Rearing pheasants for shoots

By Clare Druce,
Director of the Farm Animal Welfare Network

Every year in the UK more than 20 million pheasants are reared for 'sport'. Does thismean that pheasant meat (or game) is the thing to choose if you want to avoid thecruelties of factory farming? Surely these birds have enjoyed free and natural livesbefore the moment of instant death? On the contrary, the vast majority endure extreme forms of abuse in the months leadingup to the shoot. Rearing birds for shoots is big business; some of the cruelties inflicted onpheasants rival the worst aspects of intensive farming.
Most people would be outraged to see a robin, a skylark or a blackbird de-beaked,wearing blinker-type spectacles (perhaps illegally kept in place by a pin driven throughthe nasal septum), fitted with a 'bit' to keep the beak permanently open, maybe with onewing restrained. The picture evoked is horrendous, ludicrous even, yet mostcommercially-reared pheasants experience a range of these abuses. Ornithologists andbird-lovers in general rarely raise their voices on behalf of gamebirds; does the fact thatthey're edible, the stuff of 'sport', in some way set them apart? Many pheasants are shot when only 20 weeks old, though their potential lifespan isseveral years. On the day of the shoot, 'beaters' (often children) are employed to flush thebirds out of their cover, to provide the 'guns' (as the men, women and even children whoshoot are called) with their targets. And every year, in addition to the young purpose-bredbirds, ex-breeders and around a million pheasants 'caught up' from the wild are deemedfair game. Game Conservancy (GC) literature suggests that birds reared for the shootshould enjoy at least one month's liberty before they face the guns.(1) A typical pheasant's life before the shoot:
Hatching from the eggMost are artificially incubated, though broody hens may still be used to hatch the youngin smaller rearing units. GC literature describes how the broody hen can be tethered, tomake it easier for the gamekeeper to return her to the nest after periods of exercise. TheGC notes 'the initial period of tethering can often witness the broodies flapping about andfighting.'(2) Breeding units cause stress, especially where stocking density is tight: The VeterinaryRecord noted that: 'A decrease of 20 per cent in egg production, in association with asevere cannibalism problem, was observed in a pheasant laying unit which haddramatically increased the stocking density from the previous year.'(3) Incubator-hatched chicks are transferred to a brooder system, where they're denselystocked and kept warm for the first few days under artificial heat, essential warmth that isprovided in nature by the mother's sheltering wings. Most rearing units hold severalhundreds of pheasants, often divided into pens of a 100 or 200 birds. But much largernumbers may be incubated together: 'Escherichia coli septicaemia in three-to-four-day-old pheasant chicks was thought to have resulted from a malfunctioning aerosol spray inthe incubator. Affected birds had lesions of pneumonia and pericarditis and losses amounted to approximately 5 per cent of 20,000 chicks.'(4) In the wild, pheasants live ingroups of less than a dozen.
Orphan chicksThe birds are gradually acclimatised to greater freedom, as they 'progress' from thebrooder house to enclosed grass runs and then to release sites. Birds can become severelystressed when moved, failing to feed and contracting a variety of diseases. Stress leads toaggression, as the Veterinary Record reports: '.one (veterinary investigation) centre suggested that an outbreak of cannibalism wasdue to a recent move to release pens.'(5) The presence of feed hoppers encourages birds to remain nearby, so their movements arepredictable on the day of the shoot. In fact, because they've been treated like domesticfowl, birds may become inconveniently reliant on humans. Warns the GC: ' Also try toavoid buildings exposed to excessive disturbance and human activity. While exposure tohumans causes no harm to the birds, they may become very tame, possibly resulting inpoor flying performance on a shoot day.'(6) Semi-intensive systems clearly increase the birds' risk of disease and parasiticalinfestations. According to the Veterinary Record: 'Deaths in pheasants aged five weekswere the result of heavy gapeworm (Syngamus trachea) burdens. The pheasants had beenreared in a static building with access to grass runs, which had been in use for tenyears.'(7) The price the birds payIn the wild, pheasants live in small groups, in a harem system during the breeding season.
