Ring necked pheasant Phasianus colchicus, Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Todays Blog is written by Chris Calow, Species Policy Officer. He provides an update on RSPB's position on the rear and release of non-native gamebirds
The Impacts of non-native gamebirds is high
The rear and release of non-native gamebirds is widespread across all parts of the UK, in varying degrees of intensity. According to latest estimates, 40.6 million gamebirds are annually released into the UK countryside, which includes 31.5 million Pheasants, and 9.1 million Red-legged Partridges (Madden 2021). In addition, an estimated 2.6 million Mallards are released each year. At the point of release in autumn, the total biomass of released gamebirds represents more than twice the spring biomass of all native UK breeding birds combined (estimated from Blackburn and Gaston 2018).
Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges are reared in sheds each spring and moved into pens in woodlands or cropped land, from which they are released during the summer. The shooting season starts on 1 September for Partridges and 1 October for Pheasants.
The RSPB has growing concerns about the environmental impact of large numbers of gamebirds being released into the countryside. Our main concern is with large-scale shoots which release high densities of gamebirds which can be damaging to the environment including through:
- direct impacts, such as browsing of plants, predation of reptiles and invertebrates, competition for food resources eaten by native wildlife and soil enrichment.
- disease transmission to wildlife, like the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (bird flu)
- changes to the balance of predators and prey of threatened species (gamebirds can be a supplementary food source for predators, such as foxes)
- shooting practices, including lead shot that pollutes the environment, is ingested by scavengers and can enter the food chain.
- illegal persecution of protected species, including birds of prey.
Red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa), Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Smaller shoots releasing fewer birds are much less likely to be damaging and we recognise that habitat management, predator control and supplementary feeding linked to game estate management can benefit native wildlife on farmland and in woods. Indeed, in landscapes that have been heavily modified by intensive agriculture, such management can be a lifeline for wildlife.
Regulation and better enforcement of existing rules are essential
Nonetheless, the RSPB believes that further regulation and better enforcement of existing rules are essential to deliver the changes necessary in the face of a nature and climate crisis. Over the past three years, following extensive discussions with representatives of shooting interests, RSPB Trustees assessed the lack of progress over decades in reducing the impact of released gamebirds on the environment. Relying on self-regulation and voluntary codes of practice – especially in the context of low compliance with even the limited existing rules – led us to decide that the industry is not owning its environmental impacts and failing to drive positive change on any meaningful timescale.
After careful consideration of the alternatives and an assessment of progress to date, the RSPB is calling for governments across the UK to license the release of non-native gamebirds, underpinned by a statutory code of practice, with mandatory reporting of movements and releases. We believe statutory licensing is the only way to achieve these changes and we are keen to engage with other interested parties in the design of a future licensing regime. In summer 2023, we supported proposals made by the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales to introduce licences, although we are disappointed that the process has been subject to delays.
Due to the current outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) we are also calling for the same approach to be taken to releases of Mallards due to their susceptibility to the disease. The increased risks associated with Mallard releases have become clear – ducks can shed the virus asymptomatically for more than two weeks and mix with wild birds at flight ponds.
In common with many other forms of land management, such as farming and forestry, management for gamebirds has the potential both to harm nature or to contribute to its recovery. We believe that licensing provides an effective means to tackle intensive management practices associated with harm, and supporting those who manage their shoots sustainably.
'The impacts of non-native gamebird release in the UK: an updated evidence review'
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