Only a lucky few pheasants escape this fate. But there's a lot we can do to improve their lives before they are shot. Photo: Mark Seton via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Whitewashed - the short and miserable life of game birds
9th Sepetmber 2015
Defra's new £500,000 report on pheasant and partridge breeding is biased towards commercial shooting interests from start to finish, writes Toni Shephard. It purports to study the welfare of captive birds reared in restrictive cages, but fails to compare their lot to that of free-range birds - the only adequate baseline.
The available space in such cages is so limited, that the welfare of the birds is seriously compromised ... the system does not conform to the five freedoms which are at the basis of the UK's welfare law.
Defra, England's rural affairs department, has just published its long-awaited report on cage-based breeding for pheasants and partridges reared for the shooting industry.
The biased and inadequate study, which cost the taxpayer £500,000, put commercial interests above animal welfare from the start, thus undermining its very purpose.
The title for this project states that its purpose was to: "provide scientific evidence on whether cage-based breeding for pheasants and partridges can fully meet birds' needs, and if not to identify best practice for improving the breeding environment for gamebirds." However, the project as described in the report failed to investigate this question.
Rather than compare the welfare of birds kept in cages to those in free-range systems, as is necessary to answer the question posed in the project title, Defra simply examined the impact of various industry-favoured "enrichments" on birds confined in cages within a very limited size range that would be "feasible for commercial implementation".
Thus commercial interests were put above animal welfare from the start, undermining the very purpose of this half a million pound project.
Free range? Not even considered
The failure to conduct a comparative study between the welfare of birds kept in free-range systems and those confined in cages is inadequately mitigated by a desk-based study investigating the ecology and behaviour of wild pheasants and partridges in their native home range.
These findings are then used to design assorted 'enrichments' intended to mimic natural resources or permit natural behaviours. The fundamental flaw with this approach is that birds and people have profoundly different sensory perception.
The human eye can never know whether a piece of Astroturf resembles grass to a bird with much superior vision, nor whether a small piece of doweling could ever fulfil the same behavioural needs as a tree branch. The ability of these artificial substitutes to "fully meet birds' needs" can only be measured in a comparative study including birds with access to the real thing.
Added to this shortcoming is that fact that the 'enrichments' were not even chosen or designed to best meet the welfare needs of the birds, but rather to "maximise their subsequent ease of use by the industry."
The clear and overwhelming industry bias in the design of this project is wholly unsurprising considering the clear and overwhelming industry bias of the stakeholder group. Only one animal welfare organisation was represented, compared to five game industry bodies.
We would be interested to hear from Defra as to how this skewed representation was considered appropriate for a project that claimed to be assessing the birds' needs, and why other animal welfare organisations with an established interest in this issue - such as the League and Animal Aid - were excluded from the stakeholder group.
Despite industry bias, serious welfare problems still emerged
While the prioritising of industry interests and input virtually guaranteed this project would produce results that suited the industry, there are still many findings that are highly uncomfortable for the industry and which the final report attempts to downplay, including:
1. Birds in cages suffer substantial foot damage: 23% of caged partridges and 25% of caged pheasants endured painful foot problems such as lesions, swelling and bruising, yet the report considers the welfare impact to be "small" as the majority of birds did not experience these problems.
This conclusion conveniently ignores the fact that millions of birds are confined in breeding cages every year, meaning the number of individuals suffering from painful foot damage is likely to be upwards of half a million. This is not a small welfare impact.
2. Confinement causes aggressive behaviour. Feather damage caused by pecking, which the study identifies as the primary cause of early mortality, was recorded in 39% of caged partridges and 70% of caged pheasants.
The staggeringly high figure for pheasants does not take into account that all the birds in this study were bitted - had small plastic devices pushed through their nostrils to help lessen the impact of aggressive pecking - so the injuries caused in these stressful conditions would be even worse if the birds were not deliberately mutilated before caging.
3. Caged birds want to escape. Observers recorded multiple 'jump escapes' in both pheasants and partridges. As the name suggests, this behaviour is a futile attempt to fly away which is hindered by the mesh ceiling on the cages.
During the very limited observation periods, it was observed 28 times in pheasants confined in floor pens compared to 60 times in caged pheasants; while in partridges it was observed 42 times in enriched cages and 126 times in partridges in barren cages. This is a clear sign that these birds were stressed.
The data that is missing from the report also suggests a deliberate attempt to downplay the negative welfare impacts of caging. No mortality figures are reported for any phase of the project, or the results of the autopsies which the report claims were carried out on all birds found dead.
Additionally, no objective measures of stress were employed such as cortisol levels - a standard measure in animal welfare science - only subjective behavioural measures were used.
Even this highly subjective behavioural analysis is undermined by the omission of an ethogram providing definitions of the recorded behaviours - also standard practice in animal behaviour research.
For example, we would be interested to know why preening was considered an indicator of good welfare when many studies show it is often a coping mechanism animals employ in a stressful situation which they are unable to escape.
Taxpayers let down by industry bias
In short, we believe the taxpayer has been woefully let down by this project. It simply did not and could not examine whether cages meet the welfare needs of pheasants and partridges used for breeding. It was designed by the game bird industry to provide results which would justify the continued confinement of millions of birds.
Although the industry bodies claim that is what the results show, anyone reading beyond the report summary will be struck by the level of suffering observed in both barren and 'enriched' cages.
The League believes that this study confirms what the British Association for Shooting and Conservation stated in December 2010 when urging MPs to sign an Early Day Motion calling for an outright ban on breeding cages, which stated:
"The available space in such cages is so limited, that the welfare of the birds is seriously compromised ... the system does not conform, whether enriched or not, to the five freedoms which are at the basis of the UK's welfare law."
We will continue to expose the suffering of birds confined in these cages and campaign against their use.
Dr Toni Shephard BSc MSc PhD is Head of Policy and Research at the League Against Cruel Sports. A lifelong animal welfare advocate, she combines this passion with her expertise in ecology and animal behaviour to ensure the League's policies and campaigns are science-based and compelling. She has particular admiration for adaptable and successful - yet much maligned and persecuted - species such as foxes, magpies and rats. Her hope is that better education and understanding of these animals and the important ecological roles they play will lead to more tolerant and compassionate attitudes towards them.
More about the gamebird shooting industry and the way the birds suffer at the League Against Cruel Sports website.
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