The Common Pheasant – livestock or wild bird?

Wild Justice is challenging the General Licence GL26 issued by Natural England to authorise the killing of Carrion Crows to prevent serious damage to livestock. Natural England chose to include gamebirds with livestock such as lambs and piglets in this licence.

The legal status of the Pheasant is complex and in this licence it appears that Natural England have made it even more contentious.

Captive gamebirds are livestock, just like captive chickens or captive turkeys. This works in the Pheasant’s favour if it is one of the millions of day-old chicks imported from the continent to stock shooting estates in the UK, or if it is a Pheasant in a rearing facility. As livestock, then the same animal welfare provisions apply to a Pheasant as to a domestic fowl. So a Pheasant needs space, and food, and water etc. All fair enough.

When Pheasants, in their tens of millions (and Red-legged Partridges in their millions) are released into the countryside they suddenly stop being livestock and become wild birds. This is largely because it would be a bit legally tricky to chase Pheasants out of a wood (as livestock) and then shoot at them for recreational pleasure and with high crippling rates if they were still livestock. As wild birds they can be shot in the open season and as wild birds they don’t have an owner any more. This is convenient for their former owner because if his (or her) Pheasants eat your vegetables in your garden or cause a serious, maybe even fatal, road traffic accident then it’s a wild bird not someone’s livestock for which they are responsible.

So that is how I have understood the situation to be and it makes a certain amount of sense although it also seems to be a legal situation which was written specifically to protect the interests of the shooting industry.

There is one further twist; at the end of the shooting season some shoots catch up survivors from the season and take them back into captivity to form part of the breeding stock for next year’s releases. This is apparently lawful although, again, it seems like a situation designed for the benefit of the shooting industry. I can’t go around catching wild birds and taking them into captivity but with Pheasants you can, apparently.

So a lucky long-lived Pheasant can be imported or bred in captivity as livestock, be released as a wild bird and shot at, be taken back into captivity and be part of the breeding stock and then be released as a wild bird again. It’s a situation which I have come to think of as Schrodinger’s Pheasant.

But Natural England’s General Licence GL26 which seeks to authorise the lethal control of Carrion Crows to prevent serious damage to livestock muddies these waters considerably. According to the situation described above, Pheasants are either captive and livestock or released and wild birds which is a bit unusual but, as I say, makes a certain amount of sense.

General Licence GL26 seeks to extend the definition of Pheasants (and partridges) as livestock to those birds that are released, ones you may see in a field or running irritatingly around on the road in front of you, if they occasionally return to their release pens to take a peck of food before heading back into the countryside.

I cannot understand where Natural England got this idea. It appears to muddy the waters considerably and unhelpfully. It’s almost as though it were done to extend the period under which Pheasants are livestock in order to extend the crow-killing period. Why would Natural England want to do that? But I wonder whether it also has the effect of putting owners of Pheasants causing damage to others’ property, or causing road traffic accidents, in the position of being liable for the impacts of their livestock? Is that really what the shooting industry wants? And what about those Pheasants that are still going back to be fed now and again when the shooting season opens? Crippling someone’s livestock as it hurtles through the air doesn’t sound like it is legal to me?

It’s a mess, and Wild Justice challenges General Licence GL26 because it’s a mess. It seems to us to be a mess that doesn’t work for Pheasants, for Carrion Crows, for the shooting industry or for the road user or gardener.

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31 Replies to “The Common Pheasant – livestock or wild bird?”

  1. Thank you, Mark for clarifying ( as much as is possible!) the situation. I’ve never been able to get my head round this before! Does any other country have a similar ‘law’, or is just us Barmy Brits?!

    1. It is probably just us Brits that have such convoluted law as I’m fairly sure that in most other countries birds aren’t released into the wild just so they can be shot. The craziest part of the law is that is illegal to release a non native species, animal, invertebrate, plant, whatever into the countryside. The only exception to this law is, yes you’ve guessed it, pheasants and partridge. These birds can be released anywhere, no matter what conservation designations an area may have. This was brought home to me a couple of years when a landowner close to where I live started releasing pheasants into a remnant of the Caledonian Forest which is a National Nature Reserve, a SSSI and a Special Area of Conservation designated under E.U. law. All of these conservation designations were irrelevant and what he was doing was perfectly legal.

