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Raising the game

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THE Farm Animal Welfare Council (fawc), an independent body which advises the Government on farm animal welfare matters, has a long history of producing carefully reasoned reports on pertinent topics, and of giving advice gently but firmly, characterised by an appreciation of what can realistically be achieved. This kind of approach may not grab the headlines, but can be more effective in bringing about improvements in the longer term. A sense of pragmatism still prevails but, in recent years, reports from the fawc have been rather more forthright than previously. Examples include reports on the animal welfare labelling of foods (VR, June 24, 2006, vol 158, pp 842-843), stockmanship (VR, June 16, 2007, vol 160, p 813), and tail docking and castration of lambs (VR, July 19, 2008, vol 163, p 62). The most recent example is its ‘Opinion on the welfare of farmed gamebirds’ (see p 610 of this issue).

The opinion relates to pheasants and partridges, either homebred or imported, reared under farm conditions. The fawc points out that an estimated 40 million gamebirds (30 to 35 million pheasants and five to 10 million partridges) are reared and released for shooting in Great Britain each year. It further points out that, although gamebirds have traditionally been bred and reared using simple systems of husbandry, increasingly intensive systems are being used. Despite the large number of birds involved and the husbandry systems employed, they do not appear to be covered by European Directive 98/58/ec which lays down minimum standards for the protection of animals bred or kept for farming purposes, but excludes ‘animals intended for use in competitions, shows, cultural or sporting events or activities’. Similarly, they do not appear to fall under the protection offered by the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007, and similar legislation in Scotland and Wales, which translates that directive into domestic law. However, the fawc points out, ‘the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (and similar legislation in Scotland) defines an “animal” as a vertebrate other than a human and a “protected animal” as one commonly domesticated in the British Isles, one under human control, whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or one not living in a wild state’. This, it says, would appear to give farmed gamebirds protected animal status when they are under human control, even if they are not ‘farmed animals’ under the law.

The fawc raises a number of concerns about the way in which gamebirds are bred and reared. They include concerns about the extent and duration of confinement of semi-wild species — either in open pens exposing birds to adverse weather, or various cage systems offering a barren, restricting environment — and about the routine use of management devices including ‘bits’, ‘spectacles’ and ‘brailles’. It highlights the importance of good stockmanship, including training, record keeping, seeking prompt veterinary advice and development of best practice. It raises concerns about the transport of day-old or rearing birds in vehicles, crates or other receptacles that may not be suitable, as well as about biosecurity and the availability of licensed medicines to treat or prevent disease.

There has been little scientific research on the welfare of gamebirds in the uk although a couple of defra-funded projects are currently under way. The fawc also points out that there is little official surveillance or monitoring of farmed gamebird premises, although it notes that, in instances where official visits have been made, no consistent or significant deficiencies were identified. About half of the pheasants reared in Great Britain and up to 90 per cent of partridges are imported, mostly as hatching eggs, with a lesser number as day-old chicks. defra is developing a gamebird welfare code in conjunction with the industry, but the fawc notes that, with so many birds originating from breeding flocks in other countries, British legislation is unable to influence directly the management conditions for breeder birds supplying the majority of progeny reared in Great Britain.

The fawc says that gamebirds are captive wild animals and should be kept in breeding and rearing systems that meet their physical and behavioural needs. Among its recommendations are that the code of practice should highlight the need for better surveillance of mortality, disease, breeding performance and other welfare measures, and that compliance with the code should be monitored and audited. It says that the Government should recommend the use of farm health and welfare plans, developed in conjunction with veterinary surgeons; these should be reviewed regularly and clearly justify the use of management devices such as ‘bits’ or ‘brailles’. The use of management devices that do not allow birds to express their full range of normal behaviours should not be considered as routine, it says, and it further recommends that the use of ‘spectacles’ be phased out or banned. It calls for an end to the use of barren raised cages for pheasants and of small barren cages for breeding partridges, and for more research into the adaptive and support needs of birds once they are released.

The fawc's opinion does not address the ethical acceptability of rearing animals expressly for release for shooting, as this is beyond its remit. It notes, however, that caring for gamebirds while they are under human control is a separate issue and, despite the legal ambiguities, clearly believes that there is room for improvement in this area. defra has plenty of other issues on its plate at present, and currently seems to be in deregulatory mode, but it will be interesting to see how it responds.

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