Animal Aid

Assault and Battery - A natural history of pheasants and partridges... and how they went from woodland to cage

Long before humans began to incarcerate and mass-produce wild birds, pheasants and red-legged partridges roamed free in areas of Europe and Asia - engaging in their natural behaviours of making nests, foraging for food and caring for their young.A small minority still live this way in Britain.

Among the arguments given in favour of battery cages is that the birds are well-fed, sheltered and protected from predators.This narrow view of animal welfare does not take into account the serious psychological damage that can result from denying birds their basic needs - just as denying humans meaningful contact with other humans can lead to mental illness.To understand exactly why battery cages are so detrimental, it helps to know a little more about the natural history of pheasants and partridges.

The mating season

Pheasants organise into 'harems', in which one male will defend a small group of females, with whom he will breed.These clusters form during the spring, when the birds are emerging from their woodland wintering areas.At around the same time, the males will fight for control of valued breeding territories.

The female groups will visit several of these territories before choosing a strong male.They must choose well, because he will be enlisted to ward off other males - allowing the females to concentrate on building up the fat reserves they will need later in the year.

The 'protection' afforded by battery cages absolves the males of their main responsibility - the defence of the harem. It is highly likely that the male will seek to express his aggression in other ways.The raw wounds observed on the females by our undercover investigators support this. Equally, some of the males - particularly the smaller ones - showed signs of having been seriously wounded by their female cage mates.

Partridges also form mating groups in spring, but they bond in pairs of one male and one female.The male will perform a courtship display, followed by both birds engaging in a ritual involving pecking at nearby objects.

In a factory farm, mating pairs are forced together - without the natural courtship rituals.The psychological effects are potentially very serious. Our investigators observed numerous dead birds on just one day at an intensive partridge breeding unit - most likely killed by their cage mate. If another bird is put in the cage as a replacement, her fate may be the same as her predecessor.

Caring for their young

Over the summer, both species make ground nests in the long grass or woodland.The female will lay around ten eggs in each clutch, which she will incubate for 25-30 days.After they hatch, the mother will lead her chicks away from the nest to an area of long grass or crops, where they will survive mainly on insects.Within two or three weeks, the young will have reached adult size.

While the pheasants will live in relatively small groups, the young partridges will go on to join large groupings that can consist of 200 birds or more. Complex social organisation exists within these communities and partridges use a range of communications that are still poorly understood. Clearly, these sophisticated social systems are in stark contrast to the battery cages, in which a single breeding pair is imprisoned.

The history of intensification

It is believed that both species were brought to Britain by waves of successive invaders, including the Romans and the Normans.At first, the birds were allowed to live naturally on the woodland edge.They could enjoy a full life; their main danger coming from predators - including humans.

Humans have hunted birds since they themselves lived as wild animals, but the advent of the Industrial Revolution saw the development of powerful technologies that enabled new levels of cruelty.Wealthy estate owners used the newly-laid railways to travel to each other's country estates - their impact made all the worse due to the killing power of modern weaponry.

A fashion developed for 'big bags', and providing one's guests with plenty of animals to slaughter became the sign of a good host.The lords and ladies maintained large areas of woodland to home these birds.They would employ gamekeepers whose role was to protect the 'game' birds - a job which included setting vicious traps for predators and dealing with any commoners hunting on the estate.

Social changes and the mass-uptake of cheap private transport have opened up the shooting world to a much greater number of people.The desire for big bags, meanwhile, prompted extreme developments in bird breeding.

Departing from the shooting of truly wild birds, a system developed which involved exploiting chicken hens' natural instincts to incubate eggs.The young would then be abducted and reared so that they could be killed by shooters.

The system further intensified, with wooden pens being constructed to house breeding birds. No longer could the animals live the way their ancestors had for countless thousands of years. Foraging for food was replaced by scrabbling for the daily feed. Evading predators was replaced by an existence behind wire mesh - or being trapped by it if the predator managed to get inside. Caring for their young disappeared completely, with eggs being stolen as soon as they were laid.

In recent years, the breeding systems have spiralled out of control.A profit-driven 'arms race' between game farms has resulted in technological escalation at the expense of animal welfare. The cages have shrunk and more birds are crammed into smaller spaces.These conditions engender violence - a problem the game farmers seek to tackle through the use of punishing devices that limit the birds' vision and their ability to peck.

Battery cages are an entirely alien environment for any animal.The natural behaviours of pheasants and partridges make these systems psychologically damaging - which can frequently lead to violence and death. Even if the mental disorders caused by a denial of liberty did not spill over into physical injury, the negative mental impact alone would be sufficiently serious to make the cages morally unjustifiable.

Click here for part 5 of Assault and Battery, in which we challenge the Government to ban battery cages.

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