It’s a pretty smooth operation but there have been a few challenges to overcome along the way.
Jeff has always been interested in shooting.
Growing up, his father was a member of the Acclimatisation Society in Marlborough, which at the time was trying to rear pheasants to try and establish a local population.
He and Bridgette are both veterinarians, and Jeff spent four of the six years they worked in the UK as a game bird vet.
NZ Game Birds rears up to 75,000 pheasants a year.
Hunting and shooting is a big business over there, with more than 30 million pheasants reared annually, along with partridge, ducks and other game birds also released.
On their return to NZ, the couple worked for Dannevirke Vet Services. It was there that they took their first steps towards running their own game bird business.
“Basically, that involved building a lot of gear in the garage,” Jeff says, and then setting up on a local friend’s farm.
That was in 2004 and on the night their first child was born, the floods that devastated the central North Island that year washed away their rearing field.
However, it was at the end of the season and most of their birds had already gone.
Within a year they had bought their current property at Sherenden, inland from Hastings, which provided the opportunity to move the business to the next level.
To help increase the scale of their operation Jeff and Bridgette imported egg incubators from Thailand, but there were some teething problems.
“They weren’t really compatible for NZ’s electrical supply or weather conditions,” he says.
“They were made for rearing eggs to a certain stage for eating part developed chicks rather than hatching, so they’d probably never actually hatched many chicks.”
The incubators were big, capable of holding around 6000 eggs, but during the couple’s first season they only managed to hatch one chick out of 12,000 eggs.
“We were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into,” Bridgette says.
Eggs are collected and washed/sterilised every day before being stored for up to a week and then set in incubators.
To try and work out what was going wrong, they put in temperature probes.
“It was all to do with airflow,” Jeff says, “and placement of thermostats.”
Once they had worked that out it was a matter of fine-tuning the incubators, so hatching could get under way.
Fortunately, the orders they had at the time allowed for most to be filled during the second half of the breeding season.
These days they use incubators from the UK and the United States that are specifically designed for hatching pheasants and ducks, with the earlier modified models from Thailand kept as back-ups.
“It’s very consistent now,” he says.
“The key thing is we’ve got back-up generators if there’s a power cut and we’re here all the time to oversee and make sure everything is ticking along.”
They use their own birds bred the season before as replacement breeding stock.
“The last couple of hatches (annually) we select out all of our hens and then we rear them up to adults and use them for our laying birds next year,” he says.
“Basically, we hold 2000 pheasant hens for our breeding stock.
The property is on the edge of the Tutaekuri River.
“They’ll average at least 60 eggs each during the laying season. They’re a bit like a chook, but they’ll keep laying if you keep taking them (the eggs).”
The hens lay seasonally, with the breeding season regulated by day-length.
As day-length increases they start to be more active, before it falls away around Christmas.
“Once that drops off, egg production starts to decline quite quickly,” he says
Most of the birds they breed are supplied to hunting preserves as six-week-old chicks.
They are transported to their new homes in poultry crates, either on the back of a ute or trailer. The key thing is making sure they have good airflow around them.
“If they have got to go any distance, we catch them in the evening beforehand, so they’ve had their evening feed, and deliver them early (the next) morning,” he says.
“So, if they’re going to Rotorua, we get up around three o’clock to get there about six-thirty or seven.
“They transport really well. They are basically asleep then anyway.”
Jeff says they like to give the chicks as much time as possible on that first day to acclimatise to their new surroundings.
Once hatched, chicks are put into small plywood huts, which are equipped with gas heaters, nipple drinkers and feeding trays.
“They’re released on sites that have quite intensive predator control done around them, so they get used to their environment and then over time they slowly spread out,” he says.
“There’s no pens or anything else to keep them on those properties. They’re basically wild once they’re released.”
“The only control you’ve got over them is the fact that they want food.
The birds primarily eat insects and seeds, along with a bit of vegetation, so there’s no concern about their effect on native wildlife as they’re a separate niche, probably similar to weka.
The release sites are Department of Conservation permitted hunting preserves, with Fish & Game NZ involved in setting season lengths and bird numbers on preserves.
Up until just over a year ago the couple were involved with helping to run shoots at a couple of preserves nearby, including Tuna Nui Station in the foothills of the Kaweka Range.
Bridgette says they stopped running their own shoots because the local farm owners were keen to take on the running of the shoots, and the rearing side of NZ Game Birds had grown, so they were busy enough with rearing birds.
“We were getting up over 40-odd days of shooting through the winter,” she says.
On shoot days they would usually have nine people shooting.
“It’s great locally when you’ve got all those people coming into hotels and restaurants through the winter, but the logistics of organising everyone’s accommodation and everything else, and a whole shoot day, including feeding them, it was huge.”
Jeff says getting a shoot day together involves coordinating a large number of people.
The business is now well established.
“You’ve actually got 40-50 people in a day, organising where the birds go, others with dogs picking up,” he says.
“A lot of them are volunteers who just enjoy coming out.”
Bridgette says a lot of their initial involvement with shoots, which included bringing in gamekeepers from the UK, was to ensure the future of their breeding business.
She says when some of the owners of places where they ran shoots decided they wanted to do it themselves, it seemed like a good idea to step back.
Jeff says they thought with covid would lead to a significant downturn in the demand for shoots but that has not been the case, with most shooters from NZ historically anyway.
“They were spending more money overseas and now that they’re not going overseas there’s quite an increase in interest,” he says.
“Most of the shoots are quite full. We did have a few Australians and they’re continuing to ring us to make sure we keep them in the loop for when the trans-Tasman bubble opens.
“I don’t think those guys will go to the UK as much as they were. A lot of them would go overseas to go shooting for pheasants or other things, but I think they’ll find NZ would be a better destination for them now. There’s quite a bit of potential there.”
He says the shoots play a wider role in communities than just providing shooting opportunities.
The inside of the runs are designed to resemble natural habitat.
“There’s a lot more to it than just the shooting. It’s the relationships with people, going onto farms, the connections and the memories that you make,” he says.
Part of that is getting people from urban areas out onto farms in a safe environment where they can interact with people from rural communities.
“People love getting out on those farms and having a look around,” he says.
“Quite often in the gun bus, where all those people shooting are together, the discussions are about what’s happening on the farm and what is in the area.
“The views and the beautiful spots are a huge part of the day. They really love that. And the farmers love having people to show around their property.”
Bridgette and Jeff hope there is further potential for increasing the shooting opportunities for urban folk and other visitors who would otherwise not have access to shooting rights. There are plenty of people out there who love the option of having a shoot day organised in a safe and very enjoyable environment.