Death by pheasant

The biomass of game birds released in August each year is equivalent to the biomass of all other wild birds living in the UK causing untold harm

Photo credit - Gary Noon - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

There are a staggering number of gamebirds released in the U.K. every year. These comprise an estimated 47 million common pheasants and 10 million red-legged partridges. Both species are not native to the U.K. Unbelievably, the biomass of birds released in August each year is equivalent to the biomass of all other wild birds living in the UK. These releases represent a major threat to ecosystems and biodiversity and entail massive animal welfare suffering. The industry operates without regulation and as if it were above the law.

Welfare issues

Overwhelmingly, gamebirds released for shooting are reared under industrial conditions – very few pheasants live ‘naturally’ in the wild. The rearing conditions cause major welfare harms. Breeding pheasants are mostly kept in small, barren raised cages exposed to all weathers. In such cages, one male will be kept with seven or eight hens when, ordinarily, pheasants would roam widely over many kilometres. The barren and crowded conditions lead to aggression and feather-pecking, addressed by the fitting of devices to the bird’s beaks to inhibit pecking. These lead to stress and injury. Red-legged partridges are kept in similarly impoverished conditions.

Hatchlings are kept in crowded conditions with often poor biosecurity - there is high mortality in the early weeks of life. When later released into surrounding land, the birds suffer colossal mortality – between 45 and 50% of pheasants reared, for example, will die even before being exposed to guns through predation, accident, or disease - an astonishing level of mortality. Once exposed to guns, international studies confirm that likely more than 40% of birds shot will not be killed outright but, instead, will be injured or maimed and may die slowly. Few birds survive into the following season – those that do tend not to survive for long.

Intensively reared pheasants - photo credit - Animal Aid

Ecological damage

The release of pheasants and red-legged partridges causes a range of negative ecological effects. These include the predation of invertebrates, damage to vegetation, the attraction of predators, and damage to soils through pollution by excreta, as well as potential negative effects on local bird populations through competition. The industry argues that management activities associated with the rearing of gamebirds can benefit local ecology, for example, by provision of ground-cover crops, woodland management, and ‘beetle banks’ to attract invertebrates. However, it is likely that most operations do not implement them, with evidence that the majority do not even comply with industry produced ‘codes of practice’. Moreover, most operations keep reared gamebirds at densities well in excess of those recommended to reduce ecological harms. It is highly likely that the net effect of gamebird release in the UK is of significant ecological harm.

Most birds are targeted using lead shot. Every cartridge fired will contain about 300 lead pellets that are distributed widely into the environment. Lead is a very potent poison that affects all vertebrates. The release of lead shot for gamebird shooting is the single major cause of environmental lead contamination in the U.K. with 5000 to 6000 tonnes fired into the environment each year. Lead ingestion leads to the deaths of around 600,000 gamebirds themselves which will suffer greatly. Raptors are often killed after ingestion of carcases containing lead shot, with evidence of deaths of red-kites and other species.

Figure credit - Biol Invasions (2021) 23:1549–1562

Culling of native wildlife

To try to protect gamebirds to make as many as possible available for shooting, the industry seeks to systematically eliminate predators that are attracted by the keeping of vulnerable birds at high density. The most inhumane methods are often used, including snares, which trap foxes and stoats in large numbers (as well as non-target species, including badgers and hedgehogs), and Larsen traps, which use decoy birds to attract crows and other corvid species, which are then brutally killed by hand. These species, of course, represent part of natural biodiversity.

Evasion of regulations

Yet, despite all these harms, the gamebird shooting industry is effectively unregulated and evades the law. Bizarrely, though having been produced under industrial conditions at high density, as soon as gamebirds are released, they cease to have any protection under the Animal Welfare Act! Though shooters will often shoot many tens or even hundreds of birds (and clearly cannot eat them) claims are made that gamebirds are reared for food. However, unlike any other species reared for food in the U.K. (such as chickens, ducks, or pigs), gamebirds are exempt from all animal welfare at slaughter regulations.

As a result of concerns to monitor and respond to potential outbreaks of disease (such as highly pathogenic avian influenza – HPAI), all poultry holdings (including those for gamebirds) are required by law to register with the Animal and Plant Agency (APHA), yet there is low compliance by gamebird operations. As such, government agencies have very limited knowledge of just how many operations there are, where they are located, or how many birds are being released at particular sites.

It is known that pheasants can be infected by avian influenza and can transmit it, representing a clear risk, yet there has been no equivalent restriction to the release of gamebirds to that imposed on ‘free-range’ chickens and other poultry, which were until recently required to be kept inside. It is astonishing that during the ongoing outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus, tens of millions of pheasants were released last autumn with the potential to become infected and to act as a reservoir for the virus. Moreover, reared gamebirds suffer from chronic worm and tick infestation and a range of other infections that mean they are potential vectors for transmission of other disease too to wildlife. The current understanding of these potential risks is very limited, but very few precautionary actions have been taken.

A pheasant rearing factory - photo credit - Animal Aid

Harmful, destructive and above the law – the gamebird industry in the U.K.

By any evaluation, the direct harms of gamebird shooting are massive. They include the suffering of breeding birds, the high mortality of hatchlings, the mortality through predation, disease, and accident of released young birds, and the injury and maiming of a high proportion of birds when shot. Such suffering is compounded by that associated with the culling of wildlife. The release of such large numbers of birds results in direct ecological damage – the use of lead shot increases this. Supposed mitigating management activities may be applied but are likely very often not to be. In any event, such activities do not depend on shooting and are widely pursued in other contexts. There are unquantified and unmanaged disease transmission risks.

The gamebird industry evades animal welfare law, welfare at slaughter law, operates at odds with national initiatives to enhance biodiversity, and even ignores requirements to register premises to help prevent disease spread. Premises are almost never inspected. The gamebird industry is an unregulated liability.