We write to Defra about gamebirds and avian flu

This summer has seen unprecedented levels of highly pathogenic avian flu in wild birds in the UK (and elsewhere). In recent years, this has been a winter disease, reaching the UK each autumn as migratory birds arrive but dying out in the warmer summer months. This year the deaths of wild birds have been much greater with many seabird species (eg Gannet and Great Skua) being seriously affected at their breeding colonies.

Much concern was expressed by a range of conservation bodies about the impacts of releasing captive-bred gamebirds (essentially Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges) into the countryside in very large numbers in late summer for the shooting industry. Might the captive-bred birds bring the virus with them, or might they create another large reservoir of the virus so that it was more difficult for the disease to peter out?

Defra decided that it wasn’t going to introduce any restrictions on gamebird releases at all – click here. There have been many more cases of bird flu in gamebirds this year, already, than in previous years – click here.

Having let the genie out of the bottle, or opened Pandora’s box, Defra will have to live with the consequences. But they face another dilemma now, completely of their own making.

Although many millions of gamebirds are imported into the UK from continental Europe each year (as eggs or chicks or sometimes as poults), some of the breeding stock comprises released gamebirds that have survived the shooting season and are caught up and taken back into captivity. This is part of the Schrodinger’s Pheasant (or Red-legged Partridge) paradox to which we have drawn attention in the past. Gamebirds can flip between being livestock and wild birds several times in their lives – mainly to suit the preferences of the shooting industry.

We are approaching the time when catching up happens – late December through to the end of the shooting season at the end of January. Is Defra happy to allow catching up (of gamebirds which may well have been infected with the avian flu virus) in a time of widespread avian flu outbreaks among commercial poultry farms, and strict restrictions which apply to commercial poultry industry? Or is Defra going to prevent catching up this year? Again, it’s a difficult call – but the difficulty was entirely predictable and is a consequence of ignoring a great deal of advice that gamebirds should not be released. Our guess will be that Defra will not impose any restrictions on the shooting industry – that’s so often the case.

Wild Justice wrote to Defra last week asking them what they are going to do. Maybe they haven’t given it any thought until now because we haven’t had a response yet.

Here’s our letter – we’ll tell you whether we get a reply.