THE KILLING FIELDS
Pheasant rearing and shooting is a multi-million-pound business in Britain that subjects millions of artificially-hatched birds to the rigours of intensive farming; threatens the environment; kills nearly 5 million birds and mammals in predatory control programmes each year; and annually dumps around 75,000 metric tonnes of lead shot on the countryside.
While exact figures are not available, it is reasonable to assume that up to 36 million pheasants are killed each year in Britain. Many are shot when just 20 weeks old, although their potential lifespan is several years. A further 12 million birds suffer injuries and are never recovered. Most of these birds are captive-bred.
In an attempt to eliminate aggression caused by crowded conditions in the rearing pens, beaks are partially amputated (a mutilation sometimes performed several times in the bird's short life); blinker-like spectacles are fixed in place (sometimes by pins driven through nasal septums); millions are fitted with plastic or metal 'bits' to prevent closure of the beak; and one wing could be tied to prevent escape.
These intensively-reared birds are especially vulnerable to infectious and other diseases, including salmonellosis and E coli septicaemia, gapeworm, yolk sac and rotavirus infections, impaction of the gizzard with wood shavings, infectious sinusitis and malignant tumours.
The high incidence of disease has generated a corresponding increase in the amount of chemical compounds directed at tackling it. These include antibiotics, whose over-use is contributing to the worldwide spread of antibiotic resistance in human and veterinary medicine. Also in use is DMZ, which the European Union banned in the mid-'90s for all species except game birds, because there is no accepted safe level.
Because of their low health status, intensively-reared pheasants - once released into the wild - threaten native populations with disease.
The game bird industry operates according to the same profit-first rules as most agribusinesses. It is subject to a range of outdated laws, implemented largely on behalf of landowners and their gamekeepers, that bear little relation to modern conservation needs and concerns. They turn game keepers into de facto special constables, on whom are conferred policing powers that far exceed those of other conservation managers charged with protecting critically threatened animal and plant species.
The pheasant industry defends its sorry environmental record by claiming that it plants greater amounts of woodland edge than would otherwise occur in the country. The woodland edge that is planted is done so as to make quasi-natural room for released captive-bred pheasants. Furthermore, gamekeepers discourage native species of wildlife from establishing themselves in such woodlands, because they are thought to compete for food and breeding space with game birds.
Predator control programmes kill more than 1.5 million birds and 3 million mammals each year. This includes magpies, jackdaws, crows, stoats, hedgehogs, rabbits, foxes, polecats, weasels and mink. A smaller number of rare birds, some of them accorded special legal protection because of their biological importance, are also killed. Included are several raptor and owl species.
The concentration of spent lead shot that results from the discharge of so many guns is highly toxic to waterfowl as well as to birds of prey and game birds. Around 75,000 metric tonnes of lead shot may be deposited annually on the British countryside, which results in the deaths of significant numbers of birds. Lead residues of up to 250 parts per million are commonly found in the tissues of poisoned birds, yet levels as low as three parts per million can be fatal.
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. Moves for a wider ban have been thwarted by shooters' concerns over the killing effectiveness of lead alternatives, as well as the damage such alternatives may do to existing guns.