A law unto themselves - the game shooting industry under the spotlight (part 3)
Disassociating itself from the dirty work
As with the 'most wanted pests' list published by Shooting Times, representatives of the bloodsports fraternity are always anxious to disassociate themselves publicly from indiscriminate wildlife slaughter, yet it is the industry that employs the gamekeepers who do the dirty work. The examples of wildlife crime given above are not isolated or extreme incidents. Shortly before Christmas 2005, Britain's only known breeding female eagle owl was shot with heavy gauge pellets favoured by gamekeepers. In June 2006, a golden eagle was found poisoned in Scotland with Carbofuran, an illegal pesticide.24 Who, other than gamekeepers for shooting estates, would have the motive to poison such birds of prey? A long list of successful gamekeeper prosecutions is testament to their likely involvement.25 The RSPB are on record as stating that gamekeepers are normally responsible for such incidents.26 The problem has become sufficiently urgent for other industry spokespeople - in the face of mounting concern from conservationists - to acknowledge the problem, and for a code of practice to be created.
'Big commercial shoots' according to a Daily Telegraph report, 'are to be invited by their own organisations to submit themselves to an annual inspection to prove they have high safety standards and enhance wildlife habitats. The new independently assessed code of practice is intended to raise standards and cut down on criticised practices,such as overstocking with pheasants which eat wild flowers and damage woodland habitat.'27 The new Code of Practice has been announced in the form of the Shoot Assurance Scheme, which is sponsored by all the main industry players. It is designed to give an impression of control and enforcement. The reality is that this voluntary and costly scheme has been received with cynicism by some in the shoot industry, who argue that it will fail to deliver at extra cost and bureaucracy to shoots.28
Codes of practice
The new package of 'rules' follow on from the Code of Good Shooting Practice, the Code of Good Rearing Practice and Respect for Quarry. All are toothless.
For example, the Code of Good Rearing Practice is the work of the Game Farmers' Association (GFA). During deliberations on the new Animal Welfare Bill in 2005, the government acknowledged that game birds were without proper welfare protection during captivity. It decided that, in future, welfare standards should be based upon the GFA's Rearing Code. One member of the GFA executive committee is Ray Holden, owner of Hy-Fly game hatcheries in Fylde, Lancashire. In 2001, Holden claimed Hy-Fly was the biggest game producer in Britain, producing two million birds every year - about 5 per cent of the national total. He subsequently claimed to be able to produce 1.452 million game bird eggs a week.29
Holden has two criminal convictions for animal abuse and cruelty.30 In 2000, he was fined £2,000 for using a live mallard as a decoy in a fox trap. He was also fined £500 plus £500 costs for maiming a jackdaw, whom he used as a decoy in a cage trap. He actually maimed ten jackdaws, one for each of ten traps, but was summoned only for the first offence. Holden was found not guilty of killing a moorhen, keeping a mallard in a cage in which he could not stretch his wings, and using a funnel trap to catch wild birds.
In 2005, Animal Aid revealed that he was one of only six known game farmers in the UK to have adopted a battery cage system for pheasant rearing. Our exposé31 showed highly agitated, sick breeding birds in outdoor metal pens and has caused unusual divisions in the shooting ranks. BASC chose to oppose the cages. Writing in the February 2006 edition of Sporting Gun magazine, BASC spokesman Simon Clarke declared:
'Animal rights groups have filled their ammunition pouches with damning footage of birds in dreadful condition, hens with their flesh lacerated by over-treading, cock pheasants bloodied by hen-pecking. That ammunition has been fired into every newsroom and every MP's office at Westminster. It is, they claim, evidence that game shooting has become little more than factory farming to provide feathered targets.'
This breaking of ranks by BASC was greeted with hostility by Holden, who used the monthly column he writes for Shooting Gazette to castigate the entire committee of BASC as 'wallies of the week'.
Holden was not the only prominent member of the Game Farmers' Association - the organisation entrusted by government with the welfare of game birds - to be implicated in the battery cage scandal. Of the six game farmers in Britain so far known to have embraced this intensive system, two others also sit on the executive committee of the GFA.
