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The Pheasant Shooting Season Begins On October 1st...

30/09/2013 13:19 BST | Updated 28/11/2013 10:12 GMT

The guns will be out. In lines of 8 - 10 they will wait. The firing will begin as the birds are 'beaten' out of their covert into the line of fire.

The pheasant shooting seasons begins on October 1st. How many of those who will take part - or those who give the sport even a cursory thought - assume that these birds have a free and natural life until a shotgun brings them down? The reality could not be more different.

In the UK wild pheasants number 1.6 million. But every year the pheasant count rises to between 30 and 35 million. Most of these birds will have been reared on one of the UK's 300 game farms. 40% will have been imported from France either as day old chicks or, less usually, fertile eggs. Poland and Spain are other suppliers.

In sheds of thousands, one or two hundred to a pen, the majority of these young birds are reared on an industrial scale in conditions similar to those of intensively reared broilers (chickens for meat). But the degree of cruelty involved in their rearing is greater still. Not only is the manner of their handling harsher but, since most of them will live longer than a broiler's six week life, the time they suffer from a callous disregard for their welfare is extended.

Because pheasants are wild birds they are extremely active and territorial. In captivity they become highly stressed and aggressive and weaker birds are unable to escape from those that attack them. This means that game farmers need to resort to a variety of measures to prevent serious injuries.

In some rearing units beaks are 'trimmed' at 10 to 14 day intervals. The pain the birds are subjected to when their beaks are cut has been compared to the pain humans' feel when a limb is amputated since, under the hard outer layer, beaks have blood vessels and nerve endings which make them as sensitive as fingers are to humans.

Serving the same function - to reduce injuries from pecking - are plastic 'bits'. These are used to wedge beaks partially open so that birds are unable to grab each other. 'Bits' cause extreme stress, discomfort and frustration and it is not uncommon for young pheasants to die from what the industry calls 'post-bitting stress'. They make it difficult to feed and make mouths dry and nostrils sore. Three different sizes are usually fitted during their lives.

'Blinkers' - called 'specs' in the trade - are yet another way to prevent pecking. They restrict the birds' vision and are usually first fitted at 3½ weeks. It is now illegal to fit 'specs' by inserting a metal pin through the nasal septum in recognition that this caused acute pain and became a source of infection. But specs made from plastic that are clipped into, rather than through, the nostrils are permitted. (Those who believe that these birds do not suffer when they are treated in such a cavalier way might find that The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non- Human Animals - published in July 2012 - changes their minds.)

In any environment where animals are crammed together disease runs rife. Despite antibiotics and vaccines about 8% of young pheasants die in rearing sheds every year. The list of pheasant diseases is long and most are similar to those of all intensively reared poultry - diseases that cause diarrhoea, gasping, lameness, swellings and death.

When the young pheasants are 6 - 7 weeks old they are taken to release pens. The birds - those that have been intensively reared and which are the majority - have been described as fat, feeble and unfit for survival in the wild. Some say that half of them die from disease, starvation and exposure or are killed by predators or on the roads before the shooting season even begins.

Birds that do survive grow quickly and resemble adults by the time they are 15 weeks old. But they still remain reliant on humans since feed and water continue to be provided which not only helps them survive but also means gamekeepers know where they are when the time comes to drive them into the firing line. On each shooting day between 100 and 400 will be shot.

All this suffering so that 'guns' can enhance, or reinforce, their social and sporting kudos. Are they pleased with themselves when they bring down these unhealthy, unfit birds that fly clumsily out of the woods in such a predictable fashion? If they took to clay shooting they could develop their skills in a way that pheasant shooting never will. But blasting out of the sky helpless birds that have been raised in conditions that are akin to torture? How impressive is that?