A week tomorrow the Wild Justice judicial review of the legality of releasing tens of millions of non-native gamebirds, without ensuring that those releases will not damage sites of conservation importance, will take place.
The legal arguments are best left to lawyers but the science is open to anyone to inspect and comment upon. Here are some points:
- around 60 million captive-bred Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges are released into the countryside each year (except, not this year) – these figures have gone up since we started this legal challenge (and are GWCT figures)
- although Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges (RLPS) have been shot for many years the number of released birds has increased something like tenfold in the last 50 years
- the GWCT website says ‘There are legitimate questions relating to the release of pheasants for shooting and impacts on habitats and wildlife.‘
- the most clearly documented impacts of high numbers of Pheasants (and RLPs presumably, but there is far less information on them) are in terms of physical disturbance of soils, browsing of vegetation, predation on invertebrates and nutrient pollution from droppings.
- although there are codes of practice as regards release densities of birds, these are not well-respected and often stocking densities are severalfold higher than recommended
- Pheasant preddation on small vertebrates such as lizards and snakes is a subject of growing concern
- lead ammunition is a well-documented environmental problem for wildlife and simply as a pollutant, and shooting at Pheasants and RLPs is the major source of lead ammunition in the countryside as the numbers shot (and those shot at but missed) outnumber all other game put together.
- Non-native gamebirds are a potential and actual source of disease and disease transmission for native wildlife
- dead gamebirds, squashed on the road or dying of disease, starvation, injury from non-lethal shooting and predation are likely to boost the populations of scavengers and predators with likely knock-on impacts on other prey species
There are other things, but that is quite a long list already. A recent review by Madden and Sage confirmed all of those things as potential concerns and some of them as proven impacts particularly where gamebird numbers are high. Madden and Sage said very little about the uplands (despite Pheasant numbers increasing more rapidly in the uplands than elsewhere), very little about RLPs and very little about lead ammunition.
And so we must see gamebird releases as a known ecological assault on UK wildlife, the full range of mechanisms mechanisms of which remain to be fully investigated (particularly of RLPs and of both species in the uplands), but which has grown massively in our lifetimes because the numbers of birds released has increased very greatly. All of this is essentially unregulated at the moment. Wild Justice’s challenge is that the UK is not meeting the requirements of the Habitats Directive by not addressing gamebird releases through appropriate assessment.
This challenge started in July 2019 and was refreshed in February this year due to lack of visible progress from DEFRA.
We’ll see what happens next week in court.