Thank you for contacting me about the welfare of gamebirds bred for shooting and grouse shooting.
My ministerial colleagues are committed to maintaining this country’s position as world leaders in farm animal welfare and want to improve and build upon that record, working in partnership with farmers to support healthier, higher welfare animals. As set out in the Government’s recently published Action Plan for Animal Welfare, Ministers are actively exploring options for strengthening the UK system moving forward and I am pleased that they are now examining the evidence around the use of cages in farming, including their use for breeding and rearing of gamebirds.
The welfare of gamebirds is protected by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal. The Statutory Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds Reared for Sporting Purposes offers additional protection and provides keepers with guidance on how to meet the welfare needs of their gamebirds as required by the 2006 Act. Specifically, the code recommends that barren raised cages for breeding pheasants and small barren cages for breeding partridges should not be used and that any system should be appropriately enriched. Keepers are required by law to be familiar with this code, which encourages the adoption of high standards of husbandry. Failure to observe the provisions of this code may be used in support of a prosecution.
These rules are enforced by the Animal and Plant Health Agency, as well as by local authorities, who can both carry out routine welfare inspections and investigate complaints. Prosecutions can be brought where necessary.
I understand that many people have strongly held views about grouse shooting. I want to see a vibrant, working countryside enhanced by a diverse environment. While there are no current plans to carry out a review of the management of grouse moors, I believe it is vital that wildlife and habitats are respected and protected, and that the country’s conservation laws are observed, which are among the toughest in the world.
I know that one of the ways in which moorlands have been managed for grouse shooting is by burning vegetation. The Government has always been clear about the need to phase out rotational burning on protected blanket bog and to move to a regime of cutting. There is also established scientific consensus that the burning of vegetation on such sites damages the environment in a variety of ways. The Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations came into force on 1st May banning the burning, without a licence, of specified vegetation on protected blanket bog habitats. This represents a crucial step in meeting the Government’s nature and climate change mitigation and adaptation targets, including the legally binding commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Finally, it is worth noting that all wild birds are protected from illegal killing by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Raptor persecution, including of hen harriers, is a national wildlife crime priority and there are strong penalties in place for offences committed against birds of prey, as well as other wildlife. I know that most wildlife crimes carry up to an unlimited fine and/or a six-month custodial sentence.