When it comes to blood sports, game bird shooting has got to be about as humane as it gets, right? The birds have a happy life roaming free before being shot as they fly, then they're eaten.
Wrong. More than 30 million pheasants and partridges are bred to be released into the wild in the UK each year — and undercover research by the charity League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) published last week has shown how they are often bred in battery-like conditions. The massive quantity of birds released — around 14 million of which are killed annually — amounts to around one fifth of Britain's total wild bird population.
Hundreds of thousands come from continental Europe as chicks or adolescent birds, enduring journeys so torrid that shipping company Brittany Ferries banned their transport between France and Britain late last year. Meanwhile, despite most of the shot birds ultimately being eaten, they are classified by the UK government as sporting animals rather than livestock, so normal farming welfare standards do not apply.
A new report by LACS presented to British parliament late last month highlighted the harrowing conditions seen in the trade, with egg-laying game hens kept in the sort of confinement that has been made illegal for farmed chickens. The charity has launched a campaign demanding a government inquiry into the industry.
In many cases, breeding birds spend long periods inhabiting tiny metal-walled boxes preventing them seeing anything outside, while mesh floors and ceilings guard them against injury when they attempt to fly. Meanwhile, chicks are packed into sheds by their thousands, enduring maddening stress that can lead to feather pecking and cannibalism.
The birds are also subjected to painful practices such as fitting their beaks with bits or guards, or slicing off part of their beaks to prevent them attacking each other and self-harming. While the industry says such measures are for short periods, critics claim the aggressive behavior that their treatment causes means many are left with the guards attached or their beaks deformed, and they are unable to properly close their beaks on a permanent basis.
There is also a serious ecological issue with the way the industry operates, with the 35 million game birds released each year effectively increasing Britain's wild bird population of about 161 million by more than 20 percent. Gamekeepers have also been accused of killing birds of prey, which are a natural predator of game birds.
According to Mark Avery, a highly regarded naturalist who previously served as conservation director for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), while the vast majority of the birds that aren't shot end up dying, they put pressure on food resources for birds who naturally inhabit the areas the game birds are released into. The release also means non-native pheasants are the UK's most common bird for the majority of the year.
"Which is amazing when you think of it, that the commonest bird in this country isn't native here," he told VICE News. "If somebody came along today and said 'I've got this great idea, we're going to start this new sport, and we're going to release 40 million of a large non-native bird into the countryside just so that people can shoot them,' they'd never get permission."
But shooting has been a pastime of Britain's landed gentry for hundreds of years, and remains a sport largely practiced by the wealthy, with many MPs from the ruling Conservative Party known to be keen shooters — though industry advocates insist it is becoming increasingly inclusive.
Around 35 million game birds are released into the wild each year for hunting, increasing the British bird population by more than 20 percent. (Photo supplied)
Those advocates say the aim of the activity is to achieve a clean kill, and to put the bird out of its misery as swiftly as possible if it is brought to the ground injured. But LACS has documented shooters leaving birds to flap around in agony at their feet as they continue firing into the air, while in other cases the birds are known to be mauled to death by the dogs used to collect them, or they land in nearby rivers and drown, or they're simply left to die slowly from their injuries after not being picked up.
In the UK, game birds are classified by the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) as being for sporting purposes, meaning pheasants and partridges being bred in captivity are not legally guaranteed the same welfare standards as other farm animals.
"They are not subject to farm welfare legislation but there is a Code of Practice to safeguard their welfare," a DEFRA spokesperson told VICE News.
Critics say the Code of Practice effectively allows for breeding conditions akin to battery farming — a suggestion that is met with derision by Liam Spokes, Head of Shooting Campaigns for the Countryside Alliance, an organization that supports shooting and also advocates for the repeal of the UK's ban on fox hunting.
"You hear these things about factory farming which are just absurd, if you see the conditions they are reared in, they have outside pens to run around in," Spokes told VICE News. "The phrase that DEFRA research used was 'content and relaxed.'"
