What is 'game' bird shooting?

Game bird shooting appears to many as a classic British countryside sport, where wild birds are skilfully shot by marksmen and eaten as part of a delicious home cooked meal.

The reality however, is that investigations, undercover filming, scientific research and economic analysis have all revealed that the perceptions of commercial ‘game’ bird shooting in the UK are deceptive. The financial benefit to the economy is exaggerated, whilst animal welfare laws are exploited, and our environment and landscape are put at risk.  

In terms of the numbers of animals persecuted and killed, no other cruel sport in the UK has such a devastating impact on animals as commercial 'game' bird shooting.

Up to 146,000 pheasants, 5,300 red grouse and 38,300 red-legged partridges are shot every day in the UK, during their respective hunting seasons. However, despite the increasing scale of the shooting industry as represented by greater economic inputs and the increasing density of birds reared and released for shoots, the proportion of birds that are shot is decreasing each year.

What is wrong with 'game' bird shooting?

Canned hunting

In some respects what happens on the day of a ‘game’ bird shooting is similar to what happens in the South African ‘canned’ hunting industry – where animals such as lions are tamed and confined in an enclosed area to make killing them by trophy hunters easier.

Pheasants and partridges which have been farmed, fed and ‘protected’ from predators are released onto shooting estates to be then driven towards paying shooters, by employees called beaters.

With so many guns shooting quickly at so many birds, wounding is common. According to a 2015 shooting industry survey, 76% of shooters were unable to accurately gauge distance, with 10% thinking the target was twice as far away. This inability to judge distances results in up to 40% of birds being wounded, rather than killed outright, according to a former training officer at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Many are left to die slowly when they are not retrieved by people or dogs.

Factory farming and cage breeding

In the UK minimum standards exist for the protection of animals bred or kept for farming. However, it does not apply to ‘animals intended for use in competitions, shows, cultural or sporting events or activities.’ This denies birds farmed for ‘game’ shooting industry even the basic welfare protection given to birds farmed for food, despite the similar rearing conditions.

In fact, since January 2012, barren cages for egg-laying hens have been illegal in the EU. Enrichment including nest boxes, litter, perch space and claw-shortening devices must now be provided, along with slightly more room per bird. However, no minimum legal space or enrichment requirements have been implemented for caged game birds.

Furthermore, many of the 57 million birds released on UK shooting estates are bought from intensive farming systems in European countries. More than five million pheasants and over 2.1 million partridges are were imported live into the UK between 1st May 2018 and 30th April 2019. Furthermore, 54,000 hatching pheasant eggs and 5,250 eggs were imported from the USA during the same period of time. 

These young birds can spend 20 hours or more crammed inside a crate stacked in the back of a lorry travelling from farm to shoot.

Agroup  of caged birds bred for shooting. One of them is dead

Trapping and snaring

In order to minimise predation of ‘game birds’ by native predators and to maximise profit, gamekeepers will set snares to target animals such as foxes, stoats and crows. However, due to the indiscriminate nature of these devices, many non-target protected and endangered species such as badgers and hares, as well as domestic cats, get caught in these traps.

Gamekeepers on grouse shooting moors cull mountain hares due to unwarranted fears that they carry a tick borne virus which kills grouse chicks and are therefore seen as a threat to the grouse shooting industry.

As well as the illegal killing of birds of prey, the Government has now prioritised the safeguarding the profits of the ‘game’ bird shooting industry, over the protection of native British species. Natural England has issued licenses to kill buzzards in order to ‘protect’ pheasant poults from their predation. This Government policy has been strongly criticised by the League, RSPB and conservation experts.

A fox hunging dead in ahole, trapped in a snare

Wildlife crime

Wildlife crime is also associated with the management practices of game bird shooting estates, with birds of prey being illegally persecuted on grouse shooting moors and in pheasant shooting woods. Studies suggest that because offenders do not distinguish between different raptor species, they can have considerable impacts on already vulnerable species.

This is the case with the hen harrier, which is a beautiful bird of prey that should be a common site across the uplands of the UK, and is now on the precipice of extinction as a breeding species in England. According to the RSPB’s most recent report, the illegal persecution of hen harriers - associated with the management of moorland for grouse shooting - is both the leading cause of the hen harrier’s decline, and the most significant obstacle preventing their recovery.

Other bird of prey species, including owls, buzzards, golden eagles and peregrine falcons, have also borne the brunt of this illegal persecution. Badgers have had their setts dug out and even been targeted with poison.

Raptor Persecution UK have documented what they describe as the “relentless and illegal killing of birds of prey in the UK” associated with 'game' bird shooting, which shows clear evidence of systematic raptor persecution.

Environmental destruction

Pheasants and red-legged partridges are not native to the UK, and it is estimated that up to 57 million pheasants and 4,600,000 red-legged partridges are released into the British countryside each year.

There is concern amongst conservationists that the annual mass release of these birds - with a total biomass greater than that of all our native birds combined - has an adverse impact on native wildlife.

A study on trends in the ‘game’ bird shooting industry demonstrates that with the increasing size and intensification of shooting estates comes greater risk to the environment. As a greater proportion of hunters come from urban rather than rural areas, there is a decreasing connection between these shooters and the habitats of their prey.

The consequential increasing intensification of the ‘game’ bird shooting industry, associated with the large-scale release of captive-reared birds and decreasing interest in sustainable management techniques, is likely to have negative implications for the local biodiversity around shooting estates.

Furthermore, studies and recent reports link grouse moor management with environmental degradation, river pollution, contributing to climate change and the potential link between grouse shooting moors and urban flooding.

Overstated economics

Analysis of shooting industry claims that the ‘sport’ brings huge benefits to the UK economy shows massive discrepancies. Their figures include clay shooting and target shooting, which account for over half of the total number of shooting days and participants.  Furthermore, large tax-payer subsidies to shooting estates are included as benefits.

Our briefing paper Shooting Animals for Sport: Worth Less is based on the work done of economic experts who were asked to review two shooting industry reports on the economics of sport shooting (PACEC 2006, 2014). They concluded that the reports contain much information that is not testable and robust data, instead it is biased by opinion submitted by a sample with a stake in the outcomes.

The League Against Cruel Sports believes that, based on the evidence available, 'game' bird shooting is merely a hobby, which results in significant negative consequences for the welfare of both the game birds and wild animals, and the state of the environment.

Simulated pheasant shooting, partridge shooting and grouse shooting – which uses clay discs as an alternative to live birds – can provide substantial investment for rural communities and employment for loaders, technicians, catering staff, garage owners, publicans and landowners. Unlike its live-quarry-counterpart, simulated shooting allows the countryside to be conserved by benefiting all wildlife beyond the red grouse and pheasant whilst still providing economic benefits, without compromising animal welfare or being associated with wildlife crime and environmental damage.

Take action against 'game' bird shooting

Join the League in our endeavours to protect ‘game’ birds by becoming a voice for them. By joining our supporter groups, writing to your MP, or sharing this on your social media to express your concerns, together we can lead the way to a future without animals being persecuted in the name of ‘sport’.


Find Out More

Read our grouse shooting page.

Read our pheasant shooting and partridge shooting page.

Read our Scottish snaring report

Read The Case Against Shooting