A Plucky Insight Into The UK's Most Ignored Invasive Species
By Zak Maynard and Kate Fox
The gamebird industry is the UK’s dirty little animal welfare secret. But it has gained in notoriety since Aebischer’s watershed publication in 2019 named the ‘Fifty year trends of hunting bags of birds and mammals.'(1) When this revealed the industry had churned out ~47 million pheasants and ~10 million red-legged partridge into the UK countryside in 2016, there was no turning back. It’s worth noting that according to Blackburn and Gaston’s(2) paper this is more than the entire breeding population of British birds. These gamebirds are then killed for “sport” and, wait for it, are replaced the following year with a new cohort.
Gamebird Well-Being - a Measure of Human Sentience
Being a live target is only the end of a long line of suffering for these gamebirds. According to the UK Government's Written Questions, Answers and Statements,(3) as many as 7.5 million live pheasants and red-legged partridge were imported from the EU between 2018-2019. While most came from France, over 5,000 travelled from the United States. There’s no dressing this up. Importing animals involves long journeys in cramped cages, intense mental stress, limited access to food and water and exposure to extreme temperatures. Unsurprisingly, the death toll when importing gamebirds remains unknown.
Importing Hatching Eggs
There is, however, a reasonable proxy measure for calculating this using the death of “hatching eggs.” This term refers to chicks that literally hatch in the post. One of America’s largest pheasant farms packs and ships chicks on the day they hatch. To offset any chicks lost in transit, they add 5% extra to each order.(4) As the UK received ~20 million “hatching eggs'' between 2018-2019, if 5% died that would mean 1 million chicks die en route. If you assume 5% of the 7.5 million live pheasant imports died, that would be another 375,000 lives lost. This represents an important measure of animal well-being within the gamebird industry.
Rearing Game Birds in the UK
So what about gamebirds reared in the UK? Well, the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds Reared for Sporting Purposes(5) has some good news. It clearly states that barren breeding cages “should not be used” and that they should be “appropriately enriched.” The bad news is that this is a voluntary industry regulation and therefore not enforceable and furthermore only applies to England.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency carries out inspections of any gamebird farms in England that are causing concern. This saw 30 inspections between 2020 - 2021 but the Earl of Leicester pointed out in the Game Birds (Cage Breeding) Bill debate(6) that “there have been no successful prosecutions against game farms” due to these inspections. Despite, according to Lord Randall, most red-legged partridges being reared in wire cages smaller than an A4 piece of paper and pheasants sometimes having as little as 33 square cm per bird.
There is no surprise that this leads to stress. Solutions to which are equally as brutal as the problem in the first place. ‘The Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds for Sport’ list these as ‘mutilations such as beak trimming, procedures to prevent or limit flight such as brailing (placing a band on a wing to prevent extension of the wing), trimming of non-sensitive flight feathers and the use of bits, spectacles and hoods to prevent feather pecking, egg eating or aggression.’
The Perils of Release from Captivity
Unfortunately their captive upbringing creates further cruelties once they are released into the wild. Hatched in sterile units and then reared in wire pens away from their parents, they aren’t taught basic survival skills such as flying, foraging for food or evading predators and cars. It is literally killing season from the moment adolescent pheasants are released from their rearing pens.
Dr Sarah Perkins and Dr Joah Madden give us a better understanding why this happens in their study called ‘Why did the pheasant cross the road? Long-term road mortality patterns in relation to management changes.’(8) Pheasant and partridge rearing for the shooting industry is far removed from natural life making them ‘unusually vulnerable to vehicle collision.’ For example, to fly effectively a pheasant needs to build strong muscles. Captivity won’t allow for the regular practice flights needed to achieve this. It also makes sense that barren cages also result in poorer spatial memories. These prevent pheasants being able to recall how to safely plan journeys.
Captive-bred gamebirds also depend on being fed by humans. Perkins and Madden have discovered that pheasant ‘roadkill first peaks in September–November.’ This unsurprisingly coincides with when pheasants are first released from captivity. However, the second roadkill spike occurs in February when gamekeepers stop feeding pheasants at the end of the shooting season. Releasing captive-bred birds into the wild with no survival skills and then removing food at a time of year when little is available are ethically dubious practices that layer one hidden cruelty on top of another.
Of course, the burden on the NHS of gamebirds wandering into the road is not insignificant. Perkins and Madden calculated that of those collisions with pheasants that led to human injury, approximately 6% led to serious injury or human death. With pheasant releases having increased by approximately 900% since the 1960s this must be taking a significant toll on the NHS. It remains a significant failing of the UK Government that reporting road traffic collisions with wild animals is not a legal requirement. Without it, the true impact on animal welfare, conservation and human safety will continue to remain hidden.
