Pheasant shooting curtailed as Government bows to Chris Packham's campaign

Helena Horton
·4-min read
BBC presenter Chris Packham led the campaign - Dominic Lipinski/PA
BBC presenter Chris Packham led the campaign - Dominic Lipinski/PA

Pheasant shooting will be curtailed across vast swathes of the countryside after the Government bowed to a wildlife campaign led by the BBC presenter Chris Packham.

The amount of birds released each year is likely to be dramatically reduced, with officials at Natural England  in charge of licencing game bird releases.

Next week, Packham's judicial review against Defra was due to be heard in the High Court as he pushed for a ban on releasing pheasants around special protection areas (SPAs). 

However, before the case could be heard, the Government announced it would ban most releases within 500 metres of SPAs, and all other game birds will only be allowed to be released subject to licence.

The British Association of Shooting and Conservation estimates this makes up to 10 per cent of the land currently used for game bird shooting.

Mr Packham's group, Wild Justice, has been criticised for using legal loopholes to "damage" shooting. 

Accusing the group of "time-wasting", the Countryside Alliance and the British Association of Shooting and Conservation said in a joint statement: "If Defra is to secure co-operation from the shooting community, it must do better.

"At the moment, there is a great deal of scepticism that a unknown licensing system run by an underfunded public body can fix something that is not known to be ecologically damaging."

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP said: "Many parliamentarians are concerned to ensure that shooting is not damaged by whatever Defra does. We will be fighting for a sensible evidence-based and proportionate outcome."

However, the group argues it has have a legitimate reason to campaign against these releases. At their peak, non-native game birds make up almost half of Britain's bird biomass.

Fifty-seven million pheasants and red-legged partridges are released into the countryside each year, and a recent report commissioned by Natural England found that releasing them in high density causes problems for local songbirds and other native animals.

Fewer pheasants are likely to be released each year - PA
Fewer pheasants are likely to be released each year - PA

A spokesman for Wild Justice said: "Thanks to our legal challenge, the shooting industry faces its largest dose of regulation since a ban on the use of lead ammunition in wildfowling in England in 1999.  

"Pheasants and red-legged partridges are now recognised by Government as problem species where their numbers are too high and they cause damage to vegetation, soils, invertebrates, reptiles etc."

In 2018, Wild Justice managed to force Natural England to withdraw all licences for shooting "pest" birds, meaning farmers were left without permission to shoot pigeons and birds during the crucial sowing season for Spring crops.

Shooting organisations worry that the same could happen with these new regulations. Tim Bonner, the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said: "We are concerned about the ability of Natural England to deliver a functioning licensing system in a fairly short timescale.

"Game farmers will already be making decisions about their production for next year and the whole industry will need certainty that there will be a workable licensing system in place for SPAs and surrounding areas for the 2021-22 shooting season."

However, conservationists are celebrating the announcement and believe it will mean a large reduction in the number of game birds released each year.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, the RSPB head of species and land management said: "This is a positive announcement and an important step in recognising that releasing 57 million non-native game birds into our countryside every year is not sustainable or in line with the urgent need to protect and restore the best spaces for our native wildlife. 

"Earlier this year the RSPB's own evidence-based review concluded that although well-managed shoots can provide benefits for some native species, the release of so many non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges led to substantial negative environmental consequences, including the direct and indirect impacts that released birds can have on other wildlife."

George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, said: "The negative effects of game bird releases on protected sites tend to be localised with minimal or no effects beyond 500 metres from the point of release.

"However, our review highlighted a need to gain a better understanding of how any localised impacts might be mitigated and existing arrangements strengthened. The introduction of an interim licensing regime for next year will enable us to manage any potential impacts while gathering more information where evidence gaps exist.

"We will continue to engage and consult with industry in order to minimise any disruption."