Animal Aid


This second part of the The Killing Fields report looks at pheasant rearing and is written by Clare Druce, Director of the Farm Animal Welfare Network.

A short life and a brutal one

Contrary to what most people might think, pheasants - even those birds shot 'on the wing' in the wild -endure most of the abuses suffered by intensively farmed poultry, and a few others peculiar to the game bird industry. Beaks are often partially amputated; blinker-like spectacles might be kept in place by pins driven through nasal septums; millions are fitted with plastic or metal 'bits' to prevent closure of the beak; one wing could be tied to prevent escape. Yet ornithologists and bird lovers rarely speak out on behalf of game birds. Why? Does the mere fact that they're eaten set them apart?

Many pheasants are shot when only 20 weeks old, though their potential lifespan is several years. Game Conservancy (GC) literature suggests that birds reared for the shoot should be allowed at least one month's liberty before they face the guns. (1) Before then, their lives are defined by episodes of confinement, stress, mutilation and aggression.

Hatching from the egg

Crowded breeding units cause stress among the parent stock, since in the wild pheasants live in groups of less than a dozen. A controlled environment ensures that pheasant hens lay an unnaturally large number of eggs. These are removed daily and artificially incubated, usually in large numbers. But in small rearing units a broody hen (chicken, not pheasant) may be used, and tethered to make it easier for the gamekeeper to return her to the nest after periods of exercise. Notes the GC: 'The initial period of tethering can often witness the broodies flapping about and fighting.' (2)

The hatched chicks are transferred to a brooder system holding several hundred pheasants, typically sub-divided into pens of one or two hundred. Hatching large numbers together can cause health hazards. The Veterinary Record reported one incidence of E.coli septicaemia in three-to-four-day-old chicks thought to have occurred as a result of a malfunctioning aerosol spray used at the incubator stage to combat viruses and bacteria. About five per cent of the 20,000 chicks affected died. (3)


After the brooder house, chicks are moved to enclosed grass runs and then to release sites in a process designed to acclimatise them to greater freedom. In fact, birds can become severely stressed when moved. They may stop eating and contract a variety of diseases. Stress also leads to aggression, even cannibalism, as reported in the Veterinary Record. (4)

Feed hoppers encourage the birds to remain nearby, so their movements are predictable on the day of the shoot. The trouble is that birds may become reliant on humans, having been treated like domestic fowl. Semi-intensive farming also lays the birds open to disease and parasitical infections, as reported in the Veterinary Record: 'Deaths in pheasants aged five weeks were the result of heavy gapeworm (Syngamus trachea) burdens. The pheasants had been reared in a static building with access to grass runs, which had been in use for ten years.' (5)

The intensive conditions increase aggression among cocks, who in the wild fight to establish territory. To counteract aggression, gamekeepers may resort to a variety of mutilations and physical restraints.


According to Article 11 of the Council of Europe's Draft Recommendation Concerning Pheasants (August 1994, still in draft form), mutilation is defined as a '...procedure carried out for other than therapeutic purposes, and resulting in the damage to, or loss of, a sensitive part of the body, or the alteration of bone structure, or causing a significant amount of pain and distress'. The same Article states: 'In the case of beak trimming only the upper tip of the beak shall be removed at the most advanced age possible, and this procedure must be carried out by a qualified operator.'

Even so, pheasants may be debeaked repeatedly in their short lives. Advises the GC: 'The beak will normally grow back again after 10 to 14 days, when a further feather pecking outbreak may occur, requiring additional treatment. Some game rearers automatically repeat the beak trimming process at 10-14 day intervals.' (6) This is despite research indicating that chickens debeaked at a few weeks old suffer in a similar way to human amputees who experience 'phantom limb pain'. (7)

Two operators can debeak 1,000 birds in only two hours. (8) That's approximately seven seconds per bird, excluding the time needed to pick up the birds and return them to the pen or crate. However, GC literature admonishes: 'Beginners to this technique would be well advised to seek a practical demonstration with an experienced operator. If done incorrectly, severe damage to the bird could occur.' (9)

An alternative to beak trimming/debeaking is fitting the birds with 'bits'. The GC, however, recommends doing both. Bits are incomplete rings of plastic or metal designed to prevent the beak from closing, so minimising damage from aggressive pecking. Bits are fed between the upper and lower mandibles of the beak, and clipped into the nostrils to keep them in place. The GC suggests fitting them in three-week-old birds, though they must be changed for larger sizes as the birds grow. Failure to do so can result in beak deformity or even starvation.

