The pheasant shooting season starts today, and while many people instinctively oppose the killing of animals for sport, most have no idea just how miserable the short life of 'game' birds really is.
Around 35 million pheasants and red-legged partridges, both non-native species in the UK, are released on shooting estates each year. These are not wild birds who roam freely until killed quickly by a competent shooter. No. They are factory farmed in much the same way as intensively reared chickens, yet are not covered by humane slaughter laws and probably won't end up on someone's plate.
According to the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), almost all partridges released on UK shooting estates come from breeding birds confined in wire mesh cages with less space per bird than an A4 piece of paper, often for their entire life. An increasing majority of breeding pheasants are now also confined in wire mesh cages for at least three months a year.
The League has filmed inside these farms many times, both in the UK and abroad. The conditions are little different to battery cages for laying hens which were outlawed in the EU in 2012. Most hens are now kept in colony cages housing 60 to 80 birds, with the space per hen approximately 20 percent larger than an A4 piece of paper. Nest boxes, litter and perch space must be also provided. Most people think this still falls short of 'barely adequate', yet game birds fare even worse.
There are no minimum legal space requirements for caged pheasants and partridges, and enrichment is barely mentioned in Defra's voluntary Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds. Moreover, these are still semi-wild birds, unlike domesticated chickens, who find confinement highly stressful as evidenced by repeated jump escape behaviour.
Many of the 35 million birds released in the UK start their lives on intensive farms in continental Europe - at least 50% according to Defra. These young birds can spend 20 hours or more crammed inside a crate stacked in the back of a lorry travelling from farm to shoot.
Shooting estates buy young birds from breeding farms and rear them in crowded sheds and pens, releasing them just a few weeks before shooting begins. What happens on the day of a shoot is little different to 'canned' hunting - where animals such as lions are tamed and confined in an enclosed area to make killing them easier.
Birds which have been farmed, fed and 'protected' from predators are driven towards paying shooters by employees called beaters who stomp noisily through vegetation and scare birds out towards the guns. Dozens of birds fly overhead simultaneously while the shooters fire. Many, up to 40% according to a former employee of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, are wounded not killed. Some are left to die slowly where they fall.
More than 500 birds can be shot on one estate in one day. This is not one for the pot. Most birds are dumped in makeshift pits along with the spent shotgun cartridges.
The League Against Cruel Sports is calling on the government to:
1) ban breeding cages for game birds as they are totally unsuitable for semi-wild species
2) hold an independent inquiry into the commercial shooting industry to examine the welfare and ecological impacts of farming millions of non-native birds simply to be shot for sport be
View the League's new exposé of the short, unpleasant lives of pheasants www.league.org.uk/cruelgame