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The gamebird code: what went wrong?

When we are out shooting game in the winter, everything can seem so natural that it is easy to forget the extent to which our sport is dependent on hand-reared birds. The 2006 PACEC report, an independent survey of the sector, showed that 91 per cent of all shoots release hand-reared game and this analysis included grouse moors, which clearly do not. So the handrearing of pheasants and partridges is fundamentally important to the sport.

Only a few shooters, the lucky ones I’d say, get involved with this massive rearing and releasing process. Most are only partially aware of what gamefarmers and gamekeepers get up to during the long spring and summer months. They certainly have no detailed knowledge of such things as the precise size of laying units or the use of sentinel birds when quarantining caught-up laying stock. But does that matter?

Well, up to a point, no, it won’t normally affect their shooting. But when the Government changes the rules on how gamebirds can be reared, making the job more difficult to do, their shooting may well become more expensive. And if Government interference extends to making aspects of game rearing unworkable, the very foundations of the shooting industry begin to crack. That is why the precise wording of DEFRA’s Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds Reared for Sporting Purposes, introduced to Parliament earlier this month, matters to us all.

The history of the code

From the moment, seven years ago, when the Government first announced there was to be a new Animal Welfare Bill, with accompanying codes of practice setting out standards for everything from circuses to lizard keeping, an official code for gamebird rearing became inevitable. Devolution subsequently ensured that one gamebird code would become three, with separate texts for England, Scotland and Wales.

The inevitability of these codes being written posed a major challenge for the shooting sector. It was not that gamebird rearing was in any way welfare-poor or unfit for scrutiny. After all, there had been only a handful of game rearers convicted under the 1909 Cruelty to Animals Act in its entire history. The challenge was instead one of practicality and detail.

If the Government gamebird codes came out right, they could contribute immeasurably to the political security of the sport through official recognition of game rearing.

If they came out wrong, they might make the job of producing pheasants and partridges for shooting more difficult, or even impossible.

Anti-shooting organisations quickly realised this, too, and skirmishing soon began over what the codes should say. The Westminster Government made the first move towards an actual text. In 2007, shooting representatives found themselves corralled with animal welfare bodies, vets and even a representative of the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), in a DEFRA Gamebird Working Group charged with writing the English code. I was invited to attend as an “independent adviser from the industry”. The meetings were sparky but surprisingly productive and the end result was a very good, welfare-based, yet still practical, draft code with which all present agreed, except on one point.

The draft code required that whenever birds were housed or penned, their accommodation should be well constructed and managed and of sufficient size to ensure good health and welfare. Everyone was happy with that, but LACS, the RSPCA and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) all wanted to go further and to restrict the use of raised laying cages. LACS and the RSPCA presumably wanted cages banned because both organisations are fundamentally opposed to all gameshooting. BASC’s policy was that cage-laying systems were incompatible with the values of BASC and the future of gameshooting. With the welfare issues amply dealt with by the clause quoted earlier, BASC’s concern seemed to be more about appearances. As they explained in their members’ magazine recently, Anti-shooting organisations use pictures of battery cage birds to attack game rearing.

All the other shooting interests on the DEFRA Gamebird Working Group — by which I mean the Game Farmers’ Association, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the Countryside Alliance and the Country Land & Business Association — took the view that what really mattered in a welfare code was not the look of the accommodation but the wellbeing of the birds. These bodies all backed the enrichment of raised laying cages and a requirement that they be properly managed to ensure good welfare.

The Government attempted to solve the impasse by asking the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) to conduct an independent enquiry into game rearing and to provide its opinion.

FAWC concluded, in 2008, that barren (un-enriched) pheasant and partridge cages should be banned on welfare grounds but that enriched ones should be allowed to continue. BASC, along with all the other organisations, welcomed FAWC’s report and the impasse should surely have been over.

But BASC went on lobbying. Ministers were shown a dossier of ugly colour photographs of cages, the integrity of FAWC’s opinion was questioned and finally, last December, BASC wrote to MPs asking them to sign an Early Day Motion calling for a total ban on cages. More than 200 did so. Faced with these continuing differences of view DEFRA decided, perhaps understandably, to complete the final drafting of its code in private. Sadly, without the expertise of its Gamebird Working Group (which the Minister disbanded) it made some terrible mistakes.

The result is a code, laid before Parliament earlier this month, which retains 90 per cent of the good material from the Working Group’s text but serious, and now widely-publicised, mistakes on such things as not being able to mix incoming caught-up birds with an existing laying flock. As The Daily Telegraph reported, The Government’s track record on rural issues isn’t great but it is a bit much banning pheasants from having sex. Much more seriously, the final code also made a complete mess of the cages issue.

Last-minute changes

Against FAWC’s advice, space allowances for gamebirds kept in laying systems were introduced into the final version of the code at the last minute.

As a result, the code will render all existing raised pheasant-laying units in England, and the majority of raised partridge pair boxes, redundant in just six months’ time. This is because the units in question are smaller than the arbitrary space allowances specified in the code. For partridges there is the additional complication that a drafting error implies that even if a partridge laying unit is larger than the size specified in the code, it will still break the rules. The space allowances used in the code were not consulted on, nor are they based on any welfare science or behavioural research. They were suggested to the Government by BASC.

Because raised laying units tend to be used by the larger gamefarms, their effective prohibition will translate into a shortfall of millions of eggs — approaching a quarter of all eggs produced in England. There is no way that home producers, especially those crippled by the blow, will be able to make up this difference in the short term using replacement systems. Even if they try, they will not be able to compete on price with European gamefarms, which already use highly efficient but largely barren cage systems to produce for the UK market.

The proportion of eggs and chicks imported will simply rise above its already alarming 50 per cent market share. Welfare overall will be worse not better, because there will be more birds coming from the barren units abroad and, paradoxically, the antis will rub their hands with glee. Much easier to attack feathered targets shipped in from barren battery farms located overseas than a sport based on a well-run, home-based industry with a record of virtually no welfare convictions in its entire history.

What happens now?

DEFRA’s code is now finalised as far as the Government is concerned. It must “lie before” Parliament for 40 sitting days, counting from 15 March when it was laid, after which — unless it is changed — it will come into force on 1 October this year. Breaches of the code are not illegal in themselves but the courts must have regard to what the code says in determining whether the Animal Welfare Act has been broken. It is the same legal position as that familiar to us all with the Highway Code.

Instead of a really useful document, which would have ensured good gamebird welfare across the board, we have ended up with an official code that is an economic disaster for the game rearing industry and which may soon get individual gamefarmers and gamekeepers into very real difficulties.

The impending General Election offers the possibility of a different Government which perhaps may be persuaded that the DEFRA Gamebird Code is not fit for purpose. All the shooting organisations named in this article, except one, have publicly said that the code must be changed.

BASC, by contrast, has publicly welcomed the code, congratulated the Ministers responsible and defended all the problematic changes added by the Government at the last minute, line by line. Can this really be the same organisation that, only a month ago, ran a campaign to back British game rearing?

The gamebird codes for Scotland and Wales are running behind. They are still in draft form and out now for public comment. At present, both retain the sensible wording which came out of the Gamebird Working Group. Shooters, gamefarmers and gamekeepers are being encouraged by organisations such as the Countryside Alliance and the Game Farmers’ Association to support their implementation as drafted, together with the enrichment option on cages. It remains to be seen whether BASC will call for the same space allowances and other restrictions they have welcomed in England to be imposed on game rearers in Scotland and Wales as well.