  2. Absurd unregulated release of livestock to range free on other’s property, potentially causing damage without liability to the owners is at odds with common sense and surely the law.
    Note ‘Identification of farmed livestock, including equines but not poultry or waterfowl, is a legal requirement in the UK (and the EU generally) and the movements of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs must be recorded both on farm and centrally.’
    So surely tagging of birds prior to release would be a way to identify the owners of birds causing damage to property or causing road traffic accidents etc.? As it stands it truly is absurd to treat free ranging Pheasants or Partridge as livestock.

    1. Yes and having an bird with an missing tag would be an heinous crime against your Basic Payment so you would lose an percentage of it for the first bird and then escalating amounts for subsequent ones until very quickly your BP is £nothing. Result.

  3. What a mess as you say Mark. The whole thing is completely out of proportion and control. When I drive or walk in the Chilterns I see more pheasants than any other bird. I shudder to think of the damage and distortion to our native ecology that all these non native birds must be doing.
    The release of pheasants and other non native game birds into our countryside should be totally banned, as it is in Holland. The remaining pheasants could be shot so as to gradually reduce their numbers so that in the end there are no pheasants to shoot and our native ecology can start to recover. This is now the practice in Holland. Why should any native bird, including crows, be killed in preference to non native pheasants, that is not right.
    Hopefully one day when we get a decent forward looking Government which does not bend over backwards to support and encourage the shooters as does the current one, the U.K. will be dragged screaming and shouting in line with Holland.
    I would suggest, Mark, that once driven grouse shooting is banned that your campaign after that should then be the banning of the release into our countryside of non native game birds for shooting.

  4. What this absurdity and these legalistic gymnastics prove is the way the law and government policy works Re: powerful vested interests and the interests of the upper echelons of the establishment. First you let the upper echelons of the establishment and the big landowners have exactly what they want and demand. Because nothing can be allowed to interfere with their damaging, expensive, biodiversity destroying cruel hobbies. Then you put in place the convoluted legalistic policy to facilitate it, regardless of the blatant inconsistencies and mutual contradictions, because it’s essential for these people to have whatever they demand. Not forgetting turning a blatant blind eye to all their persistent wildlife crime.

    Yes, they may be introducing huge numbers of an incredibly damaging invasive alien species, with all the serious risk of spreading bird flu etc. Sure this is a greater biomass than the rest of our native breeding bird population combined. Okay they cause massive damage to our native biodiversity, which is also massacred on an industrial scale to protect these pests. It doesn’t matter that they cause traffic accidents, cause huge damage to crops, people’s gardens and pollute the quiet with their incessant squawking. As long as the Hooray Henry’s, the Ruperts, and their lesser CA minions have their fun spraying huge quantities of toxic heavy metals all over our countryside, it really doesn’t matter. So what if most of the public disapprove because they’re just a bunch of smelly plebs, and the superior people have got to be allowed to have what they want.

    1. I have, without success tried to get data on accidents caused by peasants flying into cars, without success. But it must be considerable, even if it is often only minor bumps and scrapes. And it is possible, /likely that human injuries are also involved. At the time of release they are often extremely unwary, wandering across roads etc.
      This plus the disease risks that their release potentially unleashes, should be more than enough to put paid to the practice. It is, after all very little different to trap shooting of pigeons, which was banned nearly a century ago,

      1. Maybe ask some mechanics. In the same way that surveys of A&E show much higher rates of knife crime than police stats, as so much knife crime isn’t reported.

    2. Thanks for that. A couple of things to add to that already very long list, I think they need to be very near the top of reasons why this has been a disaster for wildlife, but aren’t mentioned as often as they might – so I do it every opportunity I can! These birds to a large extent will be artificially fed like livestock, but let loose for shooting so most will not actually end up anywhere near an oven or dinner plate. That represents an enormous waste of the agricultural land used to grow the cereal for pheasant and red legged partridge, land that was intensively farmed and rendered almost wildlife free for absolutely no practical purpose, but the logic free whim of a cult. Soymeal a derivative of soya is also used. Are pheasant and RL partridge shoots driving rain forest destruction? Seems very likely, even driven grouse shooting doesn’t do that.