In the non-breeding season the cocks live alone or in small groups, and the hens gathertogether. Pheasant cocks are naturally aggressive and fight to establish their territory.
Forcing hundreds of birds to live in close proximity results in an increased and totallyunnatural degree of aggression, which is played out in confined spaces, especially in thefirst few weeks.
The 'release' pensIronically, the greater freedom of release pens seems to do little to improve health or tocalm the birds. Reported the Veterinary Record: 'A familiar pattern of infections wasnoted as pheasants were moved into release pens. Centres reported diagnoses oftrichomonas infection, with mortality in one incident as high as 25 per cent. Gapeworminfection was also reported, and one centre suggested that an outbreak of cannibalismwas due to a recent move to release pens.'(8) It seems that little-understood disease conditions are emerging: 'The VeterinaryLaboratories Agency has been investigating a condition that occurs in reared pheasantsbetween the ages of approximately eight and 20 weeks, principally during the periodwhen the birds are in release pens in late summer and autumn. Affected birds becomemarkedly ataxic.Gamekeepers describe the birds as exhibiting a 'drunken' or 'staggering'appearance.'(9) (NB Ataxia is caused by a variety of lesions throughout the nervoussystem, including the midbrain.) To counteract losses from aggression promoted by the stressful living conditions,gamekeepers may resort to a variety of mutilations, and to the use of cruel devices.
MutilationsThe definition of mutilation is given in Article 11 in the Council of Europe's DraftRecommendation Concerning Pheasants (August 1994, still in draft form): '.a procedure carried out for other than therapeutic purposes, and resulting in thedamage to or loss of a sensitive part of the body, or the alteration of bone structure, orcausing a significant amount of pain and distress.' The same Article states (in paragraph 3): 'In the case of beak-trimming, only the upper tipof the beak shall be removed, at the most advanced age possible, and this procedure mustbe carried out by a qualified operator.' Partial beak amputation (PBA) or beak trimming/debeakingIn its 1997 Report on the welfare of laying hens, the Farm Animal Welfare Council(FAWC) states: 'We consider that beak trimming is a most undesirable mutilation whichshould be avoided if at all possible and only used if essential to prevent worse welfareproblems of injurious feather pecking and cannibalism.' (para 69) and : '.if beaktrimming is essential, it should be carried out at up to 10 days of age.' Pheasants, however, may be repeatedly debeaked during their short lives. GameConservancy literature advice is clear: 'The beak will normally grow back again after 10to 14 days, when a further feather picking outbreak may occur, requiring additionaltreatment. Some game rearers automatically repeat the beak trimming process at 10 to 14day intervals.'(10) Research in the mid-1990s (funded by MAFF and the British Turkey Federation) claimsthat debeaking at an early age 'influenced behaviour only to a minor extent'(11).
However, previous research carried out at the Edinburgh Research Station, Roslin, foundthat long-term behaviour changes in chickens debeaked at approximately 14 weeks of ageindicate that birds suffer in a similar way to human amputees who experience 'phantomlimb pain'.(12) Since the MAFF/BTF research, the debate has centred around whether tomutilate at an early stage, or later on.
Welfarists prefer to give birds the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the crudeamputation of part of one of their most sensitive and vital organs, richly endowed withnerve endings, is likely to be traumatic and painful and may cause lasting discomfort.
Welfarists also claim the bird's right to keep its beak intact. The fear in the eyes of thepheasant pictured in the GC's 'Gamebird Rearing' (p 85) as s/he is held against a heatedblade, about to lose one third of his/her top mandible, speaks for itself.
The estimated time needed for two people to beak trim/de-beak 1,000 birds is twohours(13) - approximately seven seconds per bird, excluding the time needed to pick upthe birds and return them to pen or crate. Clearly, the procedure is rough and ready.
