Gamebird Shooting in Sheffield & South Yorkshire: Guest blog for Sheffield Environmental, 01 Sept 2020
The sight and sound of a pheasant is almost ubiquitous in the fields around Sheffield and South Yorkshire. Any day out in the countryside will eventually involve the familiar coarse squawk as they dash out from the scrub.
But why are they here and why do people care? There is growing unease about the presence of pheasants – and their associates, red-legged partridges – in the UK countryside. The prevalence of these birds is the end result of a deeply damaging and divisive shooting industry. Each year, more and more opponents are speaking out about the animal welfare issues and environmental impacts of this industry.
Pheasants and red-legged partridges are reared far away from Sheffield, in intensive battery farms in the UK or abroad. Pheasants and red-legged partridges do not live here naturally. 57 million birds are imported and released onto UK shooting estates each year. Because they have not evolved in and with the local ecology, the mass introductions have a significant impact on local biodiversity. Their release to new areas as adolescents also helps explain their high-mortality rate on local roads.
Let’s start at the beginning. Reared gamebirds are born into industrial factory farms which hatch millions of chicks each year. Their lives are below the standard of any bird reared for food. Repeated undercover investigations from animal charities such as Animal Aid have evidenced the conditions on farms in England and Wales and it is brutal. Thousands of tiny chicks are thrown onto conveyor belts – and live chicks who don’t make the grade are even thrown into a macerator, where they are shredded to death. For those who survive this start in life, it only gets worse.
Reared gamebirds are kept for months (and laying hens are even kept for years) in barren, cramped metal cages with no enrichment. Conditions during the summer months are stifling, as recently reported by The Independent. The birds suffer wounds and injuries from fighting and attempts to escape. They are bound at the beak with plastic to prevent pecking one another.
Poults (young gamebirds) are sold on to shooting estates for just £2-4 each. They are transported in cramped, plastic crates across the country (and even from mainland Europe). They are put into pens, where they acclimatise and continue growing through the summer. Their quality of life depends entirely on the will and skill of the gamekeeper. Here in the Peak District, Moorland Monitors have found birds dead and dying in the pens. In August 2020, we found a bird that appeared to have died tangled up in the loose netting of a pen on Eyam Moor.
In order to preserve the high number of birds for shooting, gamekeepers are employed to eliminate any potential predators which might reduce gamebird numbers. Foxes, stoats and weasels are all killed in traps and snares – which can be legal if used to certain specifications. Illegal predator control is also common practice, whereby protected species such as badgers and raptors are killed using poisons, traps and guns. For each pheasant killed on the shoot, many more creatures have already suffered and died.
Badger groups locally and nationally have found a high rate of illegal badger persecution in the vicinity of pheasant shooting estates. Direct evidence of killing is notoriously hard to obtain, but the National Anti-Snaring Campaign documented a badger that was snared and shot by a pheasant gamekeeper in 2019v. Illegal pole traps are also frequently found in and around pheasant pens – used to viciously trap and kill birds of prey which could predate upon the young poults, as evidenced by the League Against Cruel Sports.
If the gamebirds survive to the autumn, they are released to face the guns. From 1 September each year, partridge shooting begins. Pheasant shooting starts on 1 October. The seasons continue until 1 February. Paying customers sign up for a day blasting these hapless birds from the sky – with no guarantee of an accurate shot or quick death. The highly manufactured nature of these shoots had led many to describe it as the “canned hunting” of the UK. Up to 146,000 pheasants and 38,300 red-legged partridges are shot every day in the UK, during their respective hunting seasons, according to the League Against Cruel Sports.
Contrary to the industry’s claim that the birds are shot for food, a huge number of those killed end up simply dumped back in the countryside. In 2019, the Sunday Times reported undercover footage showing a JCB dumping hundreds of pheasant corpses into a pit in Leicestershire.
Quite simply, demand for gamebird shooting outstrips demand for gamebird meat. The birds’ miserable and violent deaths have been purely for the enjoyment of a shooting minority.
Along with the direct cruelty to the gamebirds themselves and the persecution of potential predators, another key challenge to gamebird shooting comes from a broader ecological perspective. Wild Justice – a campaign group set up by Chris Packham, Dr Ruth Tingay and Dr Mark Avery – recently challenged DEFRA over the wider environmental harm caused by mass-releasing millions of imported birds, especially around vulnerable habitats. Their case is due back in court this November.
Dr Avery explains that the imported game birds’ feeding habits impact upon insects, invertebrates, snakes, lizards and vegetation. Their droppings fertilise sensitive habitats which farmers would not be allowed to enrich. Gamebirds also provide prey and carrion that swell the populations of predators who then go on to prey on other threatened species (locally, such as curlew and lapwing). Dr Avery calls the current situation an “ecological assault“.
Wild Justice highlight the particular damage done when gamebirds are released close to SSSIs – Sites of Special Scientific Interest. These conservation areas are designated for protection, under international law. Around Sheffield and South Yorkshire, we have some wonderful SSSI sites, including the Eastern Peak District Moors and Roche Abbey Woodlands. These areas should be havens for wildlife. But the introduction of masses of gamebirds disrupts these fragile ecologies and the recovery of local biodiversity.
The Eastern Moors site is just south of Sheffield at Owler Bar and provides valuable habitat for vulnerable curlew. Directly opposite this SSSI, the Horsleygate Estate runs a pheasant shoot. The mass introduction of pheasants encourages a much stronger population of foxes in the area. However, if these foxes stray over the road onto Eastern Moors, they are shot, to “protect” curlew. We see directly how the mass introduction of gamebirds for “sport” causes havoc and suffering to other wildlife populations.
It is notable that other “non-native” species are not tolerated in the UK. Since 2019, it has been illegal to release any grey squirrel back into the wild, because of the damage they are accused of inflicting upon other species. Similarly, stoats are culled on Scottish islands (where they were introduced by humans), because of their impact on ground-nesting birds. The factor which seems to allow gamebirds to be released irrespective of the ecological consequences is quite simply: profit. This is a shocking state of affairs at a time of national and global ecological crisis.
So what can be done to protect our local wildlife and habitat from gamebird shooting? Thankfully there are many groups working on the different aspects of the industry. Whether you wish to get practically involved on your local estate, write to your MP or support national campaigns, there is an option for you. By getting involved, you can help prevent the suffering of millions of birds, who live and die purely for the pleasure and profit of a shooting minority. You can help to ensure that precious local habitat is protected for vulnerable plant and animal species.
Further information can be found through the links below:
• Moorland Monitors encourages lawful public monitoring of shooting estates to document crime, cruelty and malpractice. Regular local evidence can be instrumental in shaping local policy and policing. You can help support the work of the Moorland Monitors. For details please go their website at moorlandmonitors.org, and follow them on Twitter at moorlandmonitor and Facebook at MoorlandMonitors.
• Animal Aid runs national campaigns against gamebird shooting, including against the use of battery cages. https://www.animalaid.org.uk/the-issues/our-campaigns/shooting/take-action-game-birds/
• Wild Justice are bringing a legal challenge to DEFRA over the inadequate impact assessment of mass-releasing pheasant and red-legged partridge on or near sites of conservation importance. https://wildjustice.org.uk/