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Gamebirds and welfare

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Rearing and shooting gamebirds for sporting purposes is big business. A survey undertaken in 2006 indicated that it supported the equivalent of 70,000 full-time jobs and contributed £1.6 billion annually to the UK economy. Approximately 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. About 40 per cent of the pheasants reared and up to 90 per cent of partridges are imported, mostly as hatching eggs, with a lesser number of day-old chicks from France. There are about 400 game farms in Great Britain, and up to 2500 smaller premises with gamekeepers rearing birds for their own estates. As the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) has pointed out, although gamebirds have traditionally been bred and reared using simple systems of husbandry, increasingly intensive methods are being used (VR, November 22, 2008, vol 163, p 609).

Despite the scale of the enterprise, gamebirds are a bit betwixt and between as far as farm animal welfare legislation is concerned. As the FAWC pointed out, as semi-wild animals which are reared in captivity before being released, 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 parallel legislation in Scotland and Wales, which translates that directive into domestic law. However, they do come under the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, at least during the time up to the point of release, when they can be said to be under human control. Using powers available under this Act, Defra has just issued a Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds Reared for Sporting Purposes*, which, given the size of the industry, and the lack of specific protection afforded to these birds, has to be regarded as a positive step.

The code applies in England only and is due to come into effect on October 1. It was drafted by a working group of representatives from the gamebird industry, shooting interests and animal welfare organisations, and was the subject of a consultation by Defra at the end of last year. Failure to follow the code will not in itself result in prosecutions, but evidence that it has not been complied with could be used in court to support a case of poor welfare.

The code sets out the duty on owners and keepers to ensure that gamebirds’ needs are met, in terms of a suitable environment, ready access to fresh water and an appropriate diet, provision of appropriate space and facilities to ensure the avoidance of stress and allow the exhibition of normal behaviour patterns, provision of company of their own kind, and adequate protection from pain, suffering or disease. Recommendations cover matters such as sourcing stock, incubation and hatching, provision of food and water, inspection and husbandry, housing and penning, use of management devices, catching and transportation, and preparation for release. Advice is also given on biosecurity, disease treatment, use of medicines and record keeping, including a recommendation that all gamebird breeders and rearers should register with a veterinary practice. They are also advised that it is good practice to devise and annually review a flock health and welfare plan in conjunction with their veterinary surgeon.

Some of the recommendations in the code seem fairly general, which is perhaps inevitable given differences between species and the relative lack of research on which precise recommendations might be based. Others, such as those on space allowances and on the use of management devices are more specific, including advice that use of various management devices that are currently employed should not be regarded as routine.

Commenting on the launch of the code last week, Jim Fitzpatrick, the Defra minister responsible for animal health and welfare, said that the Government had promised to address concerns about the welfare of gamebirds and that he felt that the new code ‘strikes the right balance between welfare needs and protecting businesses’. Defra, meanwhile, noted that ‘sport shooters will be encouraged to use only birds supplied and raised by game farms and shoots observing the code’. The FAWC and, more recently, Defra have rightly been emphasising the role of consumer choice in improving welfare conditions for food-producing animals for some time. It is interesting to see a similar principle now being applied to birds being reared to be shot for sport.

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