‘Immediate ban’ needed on annual release of 50 million pheasants amid bird flu outbreak, says RSPB
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has devastated seabird populations around the UK’s coast this year, leaving hundreds of thousands of birds dead since it arrived last winter in the Solway Firth in the north west.
The RSPB has now said the annual release of around 55 million pheasants and red-legged partridges, and 2.6 million mallard ducks, all of which are reared in captivity to be shot for sport, represents a serious risk to wildlife.
The organisation said large numbers of these gamebirds are imported from across Europe, then held in pens to mature prior to release.
The volume of birds released into the UK each year now represents more than the total biomass of all UK native birds.
Pheasants in the UK have previously tested positive for HPAI – first in Lincolnshire in 2018 and a further 13 times since, on three premises with commercial breeding game for release.
In a statement the RSPB said it believed “that to limit the catastrophic impacts of this outbreak on our wild birds, the deliberate release of captive birds into the countryside must be stopped for this year”.
Jeff Knott, the RSPB’s director of policy, said: “In recent months we have witnessed an unfolding catastrophe taking place on our wild birds.
“It has been emotionally tough to witness, but we are not helpless and there are many positive actions that we can take to help them weather this storm and reduce the risk of exacerbating this crisis.
“This disease originated in poultry in Asia before passing into wild birds. It is another human pressure on beleaguered wildlife across the world and in the UK specifically. We must all now take responsibility and do everything we can to limit the impact in the immediate term, and to implement and fund species conservation programmes to build resilience in our wildlife for the future.”
The RSPB said that although spread from pheasants to wild birds has not yet been confirmed scientifically, this route of transmission has not yet been fully investigated.
“Given the current scale of the outbreak in wild birds, ongoing losses of wildlife from other human pressures and the context of the wider nature and climate emergency, it is necessary to employ a precautionary approach to all possible vectors of this deadly new virus to our wildlife populations,” the organisation said.
The disease has already taken a heavy toll on great skuas, gannets and terns, but numerous other species are also affected, including puffins, white-tailed eagles, red kites, guillemots and black-headed gulls.
The RSPB said last week it was calling on Defra to put together a task force of experts including vets, virologists, ecologists and policy makers, just as occurred in 2005 when the first spike in bird flu occurred.
This would allow appropriate testing to understand what is happening and inform how to deal with it.
The RSPB’s Martin Fowlie told The Independent: “Over the last five months we’ve just seen an escalation in terms of the numbers and in terms of the geographic spread. Initially it was all concentrated up in north east Scotland and then we’ve seen cases spread south.”
The disease has now reached south west Wales, home to globally important populations of seabirds such as gannets and puffins.