Again, GC literature gives ominous warnings: 'Beginners to this technique would be welladvised to seek a practical demonstration with an experienced operator. If doneincorrectly, severe damage to the bird could occur.'(14) A veterinary expert has stated that PBA is becoming less common. Clearly, the use ofbits can do as much to discourage feather pecking. Millions of commercially-rearedpheasants are doomed to the 'choice' between having their beaks mutilated or being fittedwith a plastic or metal bit.
The worst scenario involves both. The Game Conservancy advice is to be thorough, thebelt and braces approach: 'A useful system operated by the Game Conservancy involvesbeak trimming pheasants at 10 days old, followed by bitting at three and a half weekswith Size B alloy bits.'(15) See below for 'bitting'.
The photograph accompanying the above GC advice speaks for itself: the terror in thebird's eye, the permanently half-open beak.
The gamekeepers' arsenal
1. Bitting'Bits' are incomplete rings of plastic or metal, fed between the upper and lower mandiblesof the beak, and clipped into the nostrils to keep the device in place. They come inseveral sizes, and must be changed as the birds grow. Their purpose is to stop the beakfrom closing properly, so preventing effective pecking of fellow birds. If they are notchanged, deformity or death through starvation will result. Veterinarians have blamed ill-fitting bits for causing the death of pheasants: 'Heavy losses were associated with thefollowing conditions: yolk sac infections; failure to find food; rotavirus infection; fittingof overlarge bits.'(16) In Gamebird Rearing (GC,1990), a caption under a photograph of a three week oldpheasant fitted with a bit reads: 'Note how the beak fails to close tightly, thus helping toprevent feather picking.' In fact, the beak is permanently half-open; picking up smallparticles would be impossible, and eating difficult: 'It has been found that once birds havebeen beak bitted, they find growers pellets much easier to pick up than the smaller minipellets, thus reducing spillage and wastage.'(17) And possibly preventing starvation too.
Bitting has been associated with outbreaks of fatal disease: 'An air sacculitis* was foundin pheasants aged four weeks, which died following bitting.' (18) [*Inflammation of thebirds' respiratory system, causing air sacs to be filled with thick yellow pus in late stagesof infection; often associated with E. coli.] The Game Conservancy Trust (GCT) states that there are no figures available for the useof bits(19) but several companies supply them, suggesting that they are very widely used.
The Director of the GCT has stated: 'The use of bits will be in the interests of the birds ifthe alternative is widespread feather pecking and consequent cannibalism.'(20) The status quo that suits the industry or 'sport' dictates what happens to the animals, withno reference to their natural behavioural needs and rights. In turn, gross abuses come tobe described as 'welfare' measures.
2. Spectacles, often known as 'specs'Specs are blinker-type devices designed to restrict the field of vision and lessen thedamaging effects of aggression. They're mostly used to discourage egg eating in thebreeding stock. Some specs have been outlawed, others remain legal.
• The legal sort are specs that clip into the nostrils.
• Those that are outlawed are similar to the above, but are kept in place with a 'pin'(usually plastic) driven through the sensitive membranes of the nasal septum (i.e. in onenostril, and out through the opposing one).
Specs with pins are specified as illegal for poultry under the Welfare of Livestock(Prohibited Operations) Regulations 1982 (SI 1982, No. 1884). However, specs ofwhatever type are clearly in common use.
The Director General of the Game Conservancy Trust has stated: 'The use of "specs" isdeclining , it is not recommended by us, and the ones that pierce the nasal septum havenot been seen by us for some time.'(21) Despite the illegal status of these devices, one company (Pintail Sporting Services ofRomsey, Hampshire) supplies specs with pins, priced at £12 per 100. A call from theFarm Animal Welfare Network (FAWN) to Pintail Sporting Services on May 17, 2000confirmed this. The 'good' news is that the spokeswoman for PSS said they hadn't soldany 'for a few months'.
As recently as 1994, an investigator for the Sunday People discovered that specs withpins were being used on the Queen's estate at Windsor Great Park. FAWN had noticedthem in Quadtag's catalogue and raised awareness about this instrument of torture.
