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Every year around 50 million pheasants are reared by gamekeepers on private land and released into the British countryside. But are pheasants livestock, or are they wild animals? The answer, it seems, is “it depends”.
The question has popped up because of changes to the wording of a law which governs the legality of shooting birds such as crows, magpies and pigeons. These species, it is argued, can impact game birds, which the law says count as livestock.
But the changes are being questioned by conservationists because if the protections for game birds are based on them being classified as livestock, at what point do they become wild animals?
It matters because from a liability perspective, farmers of livestock are responsible for any damage their animals cause when they escape. However, when this happens with game birds such as pheasants, they are then classified as wild animals, and the farmer is off the hook.
Similarly, at the end of the shooting season, the birds still left in the countryside are rounded up and used to breed the next generation – something which would not be permitted if the species was classified as a wild animal, as journalist and campaigner George Monbiot noted on Twitter.
The law doesn’t set out the shooting season as the period in which game birds become wild animals either.
Pheasants are reared and then released into the wild in the summer, ahead of the shooting season which begins in October. If a pheasant causes damage to someone’s garden, or flies in front of a car, causing an accident in September, then they remain classified as wild animals in this instance.
But if a gamekeeper shoots a crow, also in September, then it appears the pheasant would be classified as livestock in this instance, and killing the crow would therefore be legal.
TV presenter and naturalist, Chris Packham described the update to the law as “an absolute fiasco”.
“The issue is around the convolutions of this designation as to whether these game birds are wildlife or livestock, which has been orchestrated to suit the shooting fraternity,” he told The Independent.
“There’s an economic element here because if it’s livestock, then there are various tax and VAT benefits.”
“It’s 2022. Some transparency from Defra would be useful.”
He added: “In a nutshell they want to rear their pheasants, release their pheasants, shoot their pheasants with lead and eat them too, all at enormous economic benefit for them and ecological cost to the rest of us and Britain’s wildlife. That is surely antiquated and needs reform.”
In the UK all wild birds are protected by law, making it illegal to kill them, however, general licences issued by the government allow the shooting of some pest species, which predate on livestock, eat crops, or cause damage to property.
The new licence came into force on 1 January, and will last two years – a year longer than previous general licences.
In 2019 the general licences issued by the government were temporarily revoked, after Mr Packham’s campaign group Wild Justice challenged the legality of the legislation which they said has been used to kill ”millions“ of wild birds.
Soon after the licences were revoked, Mr Packham was targeted with dead crows being hung on strings outside his house.
According to Wild Justice, the huge numbers of pheasants and other captive-bred game birds such as partridges released into the UK each year amount to around the same weight as all the native wild birds in the UK put together.
Last year a study suggested the huge numbers of pheasants – which are a non-native species – could wipe out adders in the UK by 2032, while artificially inflating the numbers of predator species such as foxes.
A Defra spokesperson told The Independent: “The new general licences have been updated to clarify when they apply and make clear when a game bird ceases to be livestock and becomes a wild bird. None of the changes alter the activities licence users are authorised to do.
“We continue to work with stakeholders to ensure our licensing process is robust for wildlife and workable for users going forward.”
The Independent has challenged the clarity of the updates to the legislation and asked for further detail on the application of the law.