Private Eye highlights DEFRA’s inaction on gamebirds in midst of avian flu epidemic

The avian flu epidemic continues to sweep across the UK and is expected to increase as we head into winter, according to the UK’s Health Security Agency.

The situation is so bad that on 7th November 2022, an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was implemented across the UK, which means that it is currently a legal requirement for all bird keepers to house their birds to help reduce the risk to captive flocks as well as to wild birds, from this serious and notifiable disease.

That is, all bird keepers except gamekeepers. They can pretty much do as they please with their, literally, millions of pheasants and red-legged partridges, because the status of those birds as either ‘livestock’ or ‘wildlife’ is ridiculously interchangeable to suit the game shooters so once the birds (‘livestock’) have been released from their pens into the countryside, they suddenly become ‘wildlife’ until the end of the shooting season when the gamekeepers want to capture them again for breeding purposes and so the birds magically become ‘livestock’ again (see Wild Justice blogs on this here and here).

It’s good to see that Private Eye is now highlighting this scandalous situation and asking the question about why DEFRA hasn’t brought in any measures to reduce the risk of these gamebirds spreading bird flu to wild birds and poultry (thanks to the blog reader who sent this in):

Things will become very interesting at the end of the shooting season when it’s time to ‘catch up’ gamebirds that haven’t been shot, to bring them into captivity for breeding purposes.

We know that ‘Schrodinger’s Pheasant’ wondrously turns from being ‘wildlife’ back to being classified as ‘livestock’ (see diagram above) to enable this activity to be legal. We also know that avian flu in France, where millions of gamebird poults are sourced for the UK game-shooting market, was badly affected by avian flu this year, causing a ban on the importation of those eggs and poults and given the current increase in avian flu cases there at the moment, the same situation may arise again, which means there may be more pressure on UK game-shooters to ‘catch up’ even more of their wild stock/livestock in preparation for the 2023 shooting season.

But just how sensible, or indeed legal, will it be to ‘catch up’ wild birds in the midst of an avian flu epidemic?

Surely DEFRA has given this some thought and is preparing its position in advance?

19 thoughts on “Private Eye highlights DEFRA’s inaction on gamebirds in midst of avian flu epidemic”

  1. I asked this question of Natural England when they were giving licences to kill buzzards to protect pheasants, they told me they were livestock so I countered with in UK livestock has to be slaughtered humanely and blowing it’s bloody head off with a 12 bore isn’t humane – they still haven’t replied 6 years and waiting

    I love Schoedringers Pheasant !! very clever but so true

    How do they get to flaunt the rules like they do ?

    1. “they told me they were livestock so I countered with in UK livestock has to be slaughtered humanely and blowing it’s bloody head off with a 12 bore isn’t humane”

      But so-called gamebirds are redefined as wild birds when they are being shot at.

      “How do they get to flaunt the rules like they do ?”

      They don’t. See above.

    1. Best way I saw was little chicken mesh funnel “doors” on the release pens for use only at catching up time. You feed intensively in & around the pen during hard weather & hey presto they walk back into the very same pen they were released from a few months earlier! Or traditionally, dozens of little rough and ready chicken mesh funnel traps with a handful of grain scattered inside, checked a couple of times a day.

  2. If DEFRA gave a shit, they would have stopped all releasing of reared ducks onto shoot ponds, and the intensive feeding of these ponds. It is the intermingling of these farmed ducks and wild ducks & geese (that travel about a lot!) that seems to me to pose a stunningly obvious risk right now.

  3. RSPB called for a ban on releasing gamebirds in August 2022, because of the risk of spreading Avian Influenza (AI). That was too late, as most gamebirds had already been released before then.
    Defra published a “Risk Assessment on the spread of High Pathogenicity Avian Influenza (HPAI)
    H5N1 to wild birds from released, formerly captive gamebirds in Great Britain: Pheasants” in August 2022. The assessment concluded that the risks of transmission of AI to different groups of wild birds from Pheasants infected before release, and after release, were both high or very high.
    It’s very unlikely that AI will have gone away by next July, so we ought to start campaigning NOW for a ban on all gamebird release in 2023.

  4. There was a report in yesterday’s paper that there is serious concern over the possible transmission of Avian Flu from birds to humans. There have already been cases where this has happened over the past 20 years. It said about 900 humans had been infected with Avian flu. This is a recent government warning which suggests there are grave concerns with the current outbreak of this. The fact that game birds are handled by a variety of people may make this a health hazard.

    https://ukhsa.blog.gov.uk/2022/11/17/an-update-on-avian-flu/

  5. We have it quite badly, in Oxford: mainly geese and swans (as far as I know, at the moment)

    Typical early symptoms shown here (the swan died later):

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