Pheasant shoots across the UK are being shut down or dramatically scaled back this year because of import bans on the birds after an outbreak of bird flu.
A huge number of the gamebirds shot in the country are imported from factory farms in Europe. Experts have said this practice should stop or be reduced because it risks spreading disease and has troubling implications for native nature and biodiversity.
Just under 50 million pheasants are usually released each year from continental farms. A recent study suggested that at their peak in August each year, non-native common pheasants and red-legged partridges make up about half of all wild bird biomass in Britain. The annual shooting season begins on 1 October.
Jeff Knott, the central and eastern England director at the RSPB, said: “The most important thing from our perspective is the bird flu situation underlines the risks of importing and releasing millions of birds into the British countryside with very little oversight. It is a very, very unregulated industry and it is something that needs to be looked really hard at.”
He called for more regulation for shoots. “There are inherent risks with bringing so many birds in, and releasing them into the countryside. There is a need to look at greater regulation of the industry to make sure we are not putting native wildlife at risk. Estates don’t have to report how many they are bringing in, releasing, how many are being shot.”
Mark Avery, who co-runs the nature campaign group Wild Justice, said: “This is a wake-up call for shooting. Importing tens of millions of non-native pheasants is hardly traditional or sustainable. The environment will benefit – all those gamebirds harm our native species. Pheasants gobble up snakes and lizards and damage vegetation. Fewer gamebirds is respite for native wildlife.”
Shooting estates are putting measures in place including more breeding of the gamebirds on site to make the sector more resilient to import bans.
Glynn Evans, the head of game and gundogs at the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC), said: “For a number of reasons such as the climate, parts of France are ideal places for game farming and the production of pheasant and partridge eggs. However, an outbreak of avian influenza in the main game farming regions at a critical time of such production has seen restrictions placed on movement. The resulting impact on game shooting in the UK this year will be nothing short of significant.
“This level of disruption will vary between different shoots. For example, those who hatch and rear their own birds in-house will be largely unaffected, whereas others may be proceeding with scaled-back plans, and we have heard of shoots taking the tough decision not to proceed this year.”
He said the reduction in shooting would hit the rural economy, including hotels, pubs and restaurants near shooting estates.
“This is not the first challenge we have faced and it will not be the last. With avian influenza becoming increasingly prevalent, shoots will be looking at their supply chains and how to secure them for the future,” Evans added.
This year’s outbreak of bird flu has been the longest and largest ever experienced in the UK and in many parts of Europe. The disease is not only infecting farmed birds but is also sweeping through vulnerable populations of endangered birds, which is alarming conservationists.
The disease, highly contagious in birds, started in commercial geese farms in Asia in 1996, spreading to poultry farms and then to wild birds.