Animal Aid

Fowl Play - The killing of pheasants and the draft Animal Welfare Bill 2004

The Draft Animal Welfare Bill was written after consultation with interested groups against a background in which the government promised to leave shooting unscathed as a country bloodsport. Between July and August 2004, the draft entered a further period of consultation.

Annex I of the bill deals with 'gamebirds'. It acknowledges that, unlike poultry, such birds 'are reared primarily for sport shooting'. It further acknowledges that they lack the legal protection [meagre though that is] afforded other farmed animals by the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. Instead, the roughly 300 game farms in England and Wales are 'answerable' only to a voluntary code of practice concocted by the industry itself. The proposal contained in the new bill is that this voluntary code be adopted, with unspecified adjustments, as law. We believe that the evidence presented in this Animal Aid report points firmly in the direction of a Dutch-style ban.

As we have seen, even after their release, pheasants continue to be fed, watered and protected from predators. These interventions on the part of gamekeepers clearly afford the birds the status of 'protected' animals, given that they are - in the terminology of the draft bill - 'kept by man'.

Dumped pheasants

Even if animals are in the temporary custody of man, the bill states that they enjoy the status of a protected animal. Causing protected animals to suffer unnecessarily will be an offence. It will also be an offence for the keeper of a protected animal to allow another person to cause that animal to suffer unnecessarily.

Guilty under the new law!

The bill asserts that killing animals is not, in itself, inconsistent with the duty to ensure their welfare, if the killing is done 'humanely'. But the use of spread-shot cartridges at range, with attendant risks of wounding and consequent protracted suffering at the hands of untrained 'guns', cannot be considered humane. It follows that, under the bill as drafted, a gamekeeper or his employer, or both, will be guilty of allowing animals - for whom they are responsible - to be subjected to unnecessary suffering. A deceitful way forward would be to manipulate the wording of the bill in an attempt to exonerate shoot operators. The moral way forward would be to 'Go Dutch' and ban all bird production and releases.

Greed and excess

How many of the 35 million pheasants released every year are actually eaten? In the September 27, 2001 issue of Shooting Times magazine, a BASC spokesman declared 'the BASC estimates that 30 to 35 million pheasants are reared, of which up to 16 million are shot during the season'.

The spokesman went on to declare: 'The average shooting achieves a 50 to 60 per cent return from birds reared. The remaining 40 to 50 per cent is lost from a variety of causes, including predation, straying or death through natural causes.' Before moving on to the question of how many of the shot birds are eaten, we can observe that the BASC acknowledges that roughly half the released birds do not survive long enough to be shot. As noted earlier, this high attrition rate results in large part from what we refer to as their 'institutionalised' start in life. Especially in the first weeks, the released birds are incompetent compared with truly wild birds. They are also comparatively feeble, less able to find food for themselves and thus more prone than wild birds to disease and starvation.

These pheasants died before they could be shot

It is difficult to be precise about the percentage of shot birds who are eaten. The industry has never done a thorough audit of this or of other key aspects of production and killing. The BASC, for obvious reasons, has claimed that there is very little wastage. We can see, however, that this claim is at odds with frequent references, in a number of pro-shooting journals, to the 'Big Bags'/over-production phenomenon. Notably, the February 1, 2001 leading article in Country Life stated that 'about 13 million pheasants were shot during this past season, which is probably twice as many as the market can absorb'. In other words, half the birds shot are not eaten. The article goes on to say that 'in some areas, over-supply has led to shoots being forced to give away their bags, or worse still, bury their surplus'. Animal Aid has, in past reports, drawn attention to other admissions by industry insiders of 'greed and excess' - admissions that birds are produced to serve as mere living targets and that a great many of the victims are not eaten. Embarrassed by the self-incriminating statements, a new reticence has taken hold. However, we believe that the comments, reproduced below and overleaf, from the industry's own leading advocates, remain indicative of the current situation.

Predator control

A prime function of gamekeepers is the destruction of potential or perceived gamebird predators. The keepers deliberately target foxes, stoats, weasels and corvine birds, because they are attracted to the unnaturally large number of captive and newly-released pheasants.

