Guest Post | ‘Gamebirds’ – Evading protection in law

Many people are rightly outraged by the way that young pheasants and partridges reared for shooting are treated under the law: as chicks they are treated as livestock (which has implications for activists as well as for the birds themselves), once released as wild birds. Dr Mark Avery explained why in typically sardonic style, saying in a blog post thatThis is largely because it would be a bit legally tricky to chase Pheasants out of a wood (as livestock) and then shoot at them for recreational pleasure and with high crippling rates if they were still livestock“.

The status of young birds moving from protected status to ‘wild birds’ – while still being naive and vulnerable – just to enable shooting operators to avoid the welfare requirements of the Animal Welfare Act is particularly galling. In the following guest post an independent researcher and animal welfare campaigner expands on what this changing legal status means for the welfare of the millions of birds that are intensively reared before being intensively shot by an industry that has always asked for special treatment – and has largely always managed to get it.

We have highlighted some of the points made in the post.


‘Gamebirds’ – Evading protection in law

A first principle of the Animal Welfare Act, 2006 (‘the AWA’) is that it protects vertebrate animals ‘under the control of man’. It explicitly excludes any described as ‘living in a wild state’. The way this distinction has been applied has meant that the welfare of industrially-reared ‘gamebirds’ is largely unprotected in law.

Consider, for example, pheasants – reared in the order of 50 million birds each year in the United Kingdom.

At the first stage of their rearing the breeding pheasants, kept commonly in raised cages, are in principle subject to the Act – after all, they are here clearly ‘under the control of man’. The Act also applies to the hatchlings, often kept in large numbers in sheds until, after seven weeks or so, as ‘poults’ they are transferred to ‘release pens’. The release pens are larger enclosures, most often bounded by high fencing, but emulating to some degree the natural situation. At this time too, still recognised as ‘under man’s control‘ the pheasants have, on paper, protection of their welfare.

But next as young birds they are expected to move outside of the release pens and to colonise the local woodland, prior to the point when they will be made available for shooting. Suddenly they lose all protection under the Animal Welfare Act! Despite their previous artificial, intensive rearing, and their release in unnaturally large numbers, they are now construed as being in a ‘wild state’. At this point, they suffer catastrophic losses. At least 45% of reared birds (according to industry figures) die after they leave the release pens from a combination of predation, disease and accident. Predation is the major cause of death – the birds are naive and vulnerable and often behave in ways that expose them to attack. The mortality associated with these causes is colossal, dwarfing the mortality found in any other animal husbandry system.

It is worth reflecting on the status of these birds at this point. The cages in which the breeding birds are kept are highly unnatural and confined environments. The hatchlings are reared in very limited spaces without natural vegetation, and are fed a ready-made diet of pelleted meal. They do not benefit from protection by their parents or the opportunity to learn behaviour from them. They are not able to learn appropriate foraging behaviour that would be needed in the wild. They do not even learn basic behaviours like roosting out of harms way. They are very poorly equipped to cope. Moreover, derived from stock bred in artificial environments, they are genetically different from their wild counterparts – and are less adapted to survival in the wild.

The period after ‘release’ involves massive welfare harms for the pheasants. Predation itself, though sometimes quick, will often be traumatic. Birds hit in their tens of thousands by cars as they roam heedlessly onto roads will frequently suffer injury and die slowly. Disease harms including infection, heavy worm burdens and tick infestation all cause distress. The welfare harms have arisen as a result of their rearing and breeding for shooting but at this stage those producing them are absolved of any responsibility for the prevention of widespread disease, or to ensure birds are kept in ways that prevent injury and death through accident, or exposure to attack by predators. The explicit exemption of gamebirds at this stage from the provisions of the Act, has the direct effect of removing its fundamental requirement (under Section 4) that animals kept should be protected from ‘unnecessary suffering’, and the further key requirement (under Section 9) that anyone responsible for an animal must ensure the animals’ behavioural needs are met.

Even before this point, any protection under the Act (eg up to the time of keeping in release pens) is much more apparent than real. There are virtually no inspections carried out and prosecutions under the Act for ‘gamebird’ rearing are virtually non-existent. While other animals reared intensively – broiler chickens, laying hens, pigs – are subject to inspection and potential enforcement action by local authority trading standards or Government agencies, such inspection and enforcement seems hardly to occur for the tens of millions of industrially-reared ‘gamebirds’ such as pheasants and partridges. The standards expected are, in any event, very low – the provisions of the Act relating to care are required only ‘to the extent of good practice’ – which effectively means whatever the industry conventionally does. So, cramped, barren, raised cages, for example, for breeding birds are allowed even though they cause significant, sustained welfare harm.

A further important anomaly in the legal protection that might be afforded to these birds relates to welfare at slaughter regulations The birds are reared artificially and often on an industrial scale. They are produced for a commercial purpose. Moreover, industry supporters defend ‘gamebird’ shooting on the grounds the birds are being reared for food. Yet for any other types of livestock reared for food, there are explicit regulations intended to provide protection of welfare at the time of slaughter, in particular the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing Regulations, 2015 (‘WATOK’) expressing the relevant EU regulations. The key provision is stated as follows, Animals shall be spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering during their killing and related operations’ (Council Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009, Article 3,1). There is the primary expectation that (except for ritual slaughter for religious purposes) any animal should be stunned prior to killing. Birds reared for sport are exempt from these regulations.

Extensive evidence from international studies of ‘gamebird’ shooting across a wide range of target species attests to the fact that likely in excess of 40% of animals targeted will not be killed outright, but will instead experience injury or maiming and may suffer considerably.

Such scientific studies include those in which hidden observers record the actual incidence of injury (rather than that claimed by shooters), as well as studies which have considered the issue from a ballistic point of view, examining predicted effects of inaccuracy in shooting, pellet spread, muzzle velocity and shot distance in terms of the nature of the impact on the live target. While other farmed species are expected to be treated in a way at slaughter which seeks to prevent avoidable suffering, there is no such expectation for ‘gamebirds’.

How is it that artificially-reared ‘gamebirds’ such as pheasants, commercially produced under industrial conditions, in no meaningful sense ‘wild’, and claimed to be reared for food, manage to evade the potential protections of both the Animal Welfare Act and of welfare at slaughter – regulations that society expects should apply to any other animal that meets these criteria?

Exemptions have been created, and the law interpreted, to meet shooting industry interests.

It is a reflection of the fundamentals of ‘gamebird’ production – that it should enable the opportunity to shoot birds as this is what those paying want. To effectively protect the bird’s welfare during rearing or at slaughter is incompatible with this primary goal of production. Were they to be fully subject to such protections then, of course, their shooting for ‘sport’ would not be possible.

This bizarre legal sleight of hand removes protection for pheasants in particular from major welfare harms, caused directly by their artificial rearing, by falsely representing them as wild and outside human control or responsibility.

Authored January 2020

Our guest author is an independent researcher and animal welfare campaigner. They have been involved in campaigns to protect dolphin and seal populations in conservation areas, to improve welfare standards in dog breeding, to oppose the long-term tethering of horses, and to improve welfare standards in slaughterhouses. In recent years they have campaigned to oppose the use of Welsh public land for so-called ‘gamebird’ shooting. The author has an academic background in psychology and natural sciences.