Bitting has been associated with outbreaks of fatal disease. Reported the Veterinary Record: 'An air sacculitis* was found in pheasants aged four weeks, which died following bitting.' (10) [*Inflammation of the birds' respiratory system, causing air sacs to be filled with thick yellow pus in late stages of infection; often associated with E. coli.]

The Game Conservancy Trust (GCT) claims there are no figures available for the use of bits, (11) but several companies supply them, suggesting they are widely used. States the GCT's director general: 'The use of bits will be in the interests of the birds if the alternative is widespread feather pecking and consequent cannibalism.' (12)

Gamekeepers also employ spectacles - or specs - in an attempt to minimise bird-on-bird aggression. They are blinker-like devices designed to limit the field of vision. Another reason for employing specs is to minimise egg eating in breeders. The devices are clipped into the birds' nostrils, or are illegally kept in place by a plastic 'pin' driven through the sensitive membranes of the nasal septum.

The director general of the GCT claims the use of specs is declining and that 'the ones that pierce the nasal septum have not been seen by us for some time'. (13) However, as recently as 1994, illegal specs with pins were in use on the Queen's estate at Windsor Great Park. Following publicity, at least two companies - one of them Quadtag Limited, suppliers of game-rearing equipment to the Queen - have stopped supplying specs with pins. But Pintail Sporting Services of Romsey, Hampshire, were still supplying the illegal devices - as this report went to press - at £12 per 100.

Birds may also be fitted with brails, bands of material looped over the shoulder of one wing and twisted to keep the wing closed, to prevent escape from unroofed pens. Wing-spreading and preening are basic behavioural needs, yet brailing prevents birds from engaging in this behaviour.


The Liaison Group of the Veterinary Investigation Service and the Game Conservancy said in its 1993 report: 'Many of the diseases recorded by the Ministry of Agriculture Veterinary Investigation Centres and the Scottish Agricultural Colleges Veterinary Services are, unfortunately, directly related to the intensification of game bird production.' (14)

Wild birds suffer from a wide range of diseases, and modern game birds are prone to these, plus diseases of factory-farmed animals, the so-called 'diseases of intensification'.

Consider the following evidence:

  • 'Salmonellosis and E coli septicaemia caused the deaths of pheasants up to six weeks of age. A combination of Salmonella orion, S. enteritidis DT4 and rotavirus infection resulted in the deaths of 300 of 7,000 birds, and S. enteritidis DT4 was the only agent identified in a unit where 300 of 700 birds died at between one and three weeks of age.' (15)
  • 'Problems in a new crop of pheasant and partridge chicks included starve-outs, impaction of the gizzard with wood shavings, yolk sac infections, rotavirus infections and pullorum disease caused by Salmonella pullorum. (16) Similar diseases are rife in broiler and chicken sheds.
  • Several reports of infectious sinusitis included one particularly severe incident causing approximately 25 per cent mortality of affected pheasants.' (17)
  • 'Lymphomatous tumours were found around the eyes and the leg of a pheasant which had been shot. The Veterinary Science Division notes that there are anecdotal reports that this condition is becoming more common in pheasants.' (18) Lymphomatous tumours are similar to those found in poultry suffering from Marek's disease, a form of cancer.


Drugs licensed for poultry are prescribed for game birds. Thus, like other forms of factory farming, the rearing of game birds, with its reliance on drugs, is contributing to the worldwide threat of antibiotic resistance in human and veterinary medicine.

An example is enrofloxacin, one of the fluorinated quinolones, introduced recently into veterinary medicine despite warnings in The Lancet over a decade ago from members of the medical profession. Physicians fear that their use in veterinary medicine will endanger the efficacy of this group of antibiotics in the field of human medicine. 'Thought needs to be given as to whether quinolones, such as enrofloxacin, should be given to animals.' (19) Enrofloxacin is cross-resistant with ciprofloxacin, the drug used in human medicine in cases of salmonella-induced blood poisoning and against the infection most dreaded in hospitals today, MRSA.

