Animal Aid

Fowl Play - How pheasants are produced

No reliable figures

Despite the scale of pheasant production and shooting in Britain, the industry has not troubled itself to develop reliable, up-to-date information on the number of birds involved. But bearing in mind past industry data, plus forecasts of sales growth, it can be estimated that around 35 million birds are released every year.

The release of this enormous 'avian biomass' inevitably has a destabilising impact on established wildlife populations with whom the pheasants will compete for food and cover. The natural landscape is also damaged by this sudden influx.

The 'breeding stock' is typically kept in small pens. Their eggs are collected, incubated in ovens and the chicks reared in heated sheds before being moved, aged six or seven weeks, into large 'release pens'.

Animal Aid has gathered evidence relating to every stage of the production process, most recently at a state-of-the-art breeding unit in Powys comprising row upon row of metal pens. Each pen was just 2ft wide, 4 ft long and 1 ft high and yet incarcerated within were one cock pheasant and six or seven females. The majority had been feather-pecked by stressed cagemates, some so severely that their backs and necks were bare and bloody. This was despite all of them having been fitted with oppressive 'anti-aggression' face masks.

Pheasants with face masks

The pens themselves were devoid of any comfort. The pen floor was wire mesh, the sides were made from solid alloy and there was a flexible mesh roof. The floor was at an angle so that eggs could roll through for ease of collection. The pens were elevated about one metre from the ground and were in tight, seemingly endless open-air rows. The area covered totalled at least two acres, or the equivalent of two football pitches.

Predators exterminated

Once hatched, pheasant chicks are moved to heated sheds, each typically holding one or two hundred birds. Attached to each shed is a small outdoor covered run, to which the birds have access once they are considered hardy enough. At seven or eight weeks they are moved from the sheds to release enclosures - large fenced-in units that can hold thousands of birds. As the shooting season approaches (it runs from October 1 to February 1) the birds are encouraged into fields of cover crops and, come shooting days, beaten up into the sky to serve as feathered targets.

Throughout the whole process, the pheasants are fed and medicated - and any animal perceived as threatening their survival is exterminated. Even after their release, strategically placed feed hoppers entice the pheasants to remain within the vicinity so that paying customers are not short of targets. When each day's shooting stops, feed is used to seduce the survivors back into cover so that they are available to face the guns on another day.

Kestrel in trap

Mutilations and restraints

As indicated, the crowded, unnatural conditions within the sheds lead to aggression. Gamekeepers attempt to counteract this by a variety of mutilations and physical restraints. Perhaps the most severe 'procedure' is 'debeaking'. In its 1997 Report on the Welfare of Laying Hens, the government's official agricultural advisory body - known as the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) - stated: 'We consider that beak trimming is a most undesirable mutilation which should be avoided if at all possible and only used if essential to prevent worse welfare problems of injurious feather pecking and cannibalism.' The report adds: '...if beak trimming is essential, it should be carried out at up to 10 days of age...' [1]

Despite this clear welfare warning, pheasants may be debeaked repeatedly in their short lives. The industry lobby group, the Game Conservancy (GC) has advised: '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.' [2]

An increasingly popular alternative to debeaking is fitting the birds with 'bits'. These are incomplete rings of plastic or metal that are designed to prevent the beak from closing, so minimising damage from aggressive pecking. Bits are fed between the upper and lower mandibles and clipped into the nostrils to keep them in place. According to a supplier of the devices, they commonly cause sinusitis. Bitted animals are also frustrated in their attempts to pick up small particles of food.

Gamekeepers also employ spectacles - or 'specs'. These blinker-like devices, which are also clipped into the nostrils, are designed to limit their field of vision, thereby reducing aggression. Another reason for employing specs is to minimise egg eating in breeders.

Pheasant with 'specs'

In a further effort to modify behaviour, birds may be fitted with brails - bands of material looped over the shoulder of one wing and twisted to keep the wing closed. This is to prevent escape from unroofed pens. Wing-spreading and preening are basic behavioural needs. Brailing makes these impossible.

Disease rife

Just as bird-on-bird aggression is a feature of the crowded sheds and pens, so are bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases. The birds are liberally dosed with a range of medicinal products in an effort to limit the outbreaks.

