DEFRA Minister responds to House of Lords question on avian flu risk posed by shot, dumped game birds

Many thanks to Life Peer Natalie Bennett for tabling a question in the House of Lords about the avian flu risk posed by the dumping of shot game birds in the countryside.

Contaminated bird flu carcasses are usually dealt with as a bio hazard. Photo: Tim Nicholson

This question was triggered by (a) DEFRA Minister and game bird shooter Lord Benyon’s previous denial of having seen any evidence of shot, dumped game birds, and (b) the discovery of a load of shot pheasants that had been dumped in the River Derwent in the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) on Xmas Day, 2022.

You’ll note that Lord Benyon is no longer claiming ignorance of the evidence of shot game birds being dumped, and let’s be honest, he couldn’t credibly continue to claim ignorance given the number of high profile incidents that have documented in recent years (e.g. see list here).

But you’ll also notice that he doesn’t acknowledge this is an ongoing issue directly linked to the game shooting industry (of which he’s a prominent member). Instead, he argues that, “the events that led to the dead pheasants being found in the river in the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are unknown“. I wonder how he thinks they got there? Or how all the other dumped pheasants, partridges, ducks, geese etc found their way to roadside verges, woodlands, rivers etc, some of them wrapped inside bin liners?

He also fails to address the question about the avian flu risk posed by shot, dumped game birds, instead discussing the [perceived] non-significant risk from wildfowling, driven game shooting and pigeon shooting activities.

That’s an interesting position, given the widespread reporting of avian flu in pheasants across the country (e.g. see here and here) and the recent news that avian flu has been detected in foxes and otters in the UK, most likely from consuming infected bird carcasses (here).

We shouldn’t really be surprised though, given that DEFRA has apparently just given ministerial clearance to cut the previous 90-day surveillance period for avian flu in imported gamebirds from the EU to a minimum 30-day surveillance period (this means that following a confirmed case of avian flu in the French birds, instead of having to wait 90 days prior to importing the chicks, UK game shoot managers may only have to wait 30 days). What a selfish, short-sighted, idiotic idea.

Private Eye’s explanation for this is spot on:

27 thoughts on “DEFRA Minister responds to House of Lords question on avian flu risk posed by shot, dumped game birds”

  1. Benyon should not be in the government, as he is not elected, and only serves to protect shooting interests.

    1. Maybe a certain other Lord B*****, one who has experience of casseroling pheasants for the poor and needy, might be able to throw a little light on this issue?

  2. Well yet again this government continues to shoot itself in the foot. Obviously “Private Eye” would be better able to answer questions from either House on this subject (avian flu ). Defra should not be lead by someone who is there to protect their vested interests. Reform of the Lords is well overdue.

  3. So,if I understand this correctly; When there IS NOT much Avian flu around it’s fine to import birds from France, or elsewhere, because there’s a lesser chance of spreading the disease.
    When there IS a lot of bird flu around we might as well just keep importing as they’ve got it there and we’ve got it here so why worry too much about an extra 57 million chances of the flu spreading.
    Presumably this makes sense in the parallel universe some of the UK’s game bird industry decision makers inhabit!

  4. Another example of the hidden powers of wealth and aristocracy wielded in Westminster endangering the whole pantheon of avian and mammalian life in the UK so they can shoot a few wee birds for personal gratification and increased financial profit.
    How long can this carry on?

    1. Absolutely agree with the logi and sentiments expressed. Have kept my chickens in twice in the last 2 years.

  5. Not every bird dumped has been taken legally! What do you think happens to Pheasants that get poached?!…. They get dumped! Same as the deer and Hares! Big problem around here!

      1. I’d suggest that the vast majority of poaching is for one of two purposes. Food and/or profit. So, having taken the risk, would they really throw their booty away?

    1. Actually, no poacher is going to risk jail if they don’t intend to either consume it or sell it on for others to consume. Poachers, when caught, get proper sentences, unlike criminals in the gamekeeping and other facets of the shooting industry.

      You really do need to engage your brain before coming out with such obvious nonsense.

      1. I can’t see many poachers want to risk getting caught in possession of shotgun if trespassing on land in pursuit of game.
        The Firearms Act 1968 creates the following 2 offences:-

        Section 19: it is an offence for a person to have with them in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse a loaded shot gun, an air weapon (whether loaded or not), any other firearm (whether loaded or not) together with ammunition suitable for use in that firearm, or an imitation firearm.

        Section 20: it is an offence for a person, whilst having with them a firearm or imitation firearm, to enter or be in any building or part of a building or to enter or be on any land as a trespasser and without reasonable excuse.

        On convection on indictment a Sect 19 offences carries up to 5 years imprisonment, and Sect 20- on summary conviction carries up to 3 months imprisonment.
        I can’t see many poachers wanting to risk their liberty by shooting a few pheasants and then dumping the dead birds.

        However Edward is correct when he talks about the problem of hare coursing or taking deer. However I believe most poachers commit these offences using dogs rather than with firearms.

        Criminals in the countryside need dealing with properly and effectively regardless of which wildlife they are targeting, and which section of society they come from.

          1. It is not just illegal fox hunting which is an issue. I believe it is time more people educated themselves properly about foxes, and accepted that they are a valuable part of nature and a diversified ecosystem.
            Far too many people vilify foxes, and see them as nothing but a pest species to be hunted down and persecuted.
            We only have to look at mans relationship with wolves to realise where such bias and prejudice leads, and I would suggest this twisted relationship also extends to foxes.

            Whilst I understand that there is at times a need to control fox populations to help conserve other endangered species, such as ground nesting birds.
            Having lived in the countryside for most of my life I have come to realise that most of the conflict between mankind and foxes is entirely down to the way humans behave, and their failure to take adequate precautions to deter foxes from encroaching on human endeavours .
            (If herdsmen in Africa can build kraals or bomas to protect livestock at night from predators far more ferocious than foxes, then surely with all our technical expertise and knowledge we can come come up with something which protects livestock without the need to hunt down, persecute and kill the fox).
            I also believe that we must also understand that human destruction of so much of the natural environment has left foxes in a position where the only way they can survive is to encroach on land we consider exclusively for humans and human activity. (Hence the growing fox populations in our towns and cities). This just creates a situation whereby conflict is inevitable, and this is not the foxes fault.

            Maybe the fox suffers from that same ignorant mindset which permits some to think it is acceptable to persecute raptors? So these same ignorant people also hunt and persecute foxes?

            Perhaps, with such a massive decline in nature, it is time there was a proper scientific lead review of just what is taking place in our countryside, and how the land is managed. All the recent reports on nature clearly indicates that what has been taking place for the last 50-60 years isn’t working, with many species in sharp decline to the point of becoming endangered.
            Nature didn’t evolve over hundreds of thousands of years to create an imbalance of species.
            Imbalance is most probably the consequence of human activity.

            It is most probable, this latest variation avian flu was mutated in domestic poultry and has then spread through contact with wild birds? I understand the H5N1 virus, which is the most prevalent strain was first reported in China in 1996. It can spread through entire flocks of domestic birds within a matter of days, through birds’ droppings and saliva, or through contaminated feed and water.

            I would go on to suggest that anyone who wants to control nature (whether that be foxes, stoats, hares, or any other species) through legal means should be required to have a permit, have undertaken suitable training and have to demonstrate an absolute need why such methods are necessary, including providing a fully auditable account of their activities, and how such activities will benefit a rich and diverse eco- system.

            As for the wildlife criminal- with nature and wildlife in such steep decline, maybe it is time these criminals faced proper law enforcement and proper punishment which reflected the real consequences of the damage they are doing to the countryside.

            But with DEFRA controlled by those who appear to believe they have a right to treat the countryside as somewhere to be exploited either for “unsporting purposes” or to generate monetary wealth, I don’t think nature really has much chance.

            ( sorry wandered a bit off topic- but it does all link to politicians whose focus appears to be preserving vested interests rather than finding real solutions to what if not effectively tackled will be a catastrophe for nature and perhaps also for the many farmers/land owners and managers who care passionately about the natural environment they consider themselves fortunate to live and work in. )

            1. As I’m sure you’re aware, John, my comment was entirely rhetorical. But thanks for your (as ever) well-written, considered response.

    2. Wondering why a poacher would dump whole unbreasted birds, a waste of your time getting them and a loss of either food if for personal use or possible income selling them on.

    3. [Ed: Edward Coles, the rest of your comments have been deleted. Another one who thinks it’s acceptable to write misogynistic abuse about me on social media and then expects to be given a platform on my blog and is aggrieved when he doesn’t get his own way. The sense of entitlement and arrogance is staggering, the intellect, not so much]

  6. DEFRA’s home page on the UK Gov website states the following –

    “Our mission is to restore and enhance the environment for the next generation, leaving it in a better state than we found it.”

    Apparently among the the priorities are-

    “improve the environment through cleaner air and water, minimised waste, and thriving plant and terrestrial and marine wildlife.”

    “..enhance biosecurity at the border and raise animal welfare standards.”

    At a time of a very serious outbreak of avian flu in the UK and abroad, which is now showing signs of the virus spreading from birds to wild mammals; how does a change in law to decrease the previous 90-day surveillance period for avian flu in imported gamebirds to a minimum 30-day surveillance period, enhance biosecurity or contribute to creating a thriving a wild bird population?

    Perhaps the Minister should remind himself of DEFRA’s responsibilities and stated aims.

    Or is there a conflict of interests at play here? In which case shouldn’t the Minister stand down?

    I really hope that pressure is kept on the government to take the necessary steps to reduce all risks associated with avian flu, and if that means no importation of game birds this year- then so be it.

    1. Public money is used to support the farming industries when livestock cannot be sold, if flu costs are meet by the shooting industry including legal and administrative costs instead of the public purse would there be as much help from within government.

      1. Ian,
        You make a very valid point, and something which had not crossed my mind.
        I understand that pheasants when being reared in pens are classed as domestic birds in the same way as other livestock.
        Once released they are classified as wild birds.
        I assume this change of status from being classified as a domestic bird to a wild bird ensures that those who engage in game shooting can’t then be accused of causing unnecessary suffering to a “kept animal” during a shoot, which they might if the bird was still classified as a domestic bird?
        I understand poultry farmers/breeders are entitled to compensation should their stock be culled following an outbreak of avian flu.
        So does this mean that those who import game birds as eggs or chicks and then raise them to be sold and released as game birds also qualify for compensation should their birds be culled before release?
        Now, I might be wrong but this appears to me to a crafty manipulation of the status of certain game birds so that during the rearing process those from the shooting industry who import and rear the birds are entitled to compensation from the public purse should their birds be culled, and then once released they magically become wild birds to be shot for no other real purpose than to provide a pastime for a fee paying shooting clientele.
        It is only right that poultry farmers who provide food for the nation should be entitled to compensation if their stock is culled.
        But should game bird producers who are only providing birds for a small minority to shoot also be entitled to compensation from the public purse if their stock is culled?
        These birds have very little value to the nation as food. The fact that there are so many reports of these birds being dumped raises questions about just how many birds actually end up as food, which is the claim made by the shooting industry.
        By passing what could perhaps be described as “Magicians Law” to magically change game birds from domestic birds to wild birds and back again appears to me to be yet another example of certain politicians looking after the interests of their friends!!
        I wonder which DEFRA Minister was in post at the time??

        (sorry Ruth, bit of a tangent – but it is loosely linked to avian flu, game birds and politicians!)

  7. I notice that he admits that these birds, when released are “wild” birds which maybe takes us back to the argument of non indigenous species being released into the wild?

  8. The whole livestock and wildlife question has got to be sorted out. Whether taken legally or illegally who dumps the bodies in plain sight especially if you have taken them illegally. As for the possible lowering of import rules re time, is this something else we need to learn to live with until the jump to humans is made and then blame the EU.

  9. The fact is that the dumped game birds present a risk, both of spreading Avian flu and a health hazard to humans, plus any animals that feed of them subsequently. They may also contaminate the environment. It is unacceptable to dismiss these as being unconnected to the game shooting nutters.

  10. Again! Was there ever any better pics (actually showing intact carcasses) of the “river dumping”? The poor pics a few folk got so excited about showed wings and feathers. What looked liked remains of fresh dumped food prep. Were there any actually carcasses pictured, removed, identified, or tested for AI? How would dead non infected birds get, spread or be risk of AI? Any more risk to health than the usual drowned floating, bloated decaying 45kg sheep carcass’s that no one cares about ? This is just so much more misinformation, speculation and accusations with so little evidence! From some that claim to be knowledgeable professionals, that should know better pushing an agenda! Facts matter! . . . Random dead swans be floating in a local rivers for weeks in popular visitor spots my way. Plenty have flagged them up. Nobody cares! Be different if reported as raptors or game. Being predated on by birds, animals and pets.

