Animal Aid

Assault and Battery - The cages: pheasants

Pheasants selected for breeding in barren cages will live out their whole 'productive' lives of two years inside the containers. Eight to ten females are confined with a single male inside what is essentially a galvanised steel box fitted with a wire mesh sloping floor and a flexible net roof.The ground space of each cage is roughly equivalent to the size of a standard door.The cages are elevated on metal legs about one metre from the ground.

'Scalping'

The solid sides prevent adjacent cocks from seeing each other and the flexible roofs are intended to minimize damage to the head as the captives - particularly when stirred by the arrival of farm workers - repeatedly leap upwards in an attempt to escape.The raw abrasions caused to their heads by this activity are known in the trade as 'scalping'.

Night lights

The cages are terraced and can cover acres of ground with servicing gaps between rows. Each row shares a common watering system and necklaces of lights to prolong the breeding and laying activity. Eggs roll across the sloping floors to external collecting trays. Hens will normally lay an average of 35 eggs in a season that begins on April 1 and is complete by the end of July. However, the cages' after-hours artificial lighting is likely to boost egg numbers considerably.

A fraction of the previous space allowance

Intensive breeding of pheasants and partridges predates the advent of battery cages. But the new elevated box system for breeding birds is markedly more oppressive than the 'traditional' high throughput egg-production units. The latter comprise a wire-topped grass run with an area in which to shelter. BASC, with such 'traditional' systems in mind, recommends a space allowance per bird of 4.5 square metres.The new battery cages, according to BASC, provide less than a third of one square metre for each bird.

A few weeks before the start of the mating season, the dead and 'spent' birds are replaced and the cycle begins again.

While male pheasants are naturally polygamous - with one cock controlling a 'harem' of eight to ten females - partridges pair up and remain monogamous.As a consequence, battery cage operators confine one male and one female to a compartment within a standard cage that has been divided into six walled sections.Whereas, in the wild, partridges choose a mate for breeding, cage operators throw a male and a female together randomly.

Random pairing

A French producer we spoke to (their British counterparts were unforthcoming) confirmed that, when one of the paired partridges dies, another is selected to replace him or her.

The Game Farmers' Association chairman claimed in a letter to Shooting Times magazine (Tim Robbins, Feb 10 2005) that 'raised pair boxes have been the method of choice for partridge egg production, here and abroad, for several decades'. But this was countered in the same Letters Page by BASC's Director of Communications, Christopher Graffius, who declared that:'It is wrong to say that a barren 18 inch square metal cage in which two partridges are confined for three years is the same as a traditional partridge box.The latter has a run and a dusting area and laying stock are confined for three months before release into the wild or a large flock pen.'

Open to the elements

Some of the battery cages filmed by Animal Aid had a narrow, overhead metal panel. Other than this minimal protection, the birds - confined to the cages every month of the year - are open to rain, snow, hail and driving wind, as well as to the heat of high summer.Additionally, their feet have no respite from the coarse mesh flooring on which they must stand and through which their waste falls and gathers in a putrid mess on the ground below.

The claimed advantages of the caged system

Inevitably, game producers who have adopted the battery cage system set forth a number of alleged benefits over the 'traditional' method of intensive egg production.The cages are said to be economically advantageous (they squeeze more breeding birds into a given area), logistically more convenient (at the end of each breeding season, the older-style breeding pens have to be dismantled, cleaned and reassembled on fresh ground).

The caged birds are also said to be subject to less disease (because they are not tramping through their own and others' faeces for months at a time), and they are also less likely to be taken by predators.

Disease risk

The starting point in dismantling these arguments is to make the obvious case that pheasants and partridges do not belong in cages or pens or sheds.They are there only so that they can be grown on to be shot for pleasure.

Any supposed economic and logistical gains provided by the caged systems are likely, in any case, to be short-lived. As students of intensive farming will know, nothing can be gained in the long run by attempts to extract more profit from animals by depriving them of everything that makes their lives bearable. Imprisoned animals who are crowded and stressed will break down physiologicallyand mentally and be subject to disease epidemics.These can be devastating not only to the immediate animal victims but - economically speaking - to the farmers themselves and to the general public who, directly or otherwise, are required to meet at least some of the cost.This could be by way of environmental clean-ups, or - where disease outbreaks spread from game birds to other animal production sectors - through compensation payments.

In July 2005, for instance, came news that Newcastle Disease had been detected on a pheasant-rearing farm in Surrey, resulting in the destruction of 9,000 birds.The disease, caused by a deadly virus, has the potential to affect almost all avian species, both commercial and wild. Most vulnerable are chickens, turkeys, pigeons and parrots.

Subsidising the wealthy

The public, it should be noted, is already subsidising wealthy shooting estates through their taxes.These payments (awarded, for instance, because the estates plant crops in which the birds can hide and from where they are beaten into the sky to be shot) are set to increase.

Blaming the french

The other main 'justification' offered by cage operators is that the units are used by some French producers, who export eggs and young chicks to Britain. British producers must, therefore, follow suit in order to compete.This doesn't work either.An inhumane activity is not made acceptable because others indulge in it. Or as Shooting Times columnist, Alasdair Mitchell, put it (ST, February 10, 2005):'True, the dastardly French may undercut our home markets. But just because others have lower standards doesn't mean I have to sink down to their level.'

From birth to bullet

Other Animal Aid reports (notably Fowl Play, September 2004) have detailed the rearing of 'game birds' from the egg stage onwards.With around 35 million pheasants now released for shooting every year in Britain, the production process has become increasingly large-scale and industrialised. See www.animalaid.org.uk for full background, including a 5-minute introductory film.

Click here for part 3 of Assault and Battery, in which we reveals the findings of our undercover investigation into four battery cage operators.

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