Non-native gamebirds (pheasants & red-legged partridges) comprise approx half of all wild bird biomass in Britain

The annual mass release of millions of non-native gamebirds (pheasants and red-legged partridges) for shooting has long been of interest to those of us who care about raptor conservation, because the vast majority of illegal raptor persecution in the UK is undertaken by gamekeepers whose job is to ‘protect’ the gamebirds long enough for them to be shot by paying guests. Since 1990, two thirds of those convicted of raptor persecution related offences have been gamekeepers (see here).

The exact number of gamebirds that are released in the UK for shooting every year is not known because, incredibly and unlike virtually every other European country, the game bird shooting industry in the UK is under-regulated. Nobody even knows how many game bird shoots there are because the people involved do not have to register anywhere, nor report on the number of birds released / shot each year. It’s been a great old wheeze for decades.

[This photograph of non-native pheasants released for shooting was posted on social media by a gamekeeper in Scotland]

The most recent figures, still considered to be a conservative estimate, were for the year 2018 and included 49.5 million pheasants and 11.7 million red-legged partridges, making a total of 61.2 million non-native gamebirds released into our countryside. These figures emerged as a result of Wild Justice’s recent successful legal challenge on gamebird releases (see Mark Avery’s blog here for more details).

Today a new peer reviewed scientific paper has been published that has revealed a shocking insight in to the effect of releasing so many gamebirds. The authors estimate that around a quarter of British bird biomass annually is contributed by pheasants and red-legged partridges, and at their peak in August these two species represent about half of all wild bird biomass in Britain!!!!!!!

This pie chart from the paper is eye-watering:

The paper’s citation is: Blackburn, T.M. and Gaston, K.J. (2021). Contribution of non-native galliforms to annual variation in biomass of British birds. Biol Invasions.

It is open access, which means anyone can read it for free. Download it here:

The next time someone tells you, ‘There’s too many bloomin’ buzzards / sparrowhawks / red kites / sea eagles / goshawks / etc’ / [insert your own hooked-bill species here] you might want to point them to this paper.

You might also want to have a word with your local politician and point out that the release of non-native gamebirds is out of control and needs urgent regulation.

32 thoughts on “Non-native gamebirds (pheasants & red-legged partridges) comprise approx half of all wild bird biomass in Britain”

  1. And yet there are claims from the darkside that there is absolutely no ecological damaged caused by these NON native species! Heavens forbid that rewilders and other like minded groups and individuals suggest releasing a historically NATIVE animal such as lynx that will undoubtedly take pheasant and partridge leaving only mere millions to shoot.

    1. Read somewhere that pheasants are great hunters of common lizards. So Common I think I’ve seen maybe 10 or 20 in 50 + years, seen a few pheasants though.

  2. I cannot get my head round the arrogance of an industry that says we should be grateful for the fact that for once they allowed 60 hen harrier chicks to fledge this year. As we already know this is only a stay of execution for some of the chicks, as the same industry sees them as extra target practice for their guns for later in the year when no one is supposed to be looking. Perhaps the illegality involved gives them an extra buzz – who knows.

    However we, (Wild Justice) should not be allowed the temerity to challenge their right to release an unbelievable number of pheasants and partridge into the environment with little or no accountability. 61.2 million equates to a ratio of 1 hen harrier chick to a million released gamebirds per year.

    Thanks to better campaigning and reporting more and more ordinary folk are becoming acutely aware of how the shooting industry operates and its overall impact hence the unrelenting pressure that they continue to rail against. We just need to keep going.

  3. Also considerable impact
    on reptiles, amphibians and insect life.
    Public nuisance as well, noise and
    blocking roads with vehicles and
    dogs out of control

  4. So how does this work then


    A police flyer read: ‘We are aware of several peacocks that have been roaming around Henfield, and at present are providing support in the capture of these birds.
    ‘Peacocks are a NON NATIVE species and their existence in the wild of Sussex cannot continue, due to the potential impacts on our native wildlife.
    ‘Current efforts are focused on trapping then rehoming the peacocks. However we must advise that if this cannot be completed, then humane dispatch will be required.
    ‘Please help locate the peacocks soon by letting us know where they are roosting, feeding, or otherwise adopting a regular location to be found.’

    It appears that the police in certain quarters agree that non native species should be removed

    1. Google “We are aware of several peacocks that have been roaming around Henfield, and at present are providing support in the capture of these birds. ‘Peacocks are a NON NATIVE species and their existence in the wild of Sussex cannot continue, due to the potential impacts on our native wildlife.”