(Quadtag Limited, suppliers of game rearing equipment, operates by appointment to HerMajesty the Queen.) At least two companies (one of them Quadtag) have now stoppedsupplying the illegal specs with pins; a spokesperson for one of these companies hasstated that the changed policy is due to 'these animal rights people'. A spokesperson forthe other company explained that birds fitted with specs with pins could becomeentangled in the netted roofs of rearing pens, resulting in death.
Specs with or without pins still in common useThe GCT's optimism about the decline in the use of specs appears to be ill-founded. Inhis recently published paper 'Causes of Mortality and Culling in Adult Pheasants', T.W.
Pennycott of the Veterinary Science Division, Avian Health Unit, Auchincruive, stated:'Following standard practice (Wise 1993), plastic "spectacles" were fitted to all the birdsto reduce egg eating and cannibalism, ribbon brails were applied to one wing to reducemobility, and the spurs of the males were blunted to reduce damage to the females.(22) 3. BrailsThese are bands of material, looped over the shoulder of one wing and twisted to keepthe wing closed, in order to prevent birds from escaping from unroofed pens. Wingspreading and preening represent basic behavioural needs, and brailing must cause severefrustration. In addition, circulation may be impaired, causing muscle wastage.
NB All the above devices are removed before the day of the shoot; their presence woulddetract from the 'natural' image.
(Dr. G.R.Potts, Director General of the Game Conservancy Trust, has informed FAWNthat the GCT's Code of Good Rearing Practice is to be 'revised and strengthened'.(23)Meanwhile the series of books published by the GC is still on sale, to be replaced by aseries of leaflets when stocks are exhausted.) Diseases
'Many of the diseases recorded by the Ministry of Agriculture Veterinary InvestigationCentres and the Scottish Agriculture Colleges Veterinary Services are directly related tothe intensification of gamebird production.'(24) Wild birds suffer from a wide range of diseases, but intensively-kept gamebirds are opento specific diseases of intensification to the same degree as factory-farmed animals.
Furthermore, some of these diseases represent a serious threat to human health. States theVeterinary Record: 'Salmonellosis and E coli septicaemia caused the deaths of pheasantsup to six weeks of age. A combination of Salmonella orion, Salmonella enteritidis DT4and rotavirus infection resulted in the deaths of 300 of 7000 birds, and S enteritidis DT4was the only agent identified in a unit where 300 of 700 birds died at between one andthree weeks of age.'(25) 'Problems in a new crop of pheasant and partridge chicks included starve-outs, impactionof the gizzard with wood shavings, yolk sac infections, rotavirus infections, and pullorumdisease caused by Salmonella pullorum'.(26) Similar diseases are rife in broiler andturkey sheds.
Infectious sinusitis is common: 'Several reports of infectious sinusitis included oneparticularly severe incident causing approximately 25 per cent mortality of affectedpheasants.'(27) Tumours are increasing too: 'Birds with infectious sinusitis often had thickenedconjunctiva, mucoid to purulent material in the sinuses, and periorbital loss offeathers.Lymphomatous tumours around the eyes were seen in two flocks of adultpheasants.'(28) Furthermore, 'Lymphomatous tumours were found around the eyes andthe leg of a pheasant which had been shot. The Veterinary Science Division notes thatthere are anecdotal reports that this condition is becoming more common inpheasants.'(29) Lymphomatous tumours are similar to those found in poultry sufferingfrom Marek's disease, a form of cancer.
Marble Spleen disease was first diagnosed in pheasants in the UK in 1972, and is nowwidespread in the species. Symptoms include severely congested lungs with or withoutthe typically diseased spleen. Mortality can exceed 50 per cent. It has been suggested thatthe disease is precipitated by stress, possibly at the onset of egg production.(30) Another disease on the increase is pheasant corona-virus associated nephritis. Firstrecorded in Hampshire in 1983, it has now spread to many other parts of the UK.
