News Industry Profile Essex Breeding Centre



Industry Profile: Essex Breeding Centre
13th May 2014

By Sandra Pearce

From the bustle of London to breeding over 160,000 small animals each year, the Gibbs view themselves as very fortunate

Comedian WC Fields is credited with the line ‘Never work with children or animals’. Well, Phil and Gail Gibbs are, thankfully, guilty of only half of that. Sandra Pearce visits to find out what goes on behind the scenes at Essex Breeding Centre

There is never a dull moment, say Phil and Gail Gibbs, owners of small animal breeders Essex Breeding Centre in Chelmsford, Essex. One claim to fame is how they supplied 170 brown rats for the 2002 British post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later. “I remember how we got all of them under the taxi, and then got them all back again… and then we heard ‘Take 2’!” laughs Phil, shaking his head as he remembers filming the scene.

They have also supplied rats for children’s TV programme Basil Brush, and another time had to provide – yes, you’ve guessed it – rats for a BBC documentary on the plague. “It’s all hard work, but so much fun,” says Gail.

“There is always something going on here,” adds Phil.  “Everyone has a hamster story.” As do they. Apparently one of their slightly more acrobatic hamsters once decided to demonstrate its prowess by pulling off an escape stunt, triggering the infra-red alarm system, causing police and Phil to dash to the centre – at 3am. “Why do these things always happen at 3am?!” he says. 

Guinea pigs are bred and kept in large floor pens

Humorous tales and light-hearted banter aside, they take the breeding of small animals very seriously, saying they are the largest breeder of small animals in the country. “We are not a pet wholesaler who buys animals in from other sources, within the UK or from abroad,” says Phil. “We breed everything we sell ourselves, apart from our rabbits, which are bred by a top breeder off-site. This gives our customers complete traceability of the animals they buy.”

Phil and Gail bought the company in 1998, which was already then the country’s largest breeder of Syrian hamsters, selling at a rate of 3,000 a week – today the Syrian hamster colony is housed in a 4,000sq ft unit.  Even after all these years, new colours occasionally arise, reinforcing their claim to have the widest range of colour lines. They have, for instance, pure grey hamsters and blue mice. Hobbyists do sometimes get in touch seeking a prized rarity, but they are always referred to their closest stockist to arrange a sale as the company does not sell directly to the public.

Their business may be small animals, but it is not small business. The centre comprises five self-contained units (up from the original two when they bought the business) on 3½ acres of land, and each week they breed 2,000 Syrian hamsters, 200 guinea pigs, 150 rats and mice, 250 gerbils and 600 dwarf hamsters,  which comes to an eye-watering 160,000 animals each year. One Christmas week yonks ago, Phil remembers how they sent out 6,000 Syrians, though now January tends to be the busier month as many pet shops won’t sell live animals over the festive period. Yet despite dealing with such large volumes, each animal is regarded as an individual.

Animals are routinely handled

Sound business practice
Affiliated to the Royal Veterinary College, their vet is used to dealing with large colonies and visits every three months. Phil and Gail have also implemented their own strict rules and policies, which cut across all levels of the business. For example, there is a mandatory day’s break before a staff member can move from one animal unit to another, to eliminate the chance of cross contamination.  In the small animal units, staff wear top-to-toe protective clothing.

In the guinea pigs unit, which is a bit less regulated as staff can go without the protective cover-alls but must have dedicated footwear, animals have to weigh 300g before they are sent out to shops, while Syrians, which go out at about four to five weeks, must be at least 45g. Gerbils are kept a bit longer, at six to seven weeks. It’s all about ensuring the animals are correctly and properly weaned, they explain.

“People might think that this is all over the top, but this is a business,” says Phil. Being a business, detailed records are kept of each litter and how often they are bred, and animals are inspected daily to make sure all is well, says Gail.

Such meticulous attention to detail carries across all aspects of care and nutrition. All dry food is made to their own recipe in vast quantities: the Syrians, for instance, go through three tonnes of food a month. The guinea pig diet is supplemented with cabbage, broccoli, carrots and apples, while dwarf hamsters enjoy seeds and wheatgerm. The hay for the guinea pigs is freeze-dried and tested against ringworm to keep this potential fungal infection risk from the ringworm-free colony.

