Animal Aid


This Animal Aid report - The Killing Fields - looks at the pheasant shooting industry and its devastating impact on 'game' birds and British wildlife. This first part of the report features an edited version Pheasant Shooting in Britain, a report commissioned by Animal Aid.

Law of the gun

Pheasant shooting is big business in the UK. While it is impossible to say exactly how big, when you consider that around £33 is currently earned per bird on as many as 36 million shot pheasants a year, it could provide a combined return to estates in England, Scotland and Wales of more than £1 billion. No longer a 'gentlemanly' country pursuit, it has evolved into a full-fledged agribusiness, with all the ancillary problems that involves.

Except unlike conventional agribusiness in which animals are processed from birth to death on a conveyor belt-like system that prevents most of them from enjoying any kind of 'natural' life, pheasant shooting retains spurious associations with the natural world. Intensively farmed pheasants are released into the wild so they can be blasted out of the sky by shooters who like to pretend that little has changed since the days of George V.

Indeed, it is the 'gentlemanly' cloak covering pheasant shooting that is at the root of so many of its modern-day problems. While the industry may have moved on from its tweedy beginnings, many of its proponents haven't. Gamekeepers still tug forelocks in the direction of a largely over-privileged, often arrogant minority of landowners and their guests, who exclude about 90 per cent of the population from their native countryside. More than that, because of the heritage questions associated with owning land, game keepers and their employers prefer to hold on to a kind of 19th-century blindness where modern conservation methods and theory are concerned, believing instead that only they know how to look after the countryside and its inhabitants properly. (19, 20, 21)

The consequences of this myopia are dire. Millions of foxes, stoats, weasels and birds of prey, including some endangered species, are killed each year in a misguided

attempted to protect millions of captive-reared birds from predation. It creates a gross imbalance between the number of captive bred and wild birds in an environment probably unable to support such huge numbers of birds at one time. It increases the need for disease-controlling chemicals, and releases tens of thousands of tonnes of poisonous lead shot into the environment. And it preserves a set of outmoded and largely useless Game Acts that have almost nothing in common with modern conservation legislation.

Pheasant management

No one knows precisely how many pheasants are bred and killed each year to satisfy an increasingly hungry pheasant shooting industry. Though estates do keep detailed records, these records are rarely made available to the public or even to the industry, which means a certain amount of extrapolation is required. But the arithmetic is straightforward. By the early 1990s, about 20 million captive-reared pheasants were said to have been released annually. By now, taking into account assertions by the Game Marketing Board that sales of game meat were expected to increase by 300 to 400 per cent between 1992 and 2000, that figure could have doubled. (3, 4) What is known for sure is that the number of wild pheasants left is insignificant compared with the number bred in captivity.

In 1900, pheasants comprised only 15 per cent of the annual take of shot game birds. Back then, the grey partridge was by far the most popular bird of taste. By the 1980s, however, pheasants accounted for 55 per cent of shot game birds, and because the wild population of pheasant was insufficient to meet the demand, most of those birds were captive bred. All told, there was a 500 per cent increase in the number of pheasants killed between 1960 and 1983. (4) By the mid-1990s, 85 per cent of the 21 million game birds shot annually were pheasants. (1, 4, 5) Thus the total number of pheasants shot exceeded the then estimated wild bird population of 3.1 million by 600 per cent. This excess was entirely captive bred.

The spread of captive breeding could well have taken a huge toll on the population of wild birds as well as on the welfare of the birds specially reared on agricultural land.

Despite industry claims that current game production benefits wildlife, populations of many farmland birds, including the once abundant grey partridge, have declined by up to 80 per cent. (6, 7) The pheasant too may now be destined for extinction as a truly wild bird. Compared with wild pheasants, captive-reared birds suffer greatly increased mortality (from various causes), and because their between-year survival is only half that of wild birds, comparatively few survive to breed. This increasing reliance upon released birds to produce the shootable requirement lowers incentives to retain wild breeding 'stock'. Where released birds do survive to breeding age, they have lower breeding success, which means that as the proportion of released birds increases, the population productivity declines. (8) Unlike in some parts of North America (J Massie pers. com.), there is no requirement to ring or otherwise mark British cohort groups prior to releases in order to monitor long-term survival. There is also no structured voluntary marking scheme. Therefore little wide-scale information is available on between-year survival of released birds or on recruitment into the 'wild' population.