Suggested causes include chilling, water deprivation, a change of accommodation and theneed to mobilise calcium for egg production.(31) The worst of both worldsSome birds 'caught up' from the wild harbour diseases. Mixing them with vulnerableyounger birds under stressful intensive conditions maximises disease risk. The dangerworks both ways in that younger birds can infect older birds as well. Infections spreadlike wildfire in over-crowded units. Reports the Veterinary Record: 'The current practiceof releasing young, intensively reared pheasants into the environment could easily resultin a population of semi-wild pheasants which are carrying Salmonellapullorum.Additional problems include the widespread movement of pheasants and pheasant eggs on a local, national and international basis, and the practice of customhatching, in which eggs from several different sites are incubated in a common hatcheryand the chicks are then redistributed.'(32) The following report from The Veterinary Record, May 27, 2000, points to the level ofsuffering birds can experience. 'The seasonal flow of submissions [of diseases ingamebirds during the current season] started in April. Laying pheasants, which had beenbrought in from the woods and penned in readiness for breeding, developed infectioussinusitis with swollen orbits and discharging eyes The Veterinary Laboratories Agencynotes that this condition, which is associated with Mycoplasma synoviae infection,represents 'a considerable challenge to the welfare of the affected birds.' The drugs
Drugs licensed for poultry are prescribed for gamebirds. Thus, intensivism in gamebirdrearing, with its reliance on drugs, is contributing to the worldwide threat of antibioticresistance in human and veterinary medicine.
'.Salmonella typhimurium DT41 was believed to be responsible for the deaths ofpheasant chicks aged 14 days, in which a common post mortem finding was the presenceof caecal cysts. A good response to enrofloxacin was reported.'(33) Enrofloxacin is oneof the fluorinated quinolones, a group of antibiotics introduced in recent years intoveterinary medicine, despite warnings, reported in The Lancet, from members of themedical profession.
Physicians fear that veterinary use will endanger the usefulness of this group ofantibiotics in human medicine: 'Thought needs to be given as to whether quinolones (NBsee spelling above), such as enrofloxacin, should be given to animals.(34) Enrofloxacin iscross-resistant with ciprofloxacin, the drug used in human medicine in cases ofsalmonella-induced blood poisoning and against the infection most dreaded in hospitalstoday, MRSA.
The Veterinary Record refers to 'anecdotal reports' that oxytetracycline (a broad-spectrumantibiotic) added to pheasants' drinking water provided 'a satisfactory response' to adisease problem(35), an indication of the way in which life saving antibiotics are beingsquandered in order to reduce mortality caused by intensivism.
Another antibiotic, tiamulin, may be administered via drinking water. Tiamulin is listedin MAFF's 1998 Review of Antimicrobial Resistance in the Food Chain under theheading: 'Antimicrobials used in agriculture which may affect the antimicrobial status offood borne pathogens or contribute to the antimicrobial resistance pool in man.'(Appendix 2, p139) Since many 'modern' pheasant diseases are similar to those occurring in poultry,treatment will be on a similar scale. For detailed information on the dangerous misuse ofantibiotics in farming, see The Use and Misuse of Antibiotics in UK Agriculture (part 2:Antibiotic Resistance and Human Health - Soil Association £15 (SA members £10); andThe Drugs Don't Work, from FAWN, P.O. Box 40, Holmfirth, Huddersfield HD7 1QY,25p or £2 for 20.
Emtryl - the one that escaped an EU-wide banIn 1996, the UK Government managed to avert an outright ban on the drug Emtryl.
UKEPRA NEWS, an egg industry publication, reported that the UK's VeterinaryMedicines Directorate 'is adamant that a safe administration level can be set for Emtryland that the ban was never justified'.(36) The EU-wide ban (for all except gamebirds)came about following concern that no safe maximum residue limit in the meat of animalstreated with Emtryl could be set. The active ingredient of Emtryl is dimetridazole. Now,an absurd situation exists where the potential dangers from dimetridazole residues arerecognised except in gamebirds.