In fact, the presence of so many pheasants draws a higher number of predator species than would otherwise be the case. The birds provide a food source, which boosts population levels of those predator animals. Species ranging from badgers to cats - even protected birds of prey like owls and kestrels - are also caught and killed by the indiscriminate snares, poison and body-crushing devices.

Indigenous wildlife destroyed

Using the industry's own data, (e.g. Tapper 1992), a leading ornithologist has calculated that around 1.5 million other birds and more than 3 million mammals are destroyed annually in the name of gamebird protection. Peter Robinson, a former head of investigations for the RSPB, notes that these figures are based on data from an annual volunteer sample of game estates and smaller shoots, with the findings expressed as numbers of birds/mammals killed per km2. [5]

But given that representative organisations, such as the Game Conservancy Trust or the BASC, know very little about what actually occurs on individuals shoots, it seems likely these figures represent underestimates.

Birds of prey killed illegally

'Although biologically important birds of prey are afforded full protection throughout Britain,' says Robinson, 'their illegal destruction on shooting and/or agricultural land continues.' RSPB annual statistics routinely show birds such as Red Kites and Buzzards are deliberately poisoned. Even Goshawks and Golden Eagles have fallen victim. This is in addition to other raptors who have been shot or trapped. [6] Historically, the published figures are believed to represent just a small proportion of the overall number killed annually in this way.

'While it is accepted that not all of these animals died as a direct result of gamebird protection policies,' says Robinson 'the percentage attributable to this cause is believed to be high, and in any event these incidents frequently involve land also used for shooting.'

At war with nature

Robinson adds:

'Many involved in gamebird management now fully understand (but not necessarily accept) that natural predation is an inevitable fact, but there are still far too many land owners, land tenants and gamebird managers who fail to understand the role played by natural predators - to the point even of advocating the destruction of entire populations, or removal of those species from entire areas, e.g. Hen Harriers from grouse moors. Such thinking is wholly out of place in a world increasingly governed by issues of biodiversity and sustainability.'

Chicks in transport bins


"...many large estates now shoot four or even five days a week from November to the end of January, killing as many as 2,000 birds a week. Shooting on such a large scale can be justified if there is a ready market for the birds bagged. This no longer exists. During this past season the price paid by game dealers for a brace of pheasants has fallen to between 60p and 80p a brace. In some areas, over-supply has led to shoots being forced to give away their bags, or, worse still, bury their surplus...

"There is one simple reason for the slump in demand for pheasants: over-supply. About 13 million pheasants were shot during this past season, which is probably twice as many as the market can absorb...

"Worryingly, on many commercial shoots, pheasants and partridges are regarded as feathered targets, not food. Many people who shoot even decline to take home their traditional brace of birds...

"Demand for big bags has led to considerable overstocking with tame, hand-reared birds...

"Rearing and releasing game for shooting has already been outlawed in Holland, and there seems little doubt that coming years will see the threat of similar legislation in this country.'

Comment Country Life, February 1, 2001

The environmental impact of pheasant shooting

The BASC employs 80 personnel, has a financial turnover of £4.5million and works hard to give shooting an acceptable face. It insists that shooting aids conservation and biodiversity, when no scientific study exists, or statistics are not available, detailing the size of the industry and its impact on the environment. Even the Game Conservancy admits that there is potential for large-scale damage in the release areas. [7]

What is the true environmental impact picture? The following snapshots offer some pointers.

Crop damage and soil erosion

'...the ecological impact of releasing 20 or more birds per hectare - a common stocking figure on many commercial shooting estates - is serious. It not only reduces the breeding success of wild stock, but leads to crop damage, soil erosion round release pens, and a greatly increased risk of disease...'

Country Life, February 1, 2001

'A Squalid, Environmentally Damaging Agribusiness'

Theo Hopkins used to allow pheasant shooting in his West Country wood. The following is an edited version of an account he wrote for our first major report on pheasant production, called The Killing Fields (2000).

'10 years ago I bought 50 acres of beautiful, ancient, semi-natural oak woodland near Oakford in Devon. I manage it for the wildlife and to maintain the natural ecology, as well as looking after the more ecologically diverse and important woodland edges. Devon is notable for its traditional hedgebanks.

