The mass release and shooting of pheasants trashes our ecosystems – and our humanity.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 6th October 2023
It’s one of the bluntest expressions of class power in the United Kingdom. Like all expressions of class power, it has become normalised until we treat it as a fixed fact of national life. I’m talking about the Bronze Plague that spreads over the British lowlands every year, wiping out much of our wildlife: pheasants.
This week, the pheasant shooting season began, appropriately coinciding with the Conservative party conference. Killing them requires no physical exertion and a limited skillset, as the birds are driven over the heads of the shooters by people hired to flush them out of the woods. The men (almost all are) with the guns spray shot at the low-flying birds, killing some, wounding some, missing others. One estimate suggests that between 30% and 40% of all the pheasants shot are wounded and not recovered, dying slowly in the woods.
As always with politically protected activities, there’s a dearth of reliable data. The government agency Natural England estimates that between 39 and 57m pheasants and 8 to 13m red-legged partridges are released in the UK every year. This means that, at the time of their release in August, there is as great a weight of these non-native birds at large in Britain as of all wild birds put together.
An extraordinary pre-slaughter takes place year-round, to prepare for the great massacre that begins on 1 October. Foxes are snared or shot in their tens of thousands, members of the crow family are relentlessly persecuted, weasels and stoats (among our most fascinating and least-appreciated mammals) are trapped and killed in unknown numbers – and these are just the legal assaults on nature. Just as grouse moors are black holes for hen harriers and golden eagles, pheasant woods are often black holes for goshawks and other raptors, polecats and pine martens that would otherwise live there. Pure coincidence, no doubt. It always is.
While there are closed seasons for the shooting of pheasants and partridges, there are no closed seasons for the killing of foxes, crows and other species that might eat them. When the adults are killed, the babies starve to death.
Despite this, the numbers of some wild animals, such as carrion crows, rats and foxes, are boosted overall by the killing industry, as they eat the grain provided for the bronze plague or the dead birds splattered over the roads soon after their release. Gamekeepers seek to reverse the population explosions they cause through endless killing. Some species also benefit from the habitats created by shooting businesses for their pheasants. But the aggregate effect is to create grossly unbalanced ecologies, with consequences that ramify along the food chain. The scale of pheasant releases has risen tenfold over the last 60 years.
After each massacre, most of the dead pheasants, as there’s little demand for their meat, are dumped in “stink pits”, which also receive the corpses of the many species classified as vermin (“game” means animals you pay to kill, “vermin” are animals you pay other people to kill).
The great majority of bird-blasters still use lead shot. One scientific estimate suggests that between 2,500 and 6,700 tonnes of the toxic metal is fired at gamebirds in the UK every year. Long after it was banned in coarse angling (a mostly working-class pursuit), lead shot in gun cartridges remains legal in the UK, despite the vast catalogue of harms documented by the government’s Lead Ammunition Group. After procrastinating for years, the government says there’ll be a bill this autumn. Believe it when you see it.
In the midst of a bird flu epidemic that now threatens the survival of some native species and presents a constant risk of mutating to become a human pandemic, the annual release of pheasants and partridges could easily become a super-spreader event. But the government sits and waits for disaster to happen. Pheasants are also heavily dosed with antibiotics, often mixed with the feed in their release pens, which is also eaten by wild species – as are many of the pheasants. It’s a perfect strategy for encouraging antibiotic-resistant bacteria. No consideration for human health, animal welfare or ecological integrity seems to stand in this industry’s way.
In 2014, I wrote about the extraordinary legal contortions required to justify every stage of pheasant rearing, shooting and recapture. Pheasants are clearly livestock, domestic animals whose husbandry and habits are very similar to those of chickens (they’re members of the same family). But the law bends and twists to enable these livestock to be blown out of the air. My findings were turned into a brilliant graphic by the campaign group Wild Justice, called Schrödinger’s Pheasant. While the campaign has forced the Westminster government to make some small legal concessions, the impacts of this monstrous industry remain largely unchanged.
Of course pheasant shooting can’t be challenged – it’s woven into the soul of the nation! In fact, driving birds over the heads of armed maniacs didn’t begin until the early 19th century, and took off only when Prince Albert popularised it in the 1840s. The mass slaughter of birds, accelerated by the development of breech-loading shotguns in the 1850s, coincided with the mass slaughter of humans in the Afghan, Opium, Anglo-Sikh, Xhosa and Anglo-Burmese wars and the Indian rebellion, in which the British laid waste to other civilisations with the help of new weaponry.
The mindset was much the same. As you can see from the celebration of death in all its forms on the walls of stately homes, elite culture is killing culture. After all, what greater expression of power can there be than to decree and enact mass death? I suspect that the industrial killing of other animals has long helped inure the ruling classes to the industrial killing of human beings.
The class politics at play are beautifully explored in English author Barry Hines’s gently powerful (and recently republished) novel The Gamekeeper. Joining a shoot is a ticket to social acceptance in the upper echelons, and the signal to everyone else that you’ve made it.
Made what, exactly? This necroculture is part of the unmaking of both our ecosystems and our humanity. If it were the favoured sport of any other class, it would have been banned long ago.