March 13, 2006

Bird Flu Threat Ruffling Shuttlecock Feathers

By Catherine Hornby

LONDON (Reuters) - The feathers of the badminton world are being ruffled by the threat of bird flu.

Shortages of goose feathers in China and tightened manufacturing regulations are pushing up prices of shuttlecocks, the feathered projectiles hit over the net in badminton.

The H5N1 epidemic has added to long-term concerns about the supply chain of feathers because it has led to the culling or deaths of some 200 million birds since late 2003.

"It (bird flu) has put more pressure on the whole situation that was straining already," a spokesman for Yonex, the world's largest badminton equipment supplier, told Reuters.

Shuttlecocks are traditionally made from 16 goose feathers which are taken from under the same bird's wing and then cleaned, cut and attached to a base of Portuguese cork.

"The price of a cut feather in the last six months has increased quite dramatically, somewhere in excess of 50 percent," Ian Little, owner of British badminton retailer and wholesaler Yehlex said.

Feather shuttlecocks rather than the plastic variety are used by professional badminton players because of their lighter weight, accuracy and the way they move through the air with a "peak and drop" effect that the plastics cannot match.

The retail price of a championship grade feather shuttlecock is currently nearly one pound ($1.73), but the rising cost of the feathers is set to push up prices.


Another spokesman for Yonex said that the prices of their shuttlecocks had increased by around 20 to 25 percent, effective March, and Yehlex said it also plans to raise prices.

The Yonex spokesmen agreed that the rising prices were partly due to increased regulation and monitoring of the feathers during manufacture.

"We have had to increase the price, and that's due to processes that have had to be put into manufacturing to make sure that the feathers are has made the process more complicated," one Yonex spokesman said.

The price increases are yet to have their full impact on badminton clubs, who tend to buy their shuttlecocks in bulk at the beginning of the season.

"It will hit clubs with a bigger bill at the beginning of next season. Most clubs order their shuttles around July and August. It will start to hit them then," said Eric Brown, chief executive of Badminton England.


The majority of shuttlecocks are produced in China, in factories which either cut and clean the feathers themselves or buy in feathers prepared by feather farmers.

Changing dietary habits in China have also contributed to the growing shortages of goose feathers.

"Chinese people nowadays are tending to move away from eating goose to eating duck and that has affected the farming of goose feathers," Little of Yehlex said.

Natural problems such as droughts and floods in various parts of China over the last few years have also led to a shortage of birds.

Increased labor costs and a growing internal market for shuttlecocks in China have added strain to prices.

"China has also started consuming shuttles now... so this has put a new pressure on the supply of feathers, a whole new market has opened up, as the Chinese start to consume their own products as opposed to just exporting" one Yonex spokesman said.

The International Badminton Federation said they were encouraging research into developing more advanced plastic copies resembling the feather shuttlecocks, which could be used in the event of a serious shortage.

"We're trying to move toward plastic shuttlecocks... we're hoping to find an alternative as soon as possible," a spokeswoman for the federation in Kuala Lumpur said.

(Additional reporting by Sonia Oxley)