Animal Aid

Assault and Battery - A life of incarceration

Hundreds of thousands of pheasants and partridges killed every year in Britain by 'sport shooters' come from breeding birds who spend their lives in the kind of barren cages that countries across Europe are phasing out for battery hens because they are considered to be inhumane.

The British 'game bird' industry has tried to conceal the scale of cage use and the names of the producers employing the units. But Animal Aid has conducted undercover filming at four businesses where thousands of male and female egg producers are incarcerated in the metal pens. Many of the birds were highly agitated and suffering bloody head and body wounds. Serious feather-pecking was another common feature.

Government sleepwalks into giving offical approval

Three of the four cage-using companies we filmed are run by members of the Game Farmers' Association?s (GFA) executive council. The GFA promotes a Code of Practice that serves as the industry welfare norm - given the absence of any formal legal framework governing how the birds should be treated. This same GFA code may well be adopted by the government under its new Animal Welfare Bill proposals.

Animal Aid first exposed the use of cages for pheasants and partridges when our undercover footage - shot last year at a large-scale game bird producer in Powys, Mid Wales - was shown in November 2004 on national television. bad tempered industry debate

The scenes of highly agitated and damaged birds provoked an immediate, often bad tempered, debate within the industry. The GFA defended the system, whereas the key shooters? group, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), declared that such units were 'indefensible' and 'incompatible with the values of BASC and the future of gameshooting'. It described the scenes revealed in the Animal Aid footage as 'awful' and 'appalling'.

Our new footage demonstrates that the cage system for egg-producing game birds is becoming deeply rooted within the production process. It is also clear that the main cage exponents are using their GFA executive council positions to defend these systems.

Fitted with face masks

The cages - which allow each bird only a fraction of the minimum space formally recommended for breeding birds by BASC - are essentially small metal boxes with a mesh roof and wire mesh floor. They are elevated about one metre from the ground and arranged in long rows. Other than a narrow overhead metal strip, the birds are open to the elements and are subjected to after-dark artificial lighting in order to extend their laying period.

One male and around eight female pheasants are typically incarcerated in each cage. They are fitted with oppressive face masks in an attempt to limit the aggression engendered by the stressful conditions. Some of these devices are fastened into the nostrils, which - according to the veterinary scientific literature - results in a high incidence of infectious sinusitis. illegal mutilation

Worse still is a type of mask - used by two of the producers we filmed - that covers much of the front of the face and is held in place by being driven through the birds? nasal septums. This mutilation is against the law with respect to commercial poultry.

The partridges are housed in pairs - one male and one female - inside boxes that are proportionately smaller. One of the producers we filmed operated around 4,000 breeding cages; another had more than 1,600.

Injured and feeble

Many of the birds - filmed in Suffolk, Lancashire,Warwickshire and Powys - were thin and weak, as well as showing evidence of injury and major feather loss. Their head wounds were caused by repeatedly leaping at the cage roofs in an attempt to escape.We also found numerous dead birds - partridges, in particular.We visited two of the establishments twice between the end of April and early June. The birds' condition had deteriorated markedly between the first and second visits.

Less than a month after Animal Aid?s November 2004 exposé of battery cage production, the GFA issued a statement insisting that, where 'raised laying units' are used, the GFA 'requires that they should be enriched'. Its definition of enrichment is the provision of a perch, a separate nesting area, Astro Turf over part of the mesh floor and litter in which the birds can scratch. hypocrisy of the game farmers' association.

The statement went on to declare: 'Game farmers using raised laying units who wish to retain the support of the GFA must, by the start of the 2005 laying season, show good intent towards meeting the minimum standards of enrichment set by the association. They must comply fully with these standards by the start of the 2006 laying season.'

None of the units at which Animal Aid filmed in the second half of the 2005 laying season had shown any outward sign of 'good intent' in meeting the 'enrichment standard'. All cages were thoroughly barren - without perches, Astro Turf, or litter. It would appear that those GFA council members operating battery cages have failed to obey the terms of their own edict.

Factory farming for the furtherance of 'sport' shooting

What should be remembered when following these developments is that the battery cages are used to confine breeding birds, whose offspring will be shot primarily for sport and not food. The government department responsible for food and the environment (DEFRA) is clear on this point (Launch of the Draft Animal Welfare Bill, Annex I, p94, DEFRA July 2004). And even that staunchly pro-hunting organ, Country Life, has stated in a main editorial (February 1, 2001) that mass over-production has meant that some shot birds end up being shovelled into the ground in specially dug pits.

The most consistent industry estimates suggest that a maximum of 40% of the roughly 35 million birds released every year in Britain are recovered. An even smaller percentage is actually eaten.

