by David Bean

Lord Randall’s Game Birds (Cage Breeding) Bill received its Second Reading in the House of Lords on Friday. Although there is little realistic prospect of the Bill becoming law, the debate highlighted a level of misapprehension about game rearing that stands among the foremost examples of ignorance as to the realities of rural life.

The Bill would prohibit keeping pheasants or partridges in “raised laying cages” or “battery cages” for the purpose of producing eggs. There is, however, no logic behind classifying enclosures based on whether they are placed on the ground or raised off it. There are no such restrictions in respect of other species. Chicken coops are very frequently placed with floors separating them from the ground, and domestic pet birds kept in elevated bird cages.

Although Lord Randall claimed that his purpose was to promote animal welfare, Defra’s most recent research showed that pheasants appeared more “relaxed and content” in raised laying units (RLUs) than in floor pens, and the same was true of partridges kept in larger, enriched RLUs. The research confirmed that properly managed RLUs are often the safest and healthiest way to house birds during the laying stage of game rearing, offering better protection from disease, predators and the elements, and producing better quality, healthier eggs.

Labour’s Shadow Environment Defra Minister, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, clearly saw the debate as an opportunity to press the party’s wider attacks on the shooting sector, despite it earning the UK economy over £2 billion a year and contributing £250 million annually to conservation projects. Her speech ranged far beyond the issues in the Bill to encompass imports of hunting trophies, foie gras and fur, and she committed a future Labour government to renewing the assault.

The Countryside Alliance briefed select peers ahead of the debate and we are grateful to Lords Leicester and Errol for their well-informed contributions. The Earl of Leicester pointed out that protecting birds from disease is essential not only on welfare grounds:

“There are two fundamental advantages to raised units from a health and welfare perspective: the health of the breeding birds is better in raised units as they do not come into contact with contaminated ground conditions, and eggs produced are always cleaner than floor-laid eggs and therefore have a significantly lower chance of yolk sac infection or other diseases such as rotavirus. Both these factors have had an important impact on antibiotic use in the game sector. Indeed, over the last six years, I think the game sector has reduced the use of antibiotics by 70% and therefore the build-up of antimicrobial resistance…”

Following him the Earl of Errol pointed out the disingenuity of conflating raised laying units with battery cages:

“The problem with the Bill is that it is trying to put together raised laying units and battery cages as if these were the same thing, and it is trying to trigger an emotional response in people to condemn both… I have read research which says that the raised laying units which are outside, have space in them and even give an enhanced environment and things like that are more hygienic and better for the birds, and you get less disease… I think it is counterproductive if you deliberately make it worse for the birds in law.”

Responding to the debate the Minister, Lord Benyon, agreed with Lord Randall on the principle that gamebird welfare ought to be upheld and promoted, but pointed out that the shooting sector is already taking important steps in this direction:

“I pay tribute to Aim to Sustain, the umbrella organisation which includes British Game Assurance and other bodies, which is creating a rigorous assurance scheme that looks at the whole range of game bird rearing, on individual premises and on farms and estates. If any shoot is not signed up to British Game Assurance, it is very stupid. It should, because it is proving that it is getting shooting’s act in order, and I encourage every shooting interest to sign up to it.”

This Bill does not have the government support it would need to become law, not least because, as Lord Randall acknowledged, the government is already planning a call for evidence on the welfare aspects of game rearing. This will be a better forum for considered discussion than a 45-minute debate on the floor of the House of Lords, and the Countryside Alliance looks forward to contributing.

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