Yet that research has been criticized for the narrow parameters on which it was based, and while many of the birds are provided increasing room to move around as they are prepared for release onto estates, egg-producing pheasants can be kept in extreme confinement for months, while for partridges it is usually years.
"They are doing exactly the same job, it's just that the hen eggs are being eaten by us and the partridge eggs are being raised to be shot," said Ed Shephard, Senior Investigations Officer at LACS.
Shephard, who has investigated partridge farms in the UK, says after two or three years of being kept in tiny cages, egg-laying partridges become unproductive and are either culled or sent to join those released to be shot.
According to Craig, an ex-shooter with an intimate knowledge of the industry — who asked for his real name to be withheld because he still has close friends who shoot — many of the industry's counter-arguments to evidence of mistreatment are reliant on technicalities and claims that are deliberately hard to disprove, such as saying the distress documented in birds was due to the evidence gathering method, not the conditions.
"If it doesn't quite fit the terms of battery farming in the way that chickens do, morally you look at it and [the way these birds are kept and treated] is not good at all," he told VICE News. "[Shooting advocates] will justify it because there is no legislation in effect controlling it."
Birds have pieces of plastic inserted into their beaks to hold guards in place that stop them pecking each other and self-harming. (Photo via LACS)
Craig says he has grown disillusioned with the industry, but he is not against shooting in its entirety. Many people who take part in more traditional smaller-scale shoots adhere closely to industry-set standards such as the Code of Good Shooting Practice, he said, and feel uneasy at the direction shooting has taken.
But he claimed the major operations, which charge shooters up to £5,000 ($7,000) and guarantee 1,000 birds or more for each day of shooting, were simply too focused on profit to properly enforce such voluntary regulations.
"They talk about them being good shots and having a lot of respect for the game, but with these big shoots, that's really not the case. It's about a bunch of rich people who just want to go shooting," he told VICE News. "Some of the well-established shooting people are not impressed with the way some of these places are run."
Meanwhile, despite gamebird farms not being subjected to general farming welfare standards on the basis of them being reared for sport, not as livestock, almost all of the shot birds do go into the food chain, according to the industry.
According to Christopher Graffius, director of communications for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), up to 40 percent of the 35 million game birds released each year are shot, of which "97 percent go to the [cooking] pot."
"Game as a meat is rapidly increasing in popularity year on year," he told VICE News.
DEFRA's insistence on not recognizing gamebirds as livestock while the industry emphasizes their consumption is not the only oddity associated with the status of the birds. HM Revenue & Customs classifies them as poultry and exempts them from VAT, while sport birds such as racing pigeons are taxed.
The disparity in their classification between government agencies also means, unlike other animals, farmers relinquish legal responsibility for gamebirds the moment they are released.
"All 35 million when they are released are classified in law as wild, because they're not captive animals and man is not responsible for them," said Graffius.
According to Shephard, the allowance of this along with the shifting legal classifications for gamebirds underscores how the laws are entirely organized to accommodate the needs of the shooting industry.
"If you had a flock of chickens or sheep and raised them from birth and then dumped them in the countryside, then you wouldn't be meeting their welfare needs, you wouldn't be providing food and shelter for them; you wouldn't be allowed to do that," he told VICE News.
Government machinations have benefitted the industry in other ways too. While the Conservative government pursues a policy of harsh austerity that is forcing government agencies to implement radical cost cutting, Prime Minister David Cameron has personally intervened to prevent a freeze on shotgun license fees being lifted, forcing the police forces that issue them to allocate more than £17 million ($24 million) from their operational budgets in subsidies.
Beyond the welfare concerns and legal ambiguities surrounding shooting, the industry wrestles with two demons – the disposal of unwanted birds and the persecution of birds of prey.