      In Oct. 2020 that was in newspapers in many places (including Scotland) and on the BBC.

  5. In Scotland, the legislation banning the release on non-native species had two exemptions – RLP and Pheasant. The exemptions were presumably on the grounds that these two species supported an industry (albeit one that is trivial in economic terms). Suppose that we had never had a shooting industry based on introduced species and that someone applied to release RLP and Pheasant in the numbers that they are currently released, promising an economic benefit of what the shooting industry claims for the present one. Would such a request have been granted? Of course not. Then why is it allowed now?
    Many congratulations to Tim and Kevin!

    1. “In Scotland, the legislation banning the release on non-native species had two exemptions – RLP and Pheasant…. Then why is it allowed now?”

      Because it comes from the Head of State and the Establishment. There is no other reason. (Also why they are exempt from Inheritance Tax)

  6. This is “Keeping the Balance”. It is just Bernard Matthews type business model without any oversight or regulation and a different means of culling them.

  7. I was recently watching a youtube video where someone with a narrowboat was given the chance to drive a steam train on a heritage line for a change. What stuck out for me was that on a certain stretch the line was absolutely covered with pheasants which had to scatter in all directions, everything else had the savvy to not be on the rail track in the first place. If birds are released then that means they were artificially raised which means they were given feed. Considering they probably take a lot longer to raise than a typical broiler chicken and that only a fraction of these birds get consumed by people then the amount of land intensely farmed to feed them, with all the ills that go with that, must be very substantial – all land that but for this ludicrous form of shooting could be given back to nature.

  8. There is more analysis that needs to be done here. c50% of national bird biomass is quite eye-catching, I’ll give you that, but it is actually massively misleading.

    Most of our WILD bird biomass is concentrated on sea cliffs and estuaries. Take out wetland and coastal birds that will not be affected by game bird releases, and what are the respective proportions of wild birds and non-native released gamebirds?

    I’d imagine the pie chart would look very like pacman tucking into our remaining wild birds.

    1. You raise a valid point in respect of the impact nationally. However, the real issue here is that the impact locally where these birds are released is not completely understood, but its clear that there is a negative impact on local wildlife, from competition for food, predation of reptiles and other fauna, increasing numbers of predators which are attracted, the impact of their droppings etc.

      The fact that has not been properly assessed by NE is a scandal and a dereliction of their duties.

    2. I think the important point of this is the sea feeding birds. The could be removed as they have little or no impact on land based fauna.

    1. They are. Canada geese were introduced to Britain from North America about 300 years ago. But studies have also found that they do occasionally migrate to Northern Europe from North America, so it could be argued that they are not “non- native” like pheasants or red legged partridge, as some could have arrived naturally by migration, as many other bird species do.
      The RSPB estimate there are about 62,000 breeding pairs in the UK.
      But Canada geese are not artificially raised or millions of them released into the countryside each year.
      Neither is native British wildlife killed by those who manage the birds in order to ensure that high numbers are available to be shot by those who enjoy a pastime of shooting.
      So I am not quite sure where Canada geese fit into the discussion regarding the issues surrounding the annual release of millions of non native game birds by the shooting industry???

  9. How can the killing of native British wildlife ever be justified by those who manage land where these non native invasive birds are released or reared?
    I think it’s a fair assumption that the vast majority of the British public are unaware of what is happening in our countryside, and would be horrified to learn that native British species such as raptors, foxes, stoats, weasels and crows etc are ruthlessly killed simply to protect pheasants and red legged partridges, so that those who enjoy blazing away with their guns have something to shoot at.
    It’s even more of an outrage to learn that the combined mass of these “foreign birds” equates to around 1/4 of the total mass of native bird species.

    I just hope the government realise the sheer amount damage these game birds cause to British flora and fauna, and that no subsidies, rural payments etc are granted to those who own or manage land where these birds are raised or released. Failure to do so would appear to be in complete contravention of the principles behind the “The Environmental Land Management scheme: public money for public goods.”

    Native British wildlife should never be sacrificed so that the countryside becomes a deadly playpark for people with guns.

    1. Good points John. I predict, however, that despite Brexit taking away the CAP payments, the Tories will continue to shovel vast amounts of public money (possibly more than they got under the CAP?) to farmers and landowners regardless of what they do/don’t do to our environment. The “public money for public goods” is just a cynical sound bite mantra to convince the public that our farmers/landowners will only be given public money for ‘good’ activities. I also predict that owners of land where non-native birds are killed in vast numbers for fun will continue to receive vast sums of public money and their activities will be sold back to the public as “environmental stewardship” or some such claptrap. The fact that farmers/landowners are not whining much about Brexit tells me that they’ve been given the nod that they’ll be well looked after.