The trick is to try and gauge demand – six months ahead. Tina Brown works in the animal units as animal production manager and has been at Essex Breeding Centre for nearly 30 years. She works with Gail analysing trends and predicting when things will get busy. “Being here for a couple of years, you do get to see patterns developing,” she says with a wide grin. But over the last couple of years, trends have been harder to spot. “It’s been all over the place,” she notes. It’s probably a mix of factors, they both acknowledge, from the recession to the growing interest in reptiles.

There is, however, definitely seasonal demand – for instance, there tends to be higher demand for guinea pigs in the summer, but for rats, gerbils and hamsters in the winter and spring. “We work out quotas based on last year’s figures,” adds Gail. To ensure animals breed year round, each unit has its own bespoke heating and cooling system to regulate temperature.

Yet despite all this careful planning, you can’t predict the weather. This year’s floods have impacted sales negatively, whereas if it is cold, they often sell more animals. Football season falls into the same category as floods, but a TV ad featuring small animals such as hamsters can cause a spike in demand. 

Health and hygiene is a top priority

“Customers all say how friendly our animals are,” observes Gail. Guinea pigs, for instance, are kept in large pens on the floor rather than stacked in cages. Why? Because in pet shops, these small
animals are often found for sale within floor pens. “This way, the animals get used to people looking down at them from the moment they are born,” says Phil.

The two had lived and worked in London before, in a hospital environment, but London living and its crowds was not for them. Always wanting their own business, when they heard about this opportunity because the previous owners were retiring, they came for a look and were hooked on the possibilities this way of life offered. It was a ‘moment of madness’, they say – but one they would do again!

The secret to their on-going success? Good stock, good food, and good husbandry, says Gail, with Phil adding that they have been pioneers in the breeding of small animals in the country. Whereas many breeders have come and gone over the years, for Phil and Gail, having such structures in place has meant they have been able to grow at a sustainable, organic pace. “We need to be realistic with regards to expansion,” she says. “We do what we are good at, so we will not do exotics or go for crazes. Whenever we have considered a new species, we ask, will it be around in ten years? If we think not, then no. When we set up our guinea pigs, we asked, where will it be in 20 years’ time? If we do anything, we want to do it well.”

Not surprisingly, they are completely self-sustainable when it comes to breeding pairs for all their species, with the crème de la crème from the litters being ear-marked for the breeding pool. But this is no factory set-up where staff go about their jobs in a mechanical fashion, ticking a sheet of boxes. A pre-requisite for any new starter is that they must be an animal lover first and foremost. “Qualifications are not necessary as we will provide training,” says Gail. “But they must have a love for animals first. All our staff have pets.”

When Phil and Gail first took over, a national courier handled their deliveries. Within six months, legislation changed and couriers were no longer able to make deliveries of live animals and they were given eight weeks’ notice to find alternate means.

Phil recalls: “We said to our staff, we will have to now deliver ourselves. So we set up the first UK distribution for small animals.” This took the shape of a national franchise that split the country into three: north; west; south and south-east, each with its own van and holding area for the animals. There are now six drivers in total who have also built up close relationships with the retailers. “They know all their customers and their customers know them,” says Phil. Office manager Sue Woodley co-ordinates the drivers and can tell customers exactly where each driver is on his route, says Phil. “We get round to the whole of the UK, supplying approximately 400 shops, whether you are a chain or a single pet shop requiring 12 animals.”

The aim this year is to speed up deliveries as at the moment, about half the country gets deliveries weekly. “We want to increase this figure so more retailers can get weekly deliveries,” he explains.
“We support the small high street pet shop,” he says. “We will loyally supply them, and hopefully they will be a loyal customer to us.”

It is important that pet shops sell live animals, he says, because without this route to market, there would be no pet industry! “You can talk about cages and food, but without the animals, you would not be selling your cages and food. It is so important to keep the grassroots.”

Let’s face it, for many pet owners, it is the hamster and guinea pig that is a first pet, and this first pet then leads to a dog or a cat. “Pet shops have to sell pets,” he says. After all, like fish, pet shops are the traditional port of call for people looking to buy a small animal.

As such, the Gibbs’s have an open door policy for retailers who want to see how the animals are bred. “Retailers are all very welcome to come and see how we operate,” he says. “If we are not proud of what we do, we would not do it. We sell about 2,000 Syrian hamsters a week, and we know that each one will become someone’s pet and a valued friend.”

He pauses for a moment. “Do you know what I love? When I go into pet shops, and then I see little kids coming in and looking at the animals, and I know those animals have come from us. Then the kids get all excited about them. That is job satisfaction.”