Does Shooting Etiquette Protect the Pheasants?
Etiquette is an important part of fitting in when joining a shoot. It might surprise you to know that a day of driven pheasant shooting means going formal with a tattersall shirt, tie and tweeds. Even better, a three piece tweed suit. Partly in respect to your host but also, wait for it, out of respect to the pheasants who lose their lives.
So, is there any etiquette protecting the welfare of these pheasants? Well, it’s considered good form to shoot a pheasant “cleanly.” In other words outright to avoid suffering. This certainly provides a good incentive to turn up properly trained. However, a quick look at one countryside sport magazine’s coverage of the Game Shooting Census reveals that ‘in the last 12 months, only a quarter of all game shots have had a shooting lesson.’ But as respondents ‘have been shooting for an average of 36 years,’ does this really matter? Well, actually, probably more so. With age comes physical frailties and these could start to become apparent in the number of “winged” or wounded pheasants.
Fortunately, for those yielding a gun, injured pheasants can’t hold a bad shot to account in a court of law. So while we have training and safety regulations for everything from gym induction to working at a desk,(9) you don’t have to provide proof of training or proficiency to yield a gun on a pheasant shoot. As long as you have a firearm certificate(10) and can afford the exorbitant cost of participation, you are good to go.
The Ecological Impacts of Gamebirds
There’s no denying that the UK countryside is now saturated with very pretty but non-native gamebirds. We try to avoid the term non-native and invasive species as they are often embraced by those hell-bent on Conservation Culling; even when compassionate alternatives exist. However, the release of ~57 million gamebirds annually is like no other ‘non-native’ or ‘invasive species’ on record in the UK. The much loved grey squirrel, for example, is demonised by the label ‘invasive’ and only has a paltry 2-3 million individuals.
Unsurprisingly, there are winners and losers when it comes to the impacts of pheasants. Let’s start with the winners. Gamebirds provide a steady supply of food for predators during the Winter when they would normally struggle. But come Springtime, these inflated predator populations are forced to find alternative food sources as pheasants die off. This distorted food web forces an unnatural competition for resources on everything from plants, to invertebrates, small mammals, and birds.
Pheasants are opportunistic omnivores. This means they eat whatever is available. This is good and bad. It’s good that their food habits don’t focus on one or two species as they would probably have gone extinct under the pressure. But bad in that large already struggling ecosystems are put under yet more generalised pressure.
A detailed review by the RSPB on ‘the impacts of non-native gamebird released in the UK’(11) shows ‘pheasants consume greater amounts of grains during the winter months, and switch to new shoots and buds’ in the spring.’ While only a small percentage of gamebirds survive to breed in the Spring, it is thought that they need ‘large quantities of invertebrates’ when feeding their young. This can range from beetles to spiders, ants, caterpillars, worms, snails, slugs, butterflies, moth larvae and lizards;
Sadly, Natural England’s review on the ‘Ecological Consequences of Gamebird Releasing and Management’(12) reveals that ‘the introduction of pheasants coincided with the decline of adders.’ Adders are particularly vulnerable to pheasants when shaking off their winter hibernation. ‘The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust suggests that all six British reptile species could be vulnerable to predation by pheasants.’
Of course, one can’t be surprised that ~57 million gamebirds are having a physical impact on the countryside. Anyone who has kept a few chickens in the garden will know that their constant pecking and scratching in search of food and bathing in the dust is enough to seriously damage the plants. Unsurprisingly, the RSPB review notes that direct ecological impacts of released gamebirds are ‘significantly negative’ and that ‘plant species diversity was lower in release pens.
Of course, what goes in one end must come out the other. And with ~57 million gamebirds that’s enough to change the soil chemistry, plants and even the invertebrates that live there. As soils become more nutrient-rich, the RSPB review says this ‘threatens rare bryophyte species’ such as moss and liverworts. There are half the amount of moss and liverworts species with liverwort being ‘half as abundant.’ On the flip side, there are more likely to be woodlice, millipedes and snails as they happily feed off the poop. Natural England’s review states that ‘signs of recovery’ took a shocking 14 years after pheasant pens had been abandoned.
Deadly Lead Litter
While many of these issues are not well-known, that cannot be said about lead in shotgun cartridges. When shotguns are fired, lead pellets are projected into the gamebirds killing them. Others are scattered across the ground. These are accidentally foraged by animals and work their way through the food chain causing sickness and death as they go.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust(13) reported on one shocking case where all 500 ducks on a farm next to a clay pigeon shoot died, having consumed lead pellets. With 6,000 tonnes of lead irretrievably dispersed into the environment each year, the Lead Ammunition Group(14) was set up in 2010 to advise the UK government about the fallout of this pollution.