The Veterinary Record reports that oxytetracycline (a broad-spectrum antibiotic) added to pheasants' drinking water 'provided a satisfactory response' to a disease problem (20). This indicates how life-saving antibiotics are being squandered to reduce mortality on intensive game bird rearing sites.

In 1996, the UK Government managed to avert an outright ban on Emtryl following reassurance from the UK's Veterinary Medicines Directorate that 'a safe administration level can be set for Emtryl and that the ban was never justified.' (21) An EU-wide ban for all species except game birds came into force because of concern that no safe maximum residue limit in animals treated with Emtryl could be set. The active ingredient of Emtryl is dimetridazole. The Veterinary Record reported: 'Milk from another dairy was withdrawn from the food chain when dairy cows broke into a pheasant release pen and were exposed to the game bird ration containing dimetridazole.' (22)

Potential for direct danger to humans from diseased pheasants

The poultry disease erysipelas is a potentially dangerous zoonosis* causing erysipeloid in man. Erysipeloid 'causes painful skin lesions which occasionally progress to septicaemia, encephalitis and endocarditis and can be acquired from scratches when handling infected birds'. (23) Peck injuries, common among stressed pheasants, were believed to provide a potential route for infection. (24)
[* Zoonosis - an infection naturally transmissable between vertebrates and humans.]

Pheasants and UK legislation

According to MAFF: Game birds kept on agricultural land and raised 'primarily' for the production of food are protected by the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary pain or unnecessary distress to any livestock. Because the birds are usually reared principally for sport, the 1968 Act and accompanying Welfare Code might not always be applicable. But, like all captive animals, pheasants are covered by the Protection of Animals Act 1911-88, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any such animal. (25)


1. Game bird Releasing, Game Conservancy 1991, p56
2. Game bird Rearing, Game Conservancy 1990, p18
3. Veterinary Record, vol.145, No.1, p 6
4. Veterinary Record, vol.143, No. 17, p 463
5. Veterinary Record, vol.145, No. 9, p 242
6. Game bird Rearing, Game Conservancy 1990, p 85
7. Gentle, M: et al. (1990) 'Behavioural Evidence for Persistent Pain Following Partial Beak Amputation in Chickens', Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 27
149-157, Elsevier Science Publisher B.V., Amsterdam
8. Game bird Rearing, Game Conservancy 1990 p 6
9. Ibid p 85
10. Veterinary Record, vol. 141, No.13, p 324
11. Letter from Director General of the Game Conservancy Trust to FAWN dated 24 March,1999
12. Ibid
13. Ibid
14. 'Game Diseases in 1993', First Annual Report of the Veterinary Investigation Service and the Game Conservancy Liaison Group
15. Veterinary Record, vol. 141, No. 16, p 411
16. Veterinary Record, vol. 143, No. 12, p 322
17. Veterinary Record, vol. 141, No. 18, p 462
18. Veterinary Record, vol. 142, No. 21, p 563
19. The Lancet, vol. 336 July 14th 1990, p 125
20. Veterinary Record, vol. 143, No. 13, p 350
21. UKEPRA News, March 1 1996
22. Veterinary Record, vol. 143, No. 23, p 625
23. Veterinary Record, vol. 141, No. 13, p 324
24. Ibid
25. MAFF letter to Animal Aid dated August 21, 2000.

The Game Conservancy Trust (GCT)
'The Game Conservancy Trust is an independent charity to promote the conservation of game. It conducts research into game birds, mammals, fish, their habitat and other wildlife.' The Game Conservancy Limited (GC) is associated with the GCT and 'provides practical advice on game conservation through a national network of advisors who make farm visits throughout the UK and abroad. GC Limited also runs a series of game management courses and operates a mail order shop. Profits made by the GC Ltd. are covenanted to the Game Conservancy Trust. The above descriptions are taken from The Game Conservancy Review of 1993. Both the GCT and GC Ltd. are based in Fordingbridge, Hampshire.

The third part of the Killing Fields report looks at the role of the RSPB, shooting as a corporate perk, the shooting fraternity, and snares and traps.

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