Predator control


Not surprisingly, both bird and mammalian predators are attracted to these unnaturally large concentrations of birds, and pay the price for it in large-scale predator control programmes. Captive-reared birds are unable to protect themselves against attack in the same way their wild cousins can, which means that up to 4.5 million mammals and birds of prey are sacrificed each year on the altar of game bird management. (4) Sometimes even protected species are slaughtered. Between 1990 and 1997, 2,300 birds of prey were reported killed to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). In one year, 118 incidents involved poison misuse and 174 involved shooting and other prohibited means. (9) As a consequence of these programmes, hen harriers face extinction in England. In 1997 alone, the number of specially protected birds known to have been killed included eight red kites, nine peregrine falcons and one golden eagle. Twenty-eight common buzzards were also reported killed. Many other victims would not have come to public attention.

This is all in spite of scientific evidence which suggests that climate and disease, not predators, are responsible for most pheasant deaths, and that unless predators have been introduced artificially into an area, there have been few documented instances when a species has been eaten to extinction. (10) Thus, recent attempts to justify predator control on game estates in order to benefit songbird populations are biologically inept. Farmland songbird declines are irrefutably linked to the same modern agricultural policies and practices that have reduced grey partridge numbers, with no provable link to predator activity.

Captive breeding and disease

The demands of introducing and maintaining naïve hand-reared game birds in an 'alien' wild environment differ significantly from those of rearing domestic poultry. Game birds must be hardy, have high levels of immunity to disease, be able to survive in the wild and avoid natural predation. (11) They must also 'perform' well over the guns and still comply with subsequent commercial demands of both the game dealer and consumer.

Eggs for artificial incubation (formerly by domestic fowl - now typically in electrical incubators) are either purchased from game farms or acquired from the mix of previously released and wild birds present on the shoot. In the latter case, adults are either caught up and penned prior to laying, or eggs are collected from natural nests, with females left to hatch and rear repeat clutches. A more costly alternative involves purchasing hatching eggs, newly hatched, or older birds from commercial game farms. A substantial and increasing proportion of the eggs involved in this trade now originates outside the UK (2 million eggs from the French company GIB'RETZ in 1998). Even by 1983 (the most recent figures available), 140 game farms annually supplied 9 million newly hatched birds for rearing and shooting, plus 30 million or more hatching eggs. (1) Currently, some farms rear 800,000 young pheasants annually.

The switch to intensive hand rearing of such huge numbers of pheasants over the last century was paralleled by increases in an assortment of diseases and behavioural problems previously of only limited significance. One is the tendency for concentrations of confined birds to indulge in serious feather pecking. To prevent this, birds are fitted with a small, commercially available plastic or light metal 'bit' that prevents full closure of the beak and is commonly held in place by two small projections fitted into the exterior nasal cavities. Small plastic 'spectacles' may also be fitted to interrupt birds' straight-line vision. (See 'A Short Life And A Brutal One'.)

The rise in both the number of cases and types of diseases in captive-bred populations has resulted in a greater need for medicinal compounds, several of which have already been removed from the market owing to concerns over their effects on the birds themselves and on the wider animal and human populations. Equally worrying, several pathogens appear to be developing immunity to particular substances, leading to fears that, as pheasant diseases become more prevalent, complex and durable, the variety of drugs available to combat them is reduced. (12)

Industry use of the commercial medicinal feed substance Emtryl demonstrates the problem clearly. Claimed by game managers as the only available treatment for a number of serious game bird diseases and widely used in Britain for that purpose, it contains the active ingredient DMZ (dimetridazole). In 1995, the European Union banned the use of DMZ as a carcinogenic substance for which no safe maximum residue levels can be set. That means it poses a risk to consumer health, what-ever quantities present. (Veterinary Medicines Directorate pers. com.)

