Hunting is a contentious subject and can raise a lot of emotions on both sides. But moving aside from the morality of hunting, what is the effect on the environment of releasing captive-bred gamebirds like pheasants and red-legged partridges?
Our friends over at Wild Justice have been working for years for tighter controls on gamebird releases close to protected sites, because of the hugely detrimental effect that a large amount of non-native gamebirds can have on our ecosystems. They have been looking at why licences are being granted for release, against the recommendations of environmental experts.
Native or not, dumping a lot of birds all at once in an area can overwhelm ecosystems. Estimates range up to about 60 million birds just for shooting a year. For reference, we’ve lost 73 million wild birds since 1970. If our countryside can sustain so many, then why is it that we have 60 million pheasants and grouse instead of beloved native species like the turtle dove and the hen harrier?
This amount of birds can overwhelm native wild populations by taking food that other birds or mammals would have eaten, and also by eating frogs and lizards, which are in decline across the UK, and specifically linked to pheasants. Our small mammal, reptile and amphibian populations are being decimated.
Along with taking food that could be feeding our British wildlife, pheasants and grouse are themselves food for mid-range carnivores such as foxes. The abundant numbers mean that the numbers of these midsize predators has sky-rocketed, artificially inflated by the captive-bred birds. The large amount of predators are then able to predate on other species, such as curlew.
Lead ammunition used in shooting contaminates and pollutes the soil and water, as well as the droppings. With avian flu around, having such a vast amount of free-ranging birds, especially near Special Protected Areas, means that diseases are more likely to be spread.
All of these things make it clear that the way and the scale at which pheasant and grouse shooting is done at the moment is incompatible with rewilding. If we want healthy habitats capable of sustaining native species, with balanced levels all along the predator / prey range, then this can’t continue. If we want to rewild, that means putting natural processes in place that will benefit many species. Releasing 60 million non-native birds into that doesn’t work.
There have been arguments that habitats maintained for gamebirds can have positive ecological effects by maintaining woodlands and hedgerows. However, if we as a country delivered on our commitment to rewild 30% of the country, then woodlands and hedgerows would be abundant without the necessity of releasing invasive species just to be shot.
There needs to be a serious review of what is happening with these licences and what our priority as a country is. Is it rewilding our habitats and restoring native wildlife? Or hunting?