    1. Steve,
      You are correct – facts do matter.
      Did you read the informative post from Lizzybusy which outlined the legislation regarding the dumping of animal waste and carcasses?
      By your own admission you are accepting that the pictures show what looks like the remains of “fresh dumped food prep”- your words.
      This would suggest you are accepting that the game birds were shot and then taken into human possession, and the edible parts removed to be consumed as food?
      My understanding is that wild animals belong to no one and are not treated in law as a property.
      However, once shot and the carcass collected then it becomes “property”.
      For example a grouse flying wild on the moors doesn’t belong to the land owner. But once that grouse has been shot, and collected during a shoot then it belongs to the estate. It has become “property”, and it would be an offence to steal the carcass or destroy or damage it without the owners permission.
      So these game birds once shot and collected belong to someone. They are property and it would be an offence to steal or destroy such possessions.
      With that right to ownership, also come responsibilities.

      Animal by-products (ABP) are animal carcasses, parts of a carcass or products of animal origin that are not intended for human consumption.
      As Lizzy points the law regarding animal carcasses is complicated as there are various regulations, but it has been suggested that the unwanted parts of the dead game birds, once any meat had been removed would most probably be classed as ABP’s. As such, the handling, use and disposal of animal by-products is controlled by the Animal by-products Regulations.

      I think we all agree the pictures showed dead unwanted parts of game birds that had recently been in human possession, and as such were property, and then deliberately discarded.
      This is a completely different from a dead wild swan which has drowned in a river and which belonged to no one.
      A dead sheep would be classed as fallen stock, and there is legislation and advice from the UK government regarding the disposal of fallen stock. I think you will find most farmers are very diligent at following these guidelines. However, there will be times, particularly with rough grazing sheep, that an animal will die, and the farmer will be completely unaware. I would therefore suggest the analogy with the “drowned floating, bloated decaying 45kg sheep carcass” is a bit of a red herring.

      In your post you state- “How would dead non infected birds get, spread or be risk of AI”.
      Perhaps you could explain, how you know that these birds were not infected by avian flu?
      I believe in your post you ask the question whether these dead birds were tested for AI?
      So, if you accept the birds were not tested- how then can you state with any authority that the birds were not infected with AI?

      I think from all the current observations taking place that avian flu is a matter of considerable risk to both wild birds and domestic poultry. It is of such risk, that the UK government has deemed it necessary to bring all domestic poultry and captive birds inside to reduce the risk of these birds catching AI from wild birds.
      Or are you disputing this?
      I would therefore suggest that there is fairly high probability of the risk that avian flu could be present in wild game birds, just as it is in the general wild bird population.

      Recent reports from the Animal and Plant Health Agency have indicated that avian flu has now spread from birds to wild mammals. The scientists who have reported this, have suggested that it would appear this cross species infection has come from animals scavenging on the dead carcasses of wild birds infected with avian flu.

      We also know from extensive medical research how virus mutate, and so there is a risk that this current strain of avian flu could mutate and pose a risk to humans, even though at the moment we are a long way from a Covid type pandemic.
      So Baroness Bennet asked a very proper question of the government, when she asked about the risk of avian flu being spread by shot, dumped game birds.

      The issue here is that a very irresponsible individual has shot some game birds, taken those game birds into their possession and removed the edible parts and then dumped the remains, even though there is a considerable risk they will be scavenged by other wild animals, and despite all the risks that this could spread avian flu.
      This individual has completely ignored all the guidance offered by the BASC regarding game birds, and it would also appear completely ignored all the regulations regarding the disposal of dead animal carcasses.
      This isn’t “misinformation, speculation and accusations with so little evidence”.
      It is something which has happened, and something which any responsible shooter simply wouldn’t do.
      It also points to the fact that the umbrella organisations which represent the shooting industry have very little control over the actions of individual shooters, and this is why self regulation simply won’t work.
      If you disagree, then please reply, and demonstrate with evidence and facts why you disagree.

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