Lead shot

Lead is a broad-spectrum metabolic poison producing toxic results in animal tissue. It attacks immune, behavioural, and reproductive systems, and it can kill. It is also the favourite shot of the game bird industry.

It is now accepted that significant numbers of wild birds die every year from ingesting spent lead shot deposited as a by-product of sport shooting. An estimated 10 to 20 million waterfowl died annually in North America prior to the phasing-in of non-toxic alternatives in the 1980s. Lead shot in the body tissue of prey species may result in secondary poisoning of predatory birds and other animals.

If we consider that by 1983, 120 million cartridges were sold in Britain each year, (1) we can say that at that time the amount of lead deposited from game bird shooting significantly exceeded the combined upland and wetland totals in North America, where fewer rounds are fired at birds who have not been artificially reared and released in such vast numbers. One hundred and twenty million cartridges translates into an estimated 38,400 metric tonnes (37,795 imperial tons) of lead annually discharged into the British countryside, with about half (19,200 metric tonnes or 18,897 imperial tons) resulting from game bird shooting alone. (1) Moreover, if you take into account the industry's forecast that the number of birds killed was expected to increase by 400 per cent by 2001, the volume of lead shot deposited annually in Britain from game bird shooting could already be in the region of 75,000 metric tonnes.

Comprehensive statutory bans in Europe on the use of lead shot are hindered by several factors. These include concern over the increased cost of alternative materials, the possible inferior killing capability of such materials, and the damage to existing guns caused by alternative shot loads. But these difficulties have not prevented other countries, notably the U.S., from adopting these materials.

Until 1995, just six countries had either implemented or considered legislative bans on the use of lead shot for hunting over wet-lands, with a further four imposing bans in parts of their territory. Despite resistance from shooters, the UK has now implemented a lead shot ban, but - importantly - only over selected wetlands, a move that leaves the game bird industry unaffected.

Crippling rates

There is a marked absence of data available on numbers of game birds shot but not killed outright - the so-called 'crippling rate'. But it has been suggested that pheasant kills occur at ratios as high as one bird for every five shots fired (5:1) to as low as one bird for every 30 shots fired (30:1). (13) We don't know precisely how many shots are fired, what percentage of shots injure birds, what percentage of injured birds are dispatched on site, and within what time-scale, but we can make an educated guess.

Averaging the above figures suggests that about 17.5 shots are fired for every pheasant killed. Given a likely 2000 pheasant kill of some 36 million birds, this indicates a total shot discharge of around 945 million cartridges. Using these figures, if you consider a nominal and probably low crippling rate of just two per cent (that is, two birds for every 100 shots fired), you're left with a crippled bird total of around 12 million. In other words, one for every three birds known to have been killed.

A Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) study decided that although instantaneous death from shooting is commonly regarded as involving little or no pain, shooting injuries and associated loss of function are likely to cause severe pain and stress. It concluded that suffering, and therefore cruelty, is likely where: 1) an animal's death is for any reason protracted; or 2) if the animal escapes or is allowed to go free after incurring injuries of such a nature that recovery from them will be either unlikely or slow. (14)

Game acts

Standing in the way of any real industry progress is an assortment of archaic laws that purport to control the trade in game meat. Known collectively as the Game Acts, 17 of these statutes have an average age of 106 years, with the oldest being two centuries. Eleven (64 per cent) are older than 100 years, and four of the remaining six apply solely to deer. They only protect five or so mammals and seven game bird species, two of whom (pheasant and red-legged partridge) were introduced and one (capercaillie) re-introduced. These seven game birds comprise just 1.3 per cent of all bird species on the British List (15).

These acts also have almost nothing in common with modern conservation legislation, e.g. the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act, and were implemented by Parliament on behalf of landowners with the express intention of preventing poaching (a form of theft) and sale of illegally taken game. Although free-living game birds are not property in the accepted legal sense, these acts come close to treating them as such.

To illustrate just how ineffective they are as conservation measures, some game birds covered by them are now Red Data Listed (7). Thus, one can only conclude that a full review of the Game Acts is overdue, especially when they could easily be incorporated into modern species and habitat-based conservation legislation.