      Then there has been the woodland and other habitats where ground flora and invertebrates have been displaced by non native invasive plants such as rhododendron, cherry laurel, snowberry, salmonberry, cotoneaster and Japanese rose. This means a greatly reduced base for the food pyramid and a reduction of everything above it both greenfinches and sparrowhawk, butterflies and bats. All of these plants and probably more have been planted out historically to provide cover for gamebirds. It’s not clear how many of current wildlife eradicating infestations are due to shooting (probably a lot) and a study of that would be a good idea, but what’s very clear is that nurseries are still selling known invasive plant species as cover for game and this one even describes snowberry and cherry laurel as good for wildlife! Hopefully SNH has had a little word with them as they told me they would

  5. You rightly say ‘As livestock, then the same animal welfare provisions apply to a Pheasant as to a domestic fowl. So a Pheasant needs space, and food, and water etc.’ However, meeting the pheasant’s behavioural needs in the form of enhanced cages, the like of which are mandatory for laying hens, is only a recommendation (Para 6.11 of the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Game Birds Reared for Sporting Purposes ( A high proportion of brood pheasants, particularly those located in France where many pheasant poults or hatching eggs destined for British release, are reared in conditions that are banned for other birds. They might be ‘livestock’ when it’s convenient but it doesn’t mean they are afforded the conditions of other species of livestock.

  6. Re Shrodinger’s Common Pheasant, there is also Heisenberg’s Uncertain Partridge. (Photons come to mind – they can be either waves or particles depending on which way you observe them.)

    This new GL amendment is a car crash waiting to happen.
    NE needs pre-emptive help from a quantum mechanic.
    Or better still, just wait for Wild Justice to come to the rescue.

  7. Have any scientific studies been carried out on the impact of pheasants on native species? How shooting reared pheasants can even be deemed as sport certainly beats me. Hunting wild jungle fowl in their native habitat would require vastly more skill than is required for shooting pheasants which are reared in the same way as poultry.

    1. Toby – not enough studies. But I happen to know that a review will be appearing in British Birds in July.

      1. I hope it also includes the impact of the hundreds of tons of lead that have been dumped in the natural environment, farmland etc, and how much ends up injested by wildlife, or entering the human food chain. All interesting topics.

    2. It’s about as much sport as hoiking stock rainbow trout out of a pond, with weird rules such as not tying a trout food pellet to your hook but luring them to snap at a confection of pheasant pheather phibres cunningly tied to resemble something insecty as if that is their natural food whereas all they ever ate was trout pellets. And for your trouble the miserable phish are scarred by cormorant beaks and taste of mud.

      1. I’ve watched rainbow trout being stocked into a nearby lowland loch. The diagnostic squared tail and pellet fed bloatedness of artificially reared fish, photos of angler’s with their proud catches in the fishing lodge show them holding fish that either look seriously diseased or if somebody’s taken a bicycle pump and tried to make them resemble footballs. Would be funny if it wasn’t so obscene. A wildlife photographer tells me there are rumours of night time cormorant shooting there and he knows to keep quiet about the local otter.

  8. A couple of years ago the Law Commission set out to review wildlife law.

    There were some serious issues – in particular the conflict between protecting individuals against protecting populations – and linked to that the interpretation of EU regs into domestic law.

    But it is almost certain that the reason the review was abandoned and seems to have disappeared was around the issues you are now exploring.

    Which would not be a particular problem were it not for the taking of an activity – pheasant shooting – to absurd and damaging lengths, a typical example of the excesses of American style capitalism.

    1. Not American style capitalism. It is Victorian style class system. The Tory party, in Parliament and at large, have never really gotten over the loss of the Victorian era class system and land related rights.

  9. I seem to remember a fairly recent court case where it was deemed that a pheasant was still live stock shortly after release as it could and would return to its pen for feed. This is presumably why NE include this scenario in GL26.

  10. Here’s a thought. Maybe, to demonstrate good faith, the shooting industry could charge a levy on businesses in order to build a pheasant compensation fund.

    Let’s see, pheasant accidents probably range in cost from perhaps a tenner for a second hand replacement car part up to tens of millions in cases of fatality or life-changing injury. There are somewhere in the order of 2-10 million accidents a year. So I guess the fund would need to support annual payouts in the billions.