Until recently, the drug dimetridazole (DMZ) was routinely prescribed for reared pheasants to combat devastating infestation caused by protozoan parasites. Widespread administration took place even though DMZ is a suspected carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) and has been banned in every European Union country except Britain. The drug is given in the grain feed and water and, while there is a withdrawal period of 28 days prior to the birds' destruction, the only protection for the consumer is an inadequate sampling programme administered by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate.

The veterinary drugs company Merial has now stopped production of DMZ. It did so when it became clear that the European Commission was not prepared to continue licensing DMZ for British game birds, despite the industry's protestations. It is still legal in Britain, however, to administer the drug to game birds - and the shooting industry retains stocks that it intends to use.

A particularly graphic picture of life and death in the sheds came with the June 2004 publication of a League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) undercover investigation, called Bred To Be Wild. The account LACS presented - supported by filmed and documentary evidence - was one of 'cruelty, cannibalism and over-crowding at a number of game rearing farms across England, with thousands of birds dying as a result of appalling battery-like conditions and negligence by staff with little or no formal training in animal husbandry'.

Feather-pecked pheasant

How pheasants are shot

Game birds are released in compact localised areas. To keep them continually within range for big-spending shooting customers, cover crops are planted, natural cover is extended, feed and water is provided and snares and traps are set to combat the unnaturally large numbers of indigenous predators attracted to the unbalanced supply of prey.

Pheasants are ground-dwelling creatures of the woodland edge. They fly badly and briefly. An energy sapping power flap, never lasting longer than 10 seconds, is followed by a gliding descent. Pheasants are particularly vulnerable at the start of the season when, having been carefully preserved by their keepers, the institutionalised birds are suddenly scared into the sky and shot at. During these early weeks, they are often seen blundering through hedgerows or meandering across busy country roads where many meet their death.

Thrill of the kill

Shooting magazines seek to present the slaughter as an even contest between canny prey and adept hunter. Christopher Graffius of the lobby group, the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) conjured up just such a scenario, when he wrote in the Daily Telegraph:

"The enjoyment of pheasant shooting lies in being among friends in beautiful country in pursuit of a testing quarry with the end result of food on many tables. The thrill is in the pleasure of a good and challenging shot, much the same as the pleasure taken in any sport or work well done." [3]

Enjoyable it may be for the armed participants but, from the birds' perspective, it is a day of bloody carnage. Just as the workers in the sheds often lack proper formal training, so anyone - even a child of nine - can pick up a shotgun and, untutored, attempt to bring down these feathered targets.

Dead list

Untutored guns

There is no compulsory training or examination of shooting skills in Britain and in several parts of the country young children have been granted firearms certificates in their own names. Even where a skilled shooter is involved, the nature of the spread-shot cartridge cannot guarantee a humane death. Some birds fall alive and flightless from altitude. The industry's own code demands that they be picked up by dogs or shoot members and quickly despatched. Many wounded birds, however, are never recovered, particularly in the undulating densely covered terrain favoured by shoot operators. If 35 million birds are released annually and 'just' 5% are hit but not killed outright, 1.75 million will have faced a slow death by hunger, thirst, exposure, or at the mercy of predators.

Can it be plausibly claimed that the suffering caused to these purpose-bred birds was 'necessary'?

Theo Hopkins of Oakford in Devon also wrote to the Daily Telegraph:

"I recently saw a pheasant shot and wounded 40 yards above the ground. The 2lb bird, flapping and shedding feathers, hit the ground with an audible thump. It couldn't fly, but tried to run. A dog grabbed it by the wing and dragged it across the field and through a dense hedge. The bird and wing parted company. The dog looked momentarily confused, but then thankfully grabbed the body. The bird continued to flap around at the Gun's feet awhile, while he waited for his next shot. Eventually he picked up the bird by the feet and repeatedly swung its head against a fence post." [4]

Click here for part 3 of Fowl Play, which covers the Draft Animal Welfare Bill, the greed and excess of the pheasant industry (as described in their own words), predator control, and the environmental impact of pheasant shooting.

Shooter clubbing pheasant

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