Game over for UK shooting season as bird flu and Brexit take a heavy toll

Bird flu has managed to do to game shooting what animal rights activists have been trying to achieve for decades – with a little help from Brexit.

Dozens of pheasant and partridge shoots have been called off ahead of the shooting season after an unprecedented outbreak of avian flu in France left gamekeepers in the UK with few birds to rear.

At least 93 gamekeepers have been made redundant so far this year and some shoots are likely to go bankrupt, according to Dominic Boulton, former chair of the Game Farmers’ Association and now its policy adviser.

“That’s 93 families that by and large will have had accommodation that comes with their job, and a vehicle,” he said. “So they may well be facing the loss of everything. There’s going to be a significant number of shoots that don’t go ahead this year.”

About 70% of partridge shoots and nearly a third of planned pheasant shoots may be cancelled this year, according to estimates by Guns On Pegs, a shooting agency.

That means a huge reduction in the 57 million red-legged partridges and pheasants reared and released each year in the UK. Grouse shooting, which heralds the start of the shooting season on 12 August with the “Glorious Twelfth”, will not be affected because grouse are not reared and released.

A red-legged partridge: 57m partridges and pheasants are usually reared in the UK each year.
A red-legged partridge: 57m partridges and pheasants are usually reared in the UK each year. Photograph: TM O Birds/Alamy

Groups such as Wild Justice have campaigned for a reduction in releases, saying that only 30% of the birds are shot and retrieved, which means the survivors indirectly affect protected wildlife. The RSPB says that birds of prey are killed illegally to protect game birds. It also objects to the use of poisonous lead ammunition, which the government is considering outlawing.

This year’s dramatic reduction in game birds will also affect beaters, catering companies and restaurants, Boulton said, adding that 75% of rural land is managed for shooting of some type including game, and the industry is worth about £2.4bn.

The initial signs of disruption came at the end of February when the first case of bird flu was discovered in the Loire valley. “Roughly half of the birds that we rear in this country originate from an egg laid in France,” Boulton said, estimating that about 90% of partridges and 40% of pheasants come from producers, with “virtually all” in the Loire valley.

After avian flu is detected on a farm, the birds are culled and 30 days later the farmer can start trading birds domestically – which for French farmers means within the EU. But international exports must wait for 90 days, under World Organisation for Animal Health guidelines adopted into UK and EU law.

The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO) campaigned for the government to create special licences allowing imports before the 90 days were up. After weeks of negotiations, ministers reached an agreement with the EU for a “bespoke arrangement”, but not France.

“Even if we were still in the EU and operating under the 30-day rule, we would still have been in trouble,” Boulton said, adding that French officials had created false hope among shooters that imports might restart in time. “If you want to start shooting on 1 October [when the pheasant season begins], your birds need to be eight weeks old by the end of June when they can be released into the wild.”

Pheasants
Forty percent of pheasants come from producers. Photograph: blickwinkel/Alamy

The last outbreak in France was detected on 17 May and 16 million farmed birds, including poultry, were culled. By 22 June, there had been 1,464 bird flu cases, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

French farmers have been devastated. Otto Tepasse founded his central London restaurant, Otto’s, on traditional French cuisine. Canard à la Presse is his signature dish, made with Challans ducks from the Maison Burgaud farm in the Loire.

“I have not been serving any duck since it started,” he said. “This farm has been in business since the 1930s and they are the main farm for three-star Michelin restaurants. Now everything has been wiped out.”

The farm was given the all-clear only in mid-July, he said, but they are now trying to find new stock. Diners will have to wait until the end of September before they can eat his pressed duck again.

Bird flu has been reported in 35 European countries in 2022, and the UK saw a near fivefold increase in cases to 122 so far this year.

Free-range eggs were unavailable for five weeks because the outbreaks meant that British chickens had to be kept inside, and last month Defra established a research consortium led by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha) to investigate how to prevent the spread of the virus.

Outbreaks killed thousands of seabirds in the Farne Islands near Northumberland earlier this month, and thousands more gannets, gulls and puffins across Scotland, leading to a ban on visitors to 23 Scottish islands.

The virus spreads from wild birds to captive ones, possibly through droppings and direct contact. One theory of how the virus circulates is that the birds that migrate to the Arctic during the summer then pass it to each other. Birds also mix in central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan on migration routes.

The NGO said it was too early to say how the shooting season would be affected, but its chairman, David Pooler, was pleased with how the government had acted. “We have been assured that the government is trying to put in place measures which would prevent similar incidents from happening again in future.”

A Defra spokesperson said the department had tried to balance the egg trade with the country’s “high standards of biosecurity following this year’s avian influenza outbreak. Unfortunately, due to a range of external factors, it was not possible to put measures in place in time for this year’s shooting season. We are aware this will have an impact, and we are exploring how we can alleviate these pressures going forward.”

The Guardian