Ironically, the toxicity of lead has been known about since Ancient Rome(15) so it’s a bit demoralising that the UK government only announced it was ‘considering a ban’(16) on lead ammunition in March 2021. Some 11 years after the Lead Ammunition Group was set up. The Government announced that lead ‘lowered immune systems in wild birds, potentially aiding the spread of diseases such as avian influenza (bird flu).’ As if on queue, the first case of the devastating H5N1 outbreak appeared in October,(17) seven months after their announcement.
Sadly, the UK is making slow progress on what seems a clear cut issue. While they have banned shooting with lead ammunition over our wetlands, a government Health and Safety Executive(18) report believes compliance is low. Ironically, this inability for hunters to give a damn is actually nudging the government towards “a total ban on the sale and use of lead shot.’ In the meantime, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is duty bound to wade through the 2,759 consultation responses before making a final decision.
Class and Influencers
A lazy hour watching The Crown on Netflix reveals that pheasant shooting is an activity often associated with royalty, the landed gentry and their wannabe entourage. Worryingly, the MP’s Register of Members’ Financial Interests(19) shows that this entourage sometimes includes politicians. This creates a clear threat to unbiased government policy.
So why does shooting and class go hand in hand? Well after a quick look online, I found one listed on Guns on Pegs at a breathtaking £1900 per gun with a bag size of 300!(20) Not a pursuit for the hoi polloi struggling to pay food and heating bills. Of course, class and money are not inextricably linked, but where you find class, money is often not far behind.
Unfortunately, bloodsports are not just an upper class pursuit but there is an interesting connection between class divide and blood sports. Bloodsports practised by the upper classes such as driven grouse shooting, deer stalking and deer hunting with hounds remain untouched and legal. Even trail hunting, which is the supposedly bloodless alternative to fox hunting, has so many holes in the law that it all but carries on regardless.
However, the bloodsports often associated with the lower classes such as badger baiting, hare coursing and cock fighting have all been banned as shocking historical indictments of our treatment of animals. While all bloodsports are repugnant, there is a nasty smell of class hypocrisy here. Unfortunately, this is not the only place that hypocrisy exists when it comes to the killing of animals.
Since 2015, the GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS)(21) has eradicated the American bullfrog, and is in the process of eradicating at least four other species including the ruddy duck. This mass killing of individual animals is often touted as a conservation success and used as bragging rights to prove our commitment to safeguarding biodiversity on the international stage. However, with a little bit of questioning, you begin to see that all is not what it seems with how we treat wildlife in the UK. Conservation in Britain is littered with hypocrisy.
On the one hand, the UK Government(22) riles up the country and provokes a nationwide killing campaign of the 2-3 million ‘non-native’ grey squirrels living in the UK, whilst championing the red squirrel as the epitome of Great British wildlife. On the other hand, they allow a small minority of people to release ~57 million non-native birds into the countryside every year. Given that pheasants are the most abundant bird in the UK, you would be forgiven for thinking that they are a well established, native British bird. The truth is however, that these birds are not well established at all; abundant and widespread yes, but artificially fed, captively bred, staunchly protected and introduced from China during the 18th century.(23)
It’s not to say that pheasants are ‘non-native’ so should be banned, or eradicated, but there are questions to be asked such as, how come some non-native species are allowed to thrive, whilst others are not? How is it that gamekeepers are allowed to legally kill native wildlife such as foxes, stoats, crows, ravens and many more in order to protect non-native pheasants? How come the Government has made it illegal to release grey squirrels(24) but not to release pheasants in their millions and help them survive with supplementary feeding? Why is it easy to release non-native pheasants in their millions, but to release a beaver, a once native and ecologically important keystone species, takes years of legislation and debating to even get the ball rolling. When you start trying to answer these questions, you start to see the hypocrisies of conservation in the UK.
In the UK, licences are granted to kill native birds(25) such as pied wagtails, starlings, house sparrows, swallows and many more to preserve public safety, and yet pheasants known to host, and amplify diseases(26) in the UK are legally released annually. It’s worth noting that both starlings(27) and house sparrows(28) are red listed species of conservation concern in the UK.(29) The point is not that pheasants spread disease so should be culled, but that here lies yet more hypocrisy as truly wild and endangered UK individuals are killed to preserve public safety. And yet the gamebird industry is allowed to release ~57 million captively bred individuals, known to spread lymes disease, into the wild every year.