While shooting advocates such as Spokes are keen to highlight the fact that "only three out of a hundred" birds are discarded, by the industry's own estimates, that equates to 420,000 birds being thrown away every year.
The circumstances of how they are discarded is a source of controversy, with documented cases of hundreds of pheasants being dumped on country paths. Other reported disposal methods include burning the birds in pits — a claim Spokes calls "bizarre."
"I can honestly say I have never seen or heard of that happening," he said.
Nearly half a million game birds birds are thrown out after being shot each year. (Photo via LACS)
Yet Graffius admits the birds are "incinerated or buried," though he insists they are only discarded because they are not fit for consumption because they have either been shot too close or because the dog used to collect them has caused too much damage with its teeth.
But another shooter, who attends small-scale "boutique" shoots in southern England and spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity, admitted that he knows of shoots elsewhere in the country which discard birds because of sheer excess.
"All the birds on my shoot go in the pot — it's not like the massive ones up north where they shoot thousands and have nothing to do with them," he wrote in an email.
Profligacy has been publicized in the past, with an editorial by Country Life magazine from February 2001 describing how "In some areas, over-supply has led to shoots being forced to give away their bags, or worse still, bury their surplus."
Birds of prey, as a natural predator of game birds, also fall victim to the shooting industry. Around two thirds of all UK convictions for bird of prey persecution involve gamekeepers, points out the RSPB.
"This doesn't mean a majority of gamekeepers kill birds of prey, but it does point to the primary source of the problem," said Jeff Knott, RSPB Head of Nature Policy.
While Knott accepts some advances have been made on combatting such persecution on lowland areas, he says it remains a persistent problem in the highlands.
"Persecution remains unacceptably common in these areas, with population impacts on hen harriers, golden eagles, peregrines, goshawk and red kites," he told VICE News.
Avery, the naturalist, says it is done through various methods, including shooting, poisoning and trapping birds. He says there is also anecdotal evidence of people pouring dried ice on eggs in nests so young never hatch.
The effects of such persecution can be seen in the numbers of the birds found in the UK, he said, with hen harriers a prime example. While there is suitable habitat to accommodate 2,600 pairs of hen harriers in the UK, in the last national bird survey, carried out a decade ago, just 650 pairs were found.
"The difference between 2,600 and 650, we all think, and nobody really argues with us, is the size of the impact of the illegal killing of birds of prey," he told VICE News.
Game shooting has been a popular sport in Britain for hundreds of years, popular among the upper classes. (Photo via LACS)
Spokes, from the Countryside Alliance, is staunch in his rejection of birds of prey being persecuted, saying "there's no reason for it, there's no need for it and we just have absolutely no tolerance for it."
Graffius, communications director at BASC, is similarly vehement, pointing out that the organization has previously called on its members to provide the authorities with information whenever evidence of bird of prey persecution comes to light.
"We condemn unreservedly anyone who is involved in this, it is illegal, it brings shooting into disrepute and it is completely wrong, and fortunately it is extremely rare," he said.
The industry is also keen to point out that it contributes significant funds to conservation, which Graffius says total more than £250 million ($348 million) per year.
"Shooting is putting far more into conservation in the countryside than any other conservation organization or body," he said, adding that a study carried out in 2014 estimated the industry to be worth £2 billion ($2.8 billion) to the UK economy.
But while the RSPB says there is "undoubtedly some excellent conservation and habitat work" undertaken by shoots, one member of staff who was not authorized to talk on behalf of the conservation group said "it would be interesting to see how much of the £250m is conservation action that is of a scientific evidence-base with measurable targets and results."
Meanwhile, as the shooting industry continues to expand, critics such as Shephard warn that the welfare situation of the birds will only deteriorate amid government refusal to take a consistent approach to regulation.
"The industry has just become so industrialized in recent years and it's offering larger and larger [numbers of birds at shoots]. It's impossible to do that without seriously compromising the welfare of the birds involved," he said.
Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn