This week's note from Douglas Batchelor, Chief Executive.
The process of government can throw up some quite fascinating results. This week was a good example. In opposition, shadow DEFRA Minister James Paice MP indicated that he was not at all happy with the proposed Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds Reared for Sporting Purposes drawn up by the last Government. Some people in the gamebird rearing lobby welcomed the new Minister’s comments and assumed that the Code of Practice was going to be torn up. But government doesn’t quite work like that.
The Code of Practice had gone through a long consultation process which is science and evidence based. The end result was a Code which has - or would have had - legal standing under the Animal Welfare Act. Anyone found not to be following the Code could have been prosecuted for cruelty and would have had to show, if their way of doing the job was different, why their way was better and did not compromise the welfare of the birds.
The Minister was not happy with the Code, and so he pulled it. So far, so bad. The question for the Minister then was, on what basis could a different Code be agreed? Not only did the Minister have to have a reasonable reason for pulling the code in the first place, he also had to have a reasonable alternative to propose. Ministers’ decisions can be taken to judicial review, and if their actions are found by the court not to be reasonable, they are obliged to think again.
The whole gamebird industry has a major welfare problem. More laying gamebirds are kept in cages for egg production than battery hens. Yet the gamebird industry tries to present its end products of pheasants and partridges as being the nearest thing to organic, free-range poultry production, when the truth is that this is a high intensity production line, based on using birds bred to survive in the wild after eventual release and not best suited to being kept in captivity.
When it comes to developing a Code designed to define good practice with the rearing of gamebirds to be used as live targets, the general welfare needs of the birds must be met while they are in captivity. The major problem that the whole industry has is that welfare needs as described in the ‘five freedoms’ have demonstrably not been met.
Gamebirds kept for breeding purposes have in many cases been kept in barren raised cages, the design of many of which has not been such as to meet the five basic welfare needs of the birds. There are problems all the way down the line with practices such as beak trimming and the use of bits and brailes to discourage pecking and aggression when birds are kept in close proximity, and there are problems in the pens in which the birds are kept when the environment is often poor and unenriched. Birds reared in such welfare impoverished conditions tend to do less well and are clearly unsuited to life in the wild when they are eventually released.
The Code of Conduct will lead to a gradual improvement in conditions for some gamebirds, at least up till the point of release into the wild. On the plus side the Code introduces a requirement to keep records and to work out and regularly review health plans with a veterinary surgeon. The Code introduces a statutory requirement to inspect birds twice a day in the breeding season and at least once a day outside the season while birds are in captivity. It introduces sensible health and quarantine restrictions in relation to bringing in new birds, and the Code places a clear duty of care on keepers to minimise the risk of subsequent harm or injury, for example by predators or vehicles.
Quite clearly many gamekeepers do all that they can to eliminate all possible predators in proximity to their rearing operations, but as we all know that is also closely associated with the use of snares, which are both cruel and indiscriminate and is also frequently associated with raptor persecution both by shooting and by illegal poisoning. Their efforts are largely ineffectual in reducing predation simply because as soon as one predator is despatched a territory is vacated and a replacement predator moves in. The mass release of thousands of birds used to walking around looking for feeders and drinkers on the ground is an open invitation to any predator. These birds don’t fly, they walk and they run until the beaters encourage them to take to the wing.
The Code does end the use of what are called barren raised cages, but permits the use of ‘enriched’ cages. There is not and has not been sufficient research to determine what would constitute a suitable level of ‘enrichment’ such as to ensure the good welfare of the birds. Any person using a supposedly enriched cage system, where there is demonstrably poor bird welfare, is going to be in severe difficulties. By definition they would not be able to point to any scientifically validated body of work or a code of practice which substantiated their working practice.
The Code stops far short of banning the use of bits and brailes, beak trimming and brailing, and simply requires that keepers work towards the ideal of management systems that do not require these devices and practices. In essence the Code makes it clear that while these practices are not to be commended on welfare grounds it only requires keepers to work towards doing without them. This is a classic in the sense that it is widely acknowledged that the techniques are being used in an attempt to offset other problems caused by the way in which the birds are being kept and to compensate for the effect of poor environments and lack of space.
Finally when the walking birds end up on the highways and bye ways, they cause accidents, but no one is the responsible owner of the birds because they are supposedly by that time wild. At least the Code does now require that the keeper seek to minimise accidents with vehicles, which does suggest that if release pens and feeders are sited close to roads, the keepers could be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act for failing in their duty of care for the wild birds. That could prove to be very interesting in the lead up to the next shooting season.
So the Minister has reviewed the Code and as a result there will be a revised Code which will make prosecutions under the Animal Welfare Act much easier. It will come as something of a shock to many keepers that offences under the Act are imprisonable and that the fines can be very substantial indeed. While the Code falls far short of what we would argue is good welfare for captive birds, it does at least provide a means of bringing much more pressure to bear to improve the welfare of the birds on this bloodsports target production line. It would be so much better for the birds if the whole bloody business just ceased, but I suppose that is an argument for another day.