Whilst there’s room for more ecological studies of pheasants in the UK, it has been found that they negatively alter invertebrate compositions(30) in woodland habitats as well as the ground flora in ancient semi-natural woodlands. If this was a non-native species in the UK, there would be immediate calls for culls and it would almost certainly be illegal or very hard to obtain a release licence for ~47 million pheasants every year. As I have reiterated however, the UK is rife with hypocrisy when it comes to conservation. Money is power, and shooting gamebirds is big money. It seems likely, that’s why, despite the fact that pheasants spread human diseases, impact native wildlife and are non-native, a blind eye is turned to their annual release.
Killing Native Wildlife
Gamekeepers are often said to be the custodians of our countryside(31) and as a byproduct of their work, wildlife is all the better for it. I’m sure the magpies stuck inside larsen traps would have something to say about that, or perhaps the stoats and weasels killed by gamekeepers(32) traps. The irony is, that gamekeepers spend a huge amount of their time killing native wildlife in order to protect their game.
It doesn’t take much to see that the pheasant shooting industry is one vicious cycle of killing. Killing predators to protect pheasants so that people can kill more pheasants. The RSPB review reveals that ‘approximately 190,000 foxes are culled each year in the UK.’ That’s a disturbing 74% of the adult fox population. Gamekeepers aren’t the only groups that cull foxes but the reason is usually the same. A somewhat misguided approach to protect a preferred species. It is thought that there would be significantly fewer foxes in Britain if the releasing of pheasants was to end.
Wildlife that is legally killed to protect the gamebird industry is well documented. You can easily find out about all the various methods used by gamekeepers to kill different types of British wildlife with a quick youtube search. The larsen trap(33) is commonplace in gamekeeping, and for some bizarre reason is still completely legal in the UK. For those that don’t know, a Larsen trap is used to catch corvids - birds such as magpies and crows. They work by using a live bird to attract other wild birds into the cage where they cannot get back out. The live decoy bird may be in this tiny cage for days on end, hopping around for hours, day and night all alone.
Whilst there is a plethora of information about the various traps and methods for legally killing animals to protect pheasants, there are also many cases reported annually in the UK of animals being illegally killed on shooting estates.(34) These are protected species that gamekeepers are not allowed to kill. Raptor persecution is still high around shooting estates. Recently a gamekeeper was prosecuted for raptor persecution and found with illegal pesticides in Dorset.(35)
There is a lot about the pheasant shooting industry that gamekeepers would rather you didn’t know about. They are unlikely to be raving about the fact that the gamebird industry uses disproportionate amounts of antibiotics(36) compared to all other animal production systems in the UK. Until recently it was routinely added to their feed(37) to prevent gamebirds getting ill, rather than treating illness. Think about all those antibiotics entering the ecosystem through pheasants and partridges. You also have to remember, that in spite of the rights and wrongs of antibiotic use, that these birds are being farmed primarily for shooting. Pheasant shooting is not an essential practice.
Our Plucky Conclusion
UK NGOs spent a breathtaking £243 million on conservation in 2020/21.(38) All that money, time, and hard work is used to protect nature, while gamekeepers are legally and illegally killing our wildlife, to protect gamebirds. All in the middle of a biodiversity crisis. This intense production and release of ~57 million non-native birds into our countryside is altering our native forest ecosystems, helping to spread Lymes disease, and causing an unknown, but large number of car crashes each year.
What's more, hardly anyone in the UK benefits from the pheasant shooting industry. Only a small minority of people reap the rewards. With it costing ~£1900 per gun, it’s easy to see that pheasants ain’t for peasants! The integral links to royalty, landed gentry and politicians seems key to why pheasants are released in their millions and nobody bats an eye. Those that want to keep shooting birds in their thousands have money, and with that money comes a lot of power.
The sole purpose of the shooting industry is to kill as many gamebirds as possible. It also indirectly requires the death of birds of prey, corvids, foxes, stoats and weasels in order to function. It is cruel, unethical and damaging to our countryside. The countryside is for us all, not just those that can afford to shoot pheasants. It’s time to put an end to gamebird shooting and let the countryside be managed for wildlife and people, not outdated bloodsports.
Aebischer, N.J. Fifty-year trends in UK hunting bags of birds and mammals, and calibrated estimation of national bag size, using GWCT’s National Gamebag Census. Eur J Wildl Res 65, 64 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10344-019-1299-x
Blackburn, T.M., Gaston, K.J. Abundance, biomass and energy use of native and alien breeding birds in Britain. Biol Invasions 20, 3563–3573 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-018-1795-z
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