Ignoring the seasons
Coinciding with the announcement of a public consultation concerning game shooting, the government is reported to be considering acceding to industry wishes to abandon shooting season restrictions. (Pheasants may not be taken or killed between 1 February and 1 October. Partridges may not be taken or killed between 1 February and 1 September.) While DEFRA proposes that the close seasons be maintained, there is, nonetheless, evidence that some in the industry are already failing to heed these restrictions.
Rick Bestwick Ltd, the largest game processor in Europe, is based in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. The company receives game from 650 shoots in Britain, and processes a million birds per year. Many are marketed as the Keeper's Choice range. The company is a third party supplier to Marks & Spencer.
In a series of advertisements in Shooting Times over the last two years, Bestwick has solicited a supply of pheasants out of the shooting season. There seems no plausible explanation for this, other than an attempt to procure birds that have been killed illegally. The publication accepted the adverts and no industry voices appear to have been raised against the process. Animal Aid reported the matter, and the issue became the subject of investigations by Derbyshire Trading Standards and police wildlife crime officers.
A principal theme of this report is that the 'gamebird' production and shooting industry is ruthless in pursuit of its pleasures and attendant financial rewards. More than that, it works diligently to obscure the truth about its activities, and, instead, presents an image of traditional sporting sorts serving as custodians of the countryside. Depressingly, it is abetted in this bloody charade by a Labour government that seems desperate to appease the pro-hunting lobby in the aftermath of the hard-fought battle to ban hunting with dogs.
During the parliamentary committee stage of the new Animal Welfare Bill in 2005, committee members were disturbed to hear evidence of mutilation and constraint in game bird breeding. The practice of fitting bits to pheasants' mandibles, and spectacles to prevent aggression, was examined. However, instead of appointing an independent research body to study the scientific effects of these devices, the government awarded the contract to the pro-shoot lobby group, the Game Conservancy Trust. It is not the first time that the GCT has benefited from its closeness to authority. Forty per cent of its income is derived either from government or other public funding sources.
While the current government cannot be expected to bear all the responsibility for an historic lack of independent regulation, it is true to say that its support for the shooting industry has been almost sycophantic. As guest speaker at a BASC event in July 2005, Jim Knight, then the Rural Affairs Minister, told his audience:
'The Labour manifesto commitment on shooting is a commitment that the sport will flourish. The Government recognises its role, and that of game shooting in particular, to the rural economy, and values its contribution to environmental protection and land management.'
In television interviews on the same day, Mr. Knight said, 'we are absolutely pro-shooting'. It is therefore unsurprising that the opportunity afforded by the Animal Welfare Bill to introduce meaningful independent regulation has apparently been ignored. Despite evidence presented by Animal Aid, the new legislation seems unlikely to include any new controls on shooting, although Ben Bradshaw - the government minister responsible for the Bill - has expressed concern at the development of battery rearing cages - first publicly exposed by Animal Aid - and hinted at the possibility of action in the future.
At the same time, as we have seen, the government is indicating that it intends to take further dramatic steps to deregulate the shooting industry. The 2006 consultation exercise asked for views on the lifting of the historic ban on Sunday shooting and for the abandonment of the requirement (currently widely flouted) for game dealers and gamekeepers to purchase an annual licence.
The elusive truth about shooting
So given all the industry spin, where is the official data on the shooting industry? The answer is that there is very little available.
Until recently, DEFRA (the government ministry responsible for agriculture and the environment) had no record of the number of pheasants and partridges bred and still has no data on those released, shot, 'recovered' or exported. Equally, the Office of National Statistics keeps no record of the number of game birds consumed. The recent bird flu crisis has pushed the government towards a modest audit in the shape of a new 'poultry register' - a database intended to include all holdings with more than 50 gamebirds.
This lack of reliable hard data has allowed the industry to indulge in self-serving guesses and plain invention. We have seen how this applies to animal welfare and conservation issues, but it also applies to estimates on the financial benefits of shooting.