Nearly three million pheasant and partridge chicks have been imported into Scotland from overseas battery farms to be shot at sporting estates in recent years, The Ferret can reveal.
Imported gamebirds and hatching eggs are sourced from European factory farms with cramped battery cage conditions, before being sent on long journeys to UK sporting estates to be shot by paying clients.
The conditions many birds endure have prompted animal welfare campaigners to claim the sporting industry is supporting “appalling levels of industrial farming” and “excessive cruelty”. They also claimed that releasing non-native species like pheasants and partridges en masse damages Scotland’s ecology.
But shooting advocates argue that gamebird shooting is a longstanding tradition important to Scotland’s rural economy, which can have ecological benefits if managed correctly. One shooting group said the industry was moving away from a reliance on imported chicks and would rear more gamebirds in Scotland.
The Ferret used freedom of information law to obtain import data from the European Commission’s animal tracing systems, via the UK Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency.
It showed that 2,775,009 birds were brought to Scotland over the last five years. Some 1,994,949 hatching eggs and 780,060 day-old pheasant and partridge chicks were imported between January 2018 and April 2022. Nearly all came from France.
French battery farms which export gamebirds to the UK were condemned in April after the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) revealed the cramped conditions that thousands of birds are kept in.
A 2016 BBC investigation also found that tens of thousands of birds were held in cramped cages and that some had been cannibalised or pecked to death by other birds. Ferry firms boycotted bird shipments following lobbying by animal welfare groups, leaving Eurotunnel trains as the last company transporting chicks from France to the UK.
One group said chicks from some farms were transported for ten hours before even reaching the Eurotunnel.
There have been reports of shot birds being left to rot, and carcasses being dumped across Scotland, including in Angus, the Borders and Perthshire. According to one study, six in 10 pheasants released for shooting in the UK are not shot due to premature death from disease, starvation, being eaten by predators, or leaving estates.
There are also concerns over the impact of farmed birds on the Scottish environment.
One study found that managing gamebirds’ breeding and feeding habitats, controlling predators, and releasing farmed birds could have a significant impact on biodiversity.
Another found that gamebird carcasses can boost the number of predators which can threaten native species, but added that management for game shooting tended to increase the numbers or diversity of plants and some animals.
Critics of gamebird imports include Green MSP Mark Ruskell who called it “unsustainable and cruel”, adding that he had “serious concerns about the scale and the numbers of birds being imported” and the conditions the birds are kept in. Ruskell said: “There is a growing case for stronger regulations of imports and the licensing of gamebirds.”
The League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) Scotland claimed imported chicks were “released into the wild, with no idea how to fend for themselves, before being shot for entertainment”, a practice it deemed “abhorrent.”
Robbie Marsland, LACS Scotland’s director, said: “Most of these birds will be simply discarded like bits of rubbish once paying guns have had their fun. The shooting industry would have us believe gamebirds live a wholesome, organic life before being shot and passed into the food chain, but this PR gloss is nothing but absolute nonsense.”
Television presenter Chris Packham of nature charity Wild Justice, stressed that because gamebird farms are located in France, “we have little control over the animal welfare standards”.
But the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) argued that imported gamebirds were kept in larger pens when they arrived in Scotland, were “gradually introduced to natural conditions” before release, and well-fed.
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) conceded that gamebird shoots had become “overly reliant” on chick imports, but stressed the shooting industry recognised that rearing birds in Scotland must increase.
“This is already happening in some areas and will accelerate at pace,” a spokesman for SGA said. “Like all land uses, including poorly executed conservation, there are trade-offs with gamebird shooting. The game sector promotes best practice and carries out education initiatives to encourage shoots to create the conditions where those positives override any potential negatives.”
The Scottish Government said it “takes animal welfare very seriously” and gamebirds are protected by the Scottish animal welfare act, and a sporting code of practice.
Bird flu sees gamebird shoots scaled back
UK gamebird shoots have been cancelled or significantly scaled back this year due to import bans following the UK’s largest ever bird flu outbreak. The avian influenza also emerged in a French region which is a major supplier to the UK gamebird market.
RSPB urged the UK Government to temporarily ban the release of millions of gamebirds “to make sure we’re not playing Russian roulette with the health of our wild bird populations.” The charity says the outbreak has killed thousands of great skuas across Scotland already, as well as gannets and other wild birds.
Chris Packham said: “That we would allow the import of these birds when they’re possibly infected is absurd. If we said that we wanted to import a herd of cows from an area with foot and mouth, it just wouldn’t be allowed. But once again, it’s because it’s the shooting fraternity that it’s progressing.”
The SGA said its members receive biosecurity updates from the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. Avian Flu had not been found at Scottish game farms or in wild grouse species, a spokesman stressed. “Should there be any cases identified, we would, of course, encourage that all the relevant biosecurity measures are carried out to the letter of the law.”
Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), which represents landowners, highlighted that the Scottish Government’s wildlife agency, NatureScot, said there was no evidence of the spread of avian influenza to wild birds from gamebirds.
It highlighted a study which found that shooting is worth £200m to the Scottish economy and supports the equivalent of 8,800 full-time jobs.
“Provided those shoots who have been able to acquire gamebirds follow biosecurity protocols, we see no reason why the season should not continue this year,” an SLE spokesman said.