It's not just animals who are negatively affected by the industry; most people are forbidden access to huge swathes of the British countryside. In England and Wales 50,000 members of the Country Landowners Association (CLA) own and manage 60 per cent of the countryside (18), while in Scotland 3,500 members of the Scottish Landowners Federation (SLF) own and manage an unspecified area (though it is often quoted as 80 per cent - SLF pers. com.) In Britain as a whole, about 1,700 individuals are said to own one third of the entire country. (16) A substantial proportion of this 'private' land is used for game bird shooting or, certainly in lowland areas, for game bird shooting and agriculture.

But as the Government acknowledged in March 1999, even after 50 years of statutory commitment to improving public access and an even longer history of co-ordinated political and social pressure, public access remains limited to just 193,000 kilometres of 'rights of way'. (17)


1. Cobham Resource Consultants 1983. Countryside Sports Their Economic Significance. Cobham Resource Consultants, Oxford.
2. Gibbons, D.W., M. Avery, S. Baillie, R. Gregory, J. Kirby, R. Porter, G. Tucker & G. Williams 1996. Bird Species of Conservation Concern in the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man: Revising the Red Data List. In RSPB Conservation Review No. 10.
3. MINTEL undated: Game and Exotic Meats. In An Essential Ingredient For The Future Of Your Business. Game Marketing Executive.
4. Tapper, S.C. 1992: Game Heritage: An Ecological Review from Shooting and Gamekeeping Records. Game Conservancy Trust. Fordingbridge.
5. Cobham Resource Consultants 1992. Countryside Sports: Their Economic Significance. Standing Conference on Countryside Sports. Reading.
6. Gibbons, D.W., M.I. Avery & A.F. Brown 1996. Population Trends Of Breeding Birds In The United Kingdom Since 1800. British Birds 89.
7. Stone, H.B., J. Sears, P.A. Cranswick, R.D. Gregory, D.W. Gibbons, M.M. Rehfisch, N.J. Aebischer, J.B. Reid 1997: Population Estimates of Birds In Britain and the United Kingdom. British Birds 90
8. Robertson, P. 1997. A Natural History of the Pheasant. Swan Hill Press.
9. RSPB (Undated). Birdcrime 97 - Offences Against Wild Bird Legislation 1997. Sandy
10. Cote, I.M. & W.J. Sutherland 1995. The Scientific Basis for Predator Control for Bird Conservation. Research Report No 144. English Nature, Peterborough.
11. Beer, J. 1993. What Is The Future For Gamebird Pathology And Welfare? Game Conservancy Trust Review of 1992, Fordingbridge.
12. Grindy, I. 1997: Disease in Mature Poults and Adult Birds Seems to be Increasing on Many Estates. Shooting Times & Country Magazine, January 1997.
13. Gray, R. 1998: Haddeo. Shooting Gazette, December 1998.
14. Medway, Lord (Chairman) 1980. Report of the Panel of Enquiry into Shooting & Angling (1976-1979). Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Horsham.
15. British Ornithologist Union 1992. Checklist of Birds of Britain and Ireland - Sixth Edition. British Ornithologists Union. Tring.
16. Country Landowners Association 1999. About Us. World Wide Web Site, February 1999.
17. Glyptis, S. 1991. Countryside Recreation. Longman Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management.
18. Norton-Taylor, R. 1982. Whose Land Is It Anyway? - Agriculture, Planning and Land Use in the British Countryside. Turnstone Press, Wellingborough.
19. Bonyhady, T. 1987. The Law Of The Counrtyside - The Rights of the Public. Professional Books, Abingdon.
20. Lee-Steere, G.E. 1988. Perception Of The Countryside: The Views of the Country Landowners' Association. In Public Perception of the Countryside (Eds F.A. Miller & R.B. Tranter). Paper No 18. Centre for Agricultural Strategy, Reading University.
21. Page, R. 1993. Time To Control Our Birds of Prey? The Field, March 1993.

The second part of the Killing Fields report looks at pheasant rearing.

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