  10. This paper is fascinating especially when you start to follow through the implications – this biomass of Pheasant and RLP is about 44,000 tonnes. To feed this weight of bird requires something like 200,000 tonnes of feed (4.5Kg feed to 1Kg live weight) . The feed is with 20-28% protein depending on the stage of growth of the bird. Where does it come from – fish meal, soya beans etc – amazon destruction? It would be fascinating to understand the supply chain of feed to understand the environmental damage being caused. There seems ten of thousands of tonnes of fish meal being used to feed Pheasants etc – so we are damaging our fish stocks …….. When you consider that only a third of these birds are actually shot and even fewer being eaten it’s really bad. Also consider that millions of these birds are eaten by foxes – which are then killed as ‘vermin’ as there are too many!! One way of managing the fox population is to stop feeding them millions of pheasants!!

    1. Jeff ,next you’ll have the toffs out litter picking as a sport. As hunters controlling their kids and driving drugs underground.

  11. Is this the sort of evidence that Natural England is looking for in its review of the ecological impacts of mass non-native bird releases by the shooting industry? I hope that someone, somewhere has submitted this paper.

    This was hinted at in one of the posts above but if you take seabirds (puffin, fulmar, gannet and guillemot) out of the above figures the bodymass of native landbird species is far less than 50% in August.

  12. This has purely come about largely due to the ownership of the countryside. Let’s face it most land was either historically just claimed or stolen and for hundreds of years these land owners have been doing pretty much whatever they like within their ill gotten estates and using any means to make them profitable. While these land owners still hold this kind of control and power within Government nothing will change and our wildlife is suffering accordingly. We’ll soon be nothing more than a playground for the hunting and shooting brigade with a pathetic biodiversity and much of the countryside off limits to anyone bar those with a preference for tweed and riding horses with hounds.

    This needs to change, we (England) should have a right to roam and the bloodsports brigade forced into history where it belongs and wherever possible biodiversity and ecological balance restored.

    1. Highly recommended reading for all RPUK readers regarding England’s land issues: ‘The Book Of Trespass: Crossing The Lines That Divide Us’ by Nick Hayes, Pub. Aug 2020. (I’ve no interest financial or otherwise).

  13. Why consider culling red necked parakeets or grey squirrels when these are deliberately released.
    It’s unlawful to re release injured squirrels as non natives.
    Where’s the sense?

    1. There is no sense, Carol. It is all about who owns the land, who wants to shoot live targets, and who ‘controls’ various Governments’ legislation (behind the scenes).

      Since the Queen is a significant land owner, has shot live targets all her life, and is the Head of State, she lends enormous weight to her class, who own vast amounts of the rest of the land, shoot live targets and are extremely influential in all Parliaments (behind the scenes).

      Together, they intimidate the BBC as well as the RSPB (through its Royal Charter) which makes the message of RPUK etc difficult to achieve mainstream coverage. Even Sir David Attenborough cosies up to the Queen.

      Just think of all the hundreds and hundreds of hours of excellent BBC wildlife coverage, to the (almost) complete exclusion of any coverage of the organised hunting of birds throughout Europe. The Queen bans photographs of Royal ‘shooting weekends’ (as famously advertised by Prince Andrew) because she recognises the power of ‘the image’ over the spoken/written word.

      But this is the age of the internet, and our voices are beginning to count, too. The RSPB is (importantly) shifting its position from neutrality, and Governments of all shades are coming under increasing public and legal pressure as the evidence mounts…

    1. There are no official figures because UK legislation simply does not require the numbers of non-native game birds released into our countryside to be registered! Best the landed aristocracy just get on with it, eh…

      However, there are ways to estimate the total…

      How many gamebirds are released in the UK each year? European Journal of Wildlife Research.

      The misnamed Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust annual reviews contain an estimate of releases from its National Gamebag Census.

      See pages 34 – 37:

      Mark Avery calculated from these indices that in 2012 there were approximately 43 million Pheasants and 8.9 million Reg-legged Partridges released into the UK countryside.

      (I get approximately 42 million Pheasants and 9.3 million Red-legged Partridges – but it depends on the accuracy of the graphics presented. I was not trying to be forensically accurate:-) But, cleary, very similar results.)


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