Animal Aid

Fowl play!

Posted 1 December 2004
Fowl Play, Animal Aid's new pheasant report

In the wake of the government's decisive move to end hunting with hounds, Animal Aid has published a shocking dossier making the case for a ban on another major British bloodsport - the mass production of pheasants for 'sport shooting'.

Given the long and complex battle for a hunt ban, we were keen to avoid any move on the shooting front that would upset the progress already made. But after consultation with relevant anti-hunting activists, we became convinced that now is the time to strike.

In Holland, rearing birds so that they can be shot down for pleasure 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. Animal Aid, which has produced five major reports on the pheasant killing industry since 2000, argues that the time has come for a Dutch-style ban in Britain. The proposed new Animal Welfare Bill (AWB) is the ideal instrument for following the Dutch lead.

Evidence to the select committee

On September 15, Animal Aid's Director, Andrew Tyler, made the case for a ban before the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Committee is charged with advising government on the detailed contents of the AWB. A key feature of the draft version of the Bill is the offence of subjecting animals to 'unnecessary suffering'. Pheasant rearing and shooting, according to our new report, Fowl Play, comprehensively fail this welfare test.

Pheasants packed together in the 'fattening shed'.

Fowl Play - and supporting undercover film and still images - reveals for the first time the grim lives of breeding pheasants inside a giant, state-of-the-art egg production unit. The unit, located in Powys, Mid Wales, extends over some two acres and is composed of thousands of tiny metal pens arranged in row upon seemingly endless row. Incarcerated within each pen are six or seven pheasant hens and one pheasant cock. All are fitted with oppressive face masks designed to limit the aggression caused by the crowded conditions. But, despite the masks, many of the birds had been feather-pecked and injured by their cagemates.

We made our prohibition call just as shooting estates across the country were preparing for the new four-month pheasant killing season, which started on October 1.

The grim truth

Pheasant with mask

Every year in Britain, around 35 million pheasants are mass-produced like commercial poultry so that they can be shot down by wealthy 'guns'. These individuals commonly pay £1,000 per day for the 'privilege'. As indicated above, gamekeepers fit the pheasants with various devices, in an effort to eliminate the stress-induced bird-on-bird aggression in the breeding units, rearing sheds and release pens. The devices restrict their vision and aim to prevent them from pecking at their cagemates. The young birds even have the ends of their beaks burnt or sliced off.

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.

The evidence that unwanted shot birds are buried or binned keeps accumulating. On two occasions during the last shooting season, the East Anglian Daily Times published photos of piles of shot birds who had been simply dumped in rough ground. The explanation offered by the shoot owners was that the vehicle the pheasants were in had been stolen. But just one week into this new season, a pair of shooters was drawn into conversation by one of our local contacts in Kent. The shooters had at their feet several dead male and female pheasants, and two large Canada geese.

The massive mid-Wales breeding unit.

One of the bird killers acknowledged that 'already this season I know of hundreds of birds that have been shot and binned because there's no market for them'. Such evidence might be dismissed as anecdotal by shoot proponents but they can't so easily brush aside an editorial in Country Life magazine (February 1, 2001) which admitted that 'over supply had led to shoots being forced to give away their bags or, worse still, bury their surplus'.

Fowl Play points out that, just as the workers in the pheasant sheds often lack proper formal training, so anyone - even a child of eight or nine - can pick up a shotgun and, untutored, attempt to bring down these feathered targets. 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. It cannot be plausibly argued, however, that all crippled birds are recovered, particularly in the undulating densely covered terrain favoured by shoot operators. If 30 million birds are released annually and 'just' 5% are hit but not killed outright, 1.5 million will have faced protracted and 'unnecessary' suffering.

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