The hazards were indicated in a Veterinary Record report: 'Milk from another dairy waswithdrawn from the food chain when dairy cows broke into a pheasant release pen andwere exposed to the gamebird ration containing dimetridazole.'(37) Cold turkey?'Clinical sinusitis due to Mycoplasma columborale was diagnosed in adult (pheasant)layers. The onset of disease coincided with a switch to non-medicated feed on onesite.'(38) Pheasants and UK legislation
According to MAFF: 'Gamebirds kept on agricultural land for the production of food areprotected by the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 which makes it anoffence to cause unnecessary pain or unnecessary distress to any livestock. They are alsoprotected by relevant regulations made under the Act'. On the other hand: 'Gamebirdsreared for sporting purposes or on non-agricultural land would not be covered by theprovisions of the 1968 Act or by the Welfare Code, but, like all captive animals, arecovered by the Protection of Animals Act 1911-88 , which makes it an offence to causeunnecessary suffering to any such animal.'(39) Potential for direct danger to humans from diseased pheasants
Erysipelas produces a potentially dangerous zoonosis* known in humans as erysipiloidwhich '.causes painful skin lesions which occasionally progress to septicaemia,encephalitis and endocarditis and can be acquired from scratches when handling infectedbirds (Mutalib and others, 1993,1995).(40) Peck injuries, common in stressed pheasants,were believed to provide a potential route for infection.(41) *Any infectious disease naturally transmissable between vertebrates and humans (OxfordConcise Veterinary Dictionary).
1 Gamebird Releasing, Game Conservancy 1991, p 56
2 Gamebird Rearing, Game Conservancy 1990, p 18
3 Veterinary Record, vol. 141, No.10 p238
4 Veterinary Record, vol. 145, No. 1 p6
5 Veterinary Record, vol. 143, No. 17 p463
6 Gamebird Rearing, Game Conservancy 1990 p57
7 Veterinary Record, vol. 145, No. 9 p242
8 Veterinary Record, vol. 143, No. 17 p 463
9 Veterinary Record, Vol. 140, No. 8, p 211
10 Gamebird Rearing, Game conservancy 1990, p 85
11 Farm Animal Welfare Council 1995 Report on the Welfare of Turkeys, para 57
12 Gentle, M. et al. (1990) 'Behavioural Evidence for Persistant Pain Following Partial
Beak Amputation in Chickens', Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 27 149-157, Elsevier
Science, Publisher B.V., Amsterdam.
13 Gamebird Rearing, Game Conservancy 1990 p 6
14 Ibid p 85
15 Ibid p 86
16 Veterinary Record, vol. 131, No. 10, p 208
17 Gamebird Rearing, Game Conservancy 1990 p 53
18 Veterinary Record, vol. 141, No. 13, p 324
19 Letter from Director General of the Game conservancy Trust to FAWN dated 24 3
20 Ibid
21 Ibid
22 Veterinary Record, Vol. 146, No. 10, p 273-278
23 As 19-21
24 'Game Disease in 1993', First Annual Report of the Veterinary Investigation Service
and the Game Conservancy Liaison Group.
25 Veterinary Record, Vol. 141, No. 16, p 411
26 Veterinary Record, Vol. 143, No. 12, p 322
27 Veterinary Record, Vol. 141, No. 18, p 462
28 Veterinary Record, Vol. 143, No. 6, p 154
29 Veterinary Record, Vol. 142, No. 21, p 563
30 Veterinary Record, Vol. 146, No. 10, p 275
31 Veterinary Record, Vol. 146, Number 10, p 273-8
32 Ibid
33 Veterinary Record, Vol. Vol. 143, No. 13, p 350
34 The Lancet, Vol. 336, July 14th 1990, p 125
35 Veterinary Record, Vol. 143, No. 13, p 350
36 UKEPRA News, March 1st 1996
37 Veterinary Record, Vol. 143, No.23, p 625
38 Veterinary Record, Vol. 143, No.10, p 264
39 MAFF letter to FAWN dated January 6th 1994
40 Veterinary Record, Vol. 141, No. 13, p 340-341
41 Ibid


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