The shoot offered to rent my land: £500 in my back pocket each year for just allowing them to feed and shoot a few pheasants. Not bad. Woodlands cost money to maintain, even when managed for biodiversity. I happily accepted.

In the second year, the shoot expanded and intensified. One evening I went up to my precious hedgebank. I was horrified. A hundred pheasants in a hundred metres were demolishing the bank - crawling over it like feathered maggots. The floral layer, violets, mosses, dog's mercury and bluebells were being rooted up, the earth turned to dry dust. And with them went the bugs and beasties that feed the native birds, mice and voles. I told the shoot to leave: keep your money, I want my hedges intact.

The shoot grew and expanded. I discovered that damage was happening all around me, and even the Exmoor National Park Authority were having trouble.

All around me were cover crops of kale and maize. Lines of plastic feeders sprang up by the hedges, encouraging yet more damage. And netted release pens were being constructed, inside which hundreds of birds fresh from the even more crowded rearing sheds were crammed together. The more I found out about the shooting, the more I realised that this was a squalid, environmentally damaging agribusiness. (Agribusiness was the gamekeeper's own word for his enterprise.)

My woodland and hedges are being damaged. Hedges elsewhere are being damaged. A neighbour is losing the grapes from his vineyard. The pheasants are eating all the natural food that a friend wants for his free-range ducks. People's vegetable gardens are being pecked to pieces. Pheasants swarm all over the local roads: there has been at least one local car accident. Can they explain why this is allowable?'

A vast expanse of feeding pens


"You're driving down a country road in August, minding your own business and admiring the view. Suddenly, the road ahead is alive with half-witted pheasant poults scuttling along the verges or trying to commit suicide as they meander aimlessly in front of passing traffic... Smashed bodies are scattered along the tarmac, birds that didn't know the Green Cross Code and the general scenario is hardly one to endear the unknowing urban visitor towards shooting.

"...By far the majority of shoots are discreet and try to avoid public conflict or poor public relations, yet there are a number of shoots which are, as we all know, putting down vast numbers of birds in order to meet an increasing demand for commercial driven shooting...

"Huge numbers of birds are being reared to provide bags of 400 to 500 or more birds a day, five days a week, at a time when game dealers are paying pennies for dead game and even, in some cases, taking birds away for nothing.

"Reports of 40 pheasants to the acre circulate, an imbalance which must inevitably affect the environment into which they are released, while rumours of birds being buried for lack of a market are also rife..."

Nimrod Column, The Countryman's Weekly, July 20 2001

Lead shot deposits

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) has estimated that, as a result of sport shooting, 8,000 tonnes of contaminating toxic lead shot is scattered over the land and watercourses annually. [8]

In a letter to The Times in August 2004, a CIEH representative wrote:

'Much of this shot is discharged over the limited areas of shooting clubs, when special events can involve several tonnes of shot left on the ground... Public concern has dealt with lead in petrol, paint, toys, piping and anglers' weights, but the deliberate addition of lead shot to the environment continues. This contamination is not the unavoidable by-product of essential industry, but results mainly from a leisure pursuit.'

Ornithologist Peter Robinson is convinced that the true volume of lead shot deposits is much greater.

"Lead is a broad-spectrum metabolic poison,' he notes, 'producing toxic effects in animal tissue and attacking behavioural and reproductive systems. Lead-associated effects of ingested shot by waterfowl or gamebirds, or by wounding, are often lethal to the individual, whereas predators and scavengers face a high risk of accumulative ingested secondary poisoning. In North America, such secondary lead poisoning is believed to have played a key role in the demise of the wild California Condor population.

"The 1990s move by the USA towards total lead shot bans within main shooting areas is now mirrored in Britain by a ban on use of lead shot over selected wetlands (only). This means that, within Britain, at least 50% of all shotgun discharges continue to contain lead shot... Apart from the obvious environmental unacceptability of this situation, the industry also seems unconcerned by the likely detrimental consequences of gamebirds ingesting lead shot, and their subsequent consumption by human consumers."

Click here for the final part of Fowl Play, which describes the steps which have been taken in Holland and presents our conclusions.

Pheasant road sign tacked to a tree

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