While the GFA has been, in Animal Aid's view, cynical and inept in its handling of the battery cage scandal, the shooters' lobby group, BASC, has been more adroit in its efforts to conceal its own culpability.

Shooting lobby group ducks for cover

The furore caused by the November 2004 screening, by BBC1's Countryfile programme, of Animal Aid's battery cage video nasty prompted genuine alarm within BASC's upper reaches.While intensive production of pheasants has been continuing apace for some years - through the use of industrial hatcheries, crowded fattening sheds and massive 'release pens' - the adoption of metal battery cages is a development, its council recognised, that could not be plausibly defended in public.

There is also a sense that BASC's old self-delusional PR message (that game production and shooting is natural, wholesome and environmentally enriching), was dealt a devastating blow by Animal Aid's footage of caged-up birds, frantic and bloody, leaping dementedly at the roofs of their metal prisons.

Whatever the reason for, and the extent of, the BASC council?s discomfiture, a statement was issued in February 2005 declaring its unequivocal opposition to battery cages. The announcement provoked widespread media coverage - to which the pro-shooting press responded by registering its own embarrassment that another of shooting's dark secrets had been exposed, and by attacking BASC for allegedly lining up alongside Animal Aid against its own community of 'sport shooters'.

Grand industry gathering produces ... silence

Then, in March 2005, BASC brought together the GFA, the Countryside Alliance, the Country Land and Business Association, a representative of the French government (the French having invented the barren cage system for game birds) and representatives of other shooting organisations. Their declared objective was to 'find a way forward'. Since then, no public utterances from them have been heard on the issue.

Name and shame

Moreover, despite advising its 122,000 members to 'check the provenance' of the birds they kill - or grow on for others to kill - BASC has refused to 'name and shame' the offending producers. In fact, on its own website trade directory, it promotes two of the battery cage operators.

The role of government

DEFRA has indicated that it is also troubled by the earlier evidence on cages that Animal Aid brought forward. It suggests that, at some unspecified time, it might conduct a 'scientific survey' of battery cages. Meanwhile, it is shaping up to adopt the GFA's production code of practice - which contains nothing to discourage their use - as the basis of new laws for game bird production. These will be laid down in an Animal Welfare Bill that is expected to come before parliament in the autumn.

Ban without delay

Our evidence makes clear that no amount of spin or 'scientific' data manipulation can obscure the fundamental reality about battery cages for 'game bird' production: they are vicious, cruel and indefensible contraptions. They offend and embarrass even shooting's leading representative body. They must be banned without delay.

Animal Aid filmed barren cage units at the following establishments during the 2005 breeding season:

  • G & Leisure, Bettws Hall Hatcheries, Bettws Cedewain, Powys (filmed late April and again in early June)
  • Heart of England Farms, Henley Road, Claverdon,Warwick (filmed early June)
  • Hy-Fly Game Hatcheries, Pilling Lane, Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancs (filmed late April and early June)
  • Pye Hall Game Farm, Eye, Suffolk (filmed late May)

Large numbers of pheasants inevitably attract - and, in fact, boost the populations of - predator species such as stoats, weasels, foxes and members of the crow family. Gamekeepers deliberately kill them by setting traps and snares. But species ranging from badgers to cats and dogs - even protected birds of prey like owls and kestrels - are caught and killed. Millions of animals are slaughtered every year in these 'predator control' programmes.

Because of the enfeeblement that results from being reared in sheds, around half of the pheasants die before they can be gunned down.

They perish from exposure, starvation, disease, predation, or under the wheels of motor vehicles. And given that a small group of shooters can kill up to 500 birds a day, many of the victims are not actually eaten. According to an editorial in Country Life magazine (February 1, 2001) some of the 'surplus' is buried in specially dug holes. Added to these casualties are the numerous unretrieved birds who die slowly from their gunshot wounds, out of sight of the guns.

The basic animal protection laws in the UK decree that an offence is committed when an animal is subjected to 'unnecessary suffering'. There are many views on what constitutes unnecessary suffering. At one end of the spectrum is the pain animals endure undergoing veterinary treatments designed to advance or preserve their health. At the opposite pole, in Animal Aid's view, is the bird shooting industry where purpose-bred animals are shot for pleasure. The suffering experienced by these birds, while they are being fattened for the kill and as they repeatedly run the gauntlet of the guns, cannot plausibly be justified as 'necessary'.

In Holland, producing birds for 'sport shooting' was first curbed in 1986 and outlawed entirely in 2002. The action was taken because the practice was judged to be morally and environmentally unsupportable. We have set out in this report the case for a similar ban to be introduced into Britain.

Click here for part 2 of Assault and Battery, in which we describe the disturbing battery cage systems.

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