    As we constantly hear that shooting is the foundation of the rural economy, it should be able to gather such funds without undue hardship. And it’ll be a small price to pay for clarifying that it’s OK to shoot crows (or maybe rooks) non-stop.

  11. I would contend that, unlike any native wildlife, pheasants clearly deserve the epithet “vermin”. I know that one adder reintroduction scheme by my local Wildlife Trust has been destroyed by their predation by pheasant released by neighbouring shoots.

    If there is a requirement for pheasant in our food chain then there is no reason why they cannot be reared in the same way that chickens, turkeys and ducks are reared for the table. This would have significant benefits: 1) production would meet demand; 2) no lead shot; 3) no predation issues; 4) no stink pits / pyres / middens; 5) no need to kill real wildlife to “protect” them.

    People wanting to shoot – clays

  12. Pheasants are like that other domestic pet, the cat. The owners want it all ways. To not deal with the inconveniences (in the case of cats, shitting on other people’s property, damage to other people’s property, loss of genuine livestock in the form of hens and loss of wildlife) but also to get all the perks. In the case of cats, they can sue anyone who adopts their “pet” and can sue if someone else deals with the inconveniences too.

    Both pheasants and cats need their legal status changed so that their owners have to finally take responsibility. And if that means fewer people are able to keep either of them, then so be it. Feature, not bug.

  13. I note in BBC Wildlife that our most Common Mammal, Field Vole has an estimated population of 60 million. That really puts tens of million pheasant into context.
    This is a terrible inbalance and urgently needs reviewing

    1. If I recall correctly Mark Cocker in ‘Our Place’ claimed that the total biomass of released gamebirds in the UK was equivalent to letting a million Thomson’s gazelles loose each year. The consequences of that in so many areas is staggering, and usually being swept under the carpet.

  14. Perhaps WildJustice could look at the opportunity this would appear to present to mount prosecutions for animal cruelty. Surely releasing animals thousands of whom you know will suffer violent deaths in collision with road vehicles must breach animal welfare provisions if they are still livestock after release – the carnage (I use the A40 through Glos and Oxon year round) is always worse shortly after initial release.

    The sanctions against offenders under this legislation are quite severe I believe.

  15. Mark – you think Natural England’s interpretation of wild animal is messy – then think again!

    In the Spring edition of Keeping the Balance 2014, Matthew Knight, legal commentator for the NGO, discussed the issue of wild verses livestock game in an assessment of when dead game can be used as bait in stink pits.

    According to Matthew Knight the difference between a wild game bird and a livestock gamebird is the intention of the killer. So game birds shot purely for “shooting sports” (but not for food) or game animals which are “culled” are wild animals but game birds shot for food are livestock (although he doesn’t explicitly use the word “livestock”) and so are subject to the specific authorised disposal procedures approved under the Animal By-Products Regulations (which do’t include stink pits as a means of disposal.) I think his interpretation is wrong as it doesn’t clearly address the element of a livestock animal being “kept” or not kept.

    This is the quote:

    “Whether or not an animal is a wild animal is a question of fact. In most cases it will be obvious. For example, wild birds that have never been owned or controlled are wild animals. Pheasants bred for the food chain, albeit reared in the open and then shot on a game shoot, may be covered by the Animal By-Products Order and so cannot just be buried if not used for food. Defra and the EU have so far tended to view gamebirds that have been released into the wild as wild and thus outside the scope of the Order (Animal By Products Regulations) but the position is uncertain. Defra suggests:

    “Where there is doubt, some of the considerations to take into account in deciding whether or not something is a wild animal are:

     has the animal ever been fed by man?
     has it ever been managed by man, or received veterinary attention from man?
     has man ever established artificial boundaries that it cannot ordinarily pass?

    Even if “Yes” is the answer to all or some of these questions, it is still possible that the animal is, or may have subsequently become a wild animal. This will be a question of fact in each case.”

    So, which dead animals are exempt from the Order and may be used in middens, buried or indeed just left where they died? Clearly this would apply to dead rats, rabbits, crows and foxes resulting from predator and pest control activities. It would also apply to dead wild game species, grouse, pheasants, partridges, rabbits and deer, where these are not intended for the human food chain and are wild at the point of kill arising from culling and shooting sports.”

  16. What it proves is that we live in a land owned and run by aristos and the mega rich. Natural England has to lick their arses and do as it is told.

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