Calls to ban gamebird release to avoid ‘catastrophic’ avian flu outbreak

Conservationists have called for ministers to ban the release of millions of gamebirds to prevent the UK’s wild birds being wiped out by a “catastrophic” avian flu epidemic this winter.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said there was a significant risk that pheasants, partridge and ducks released for shooting from 1 October could spread avian influenza into wild bird populations, wreaking havoc in farmland and garden birds.

It added it was surprised the UK government appeared to have done no risk assessments for a major outbreak erupting in gamebirds, and urged the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to impose an immediate moratorium on their release.

The highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of the virus, which began spreading last winter in the UK, has already devastated some sea bird and geese populations in Scotland.

It has also heavily affected farming: in the last five days, outbreaks have been detected at poultry farms in Devon and Sussex, leading to several 10km control zones being imposed, with a third smaller control zone in force near Bedford.

Before the avian flu crisis about 61m pheasant and red-legged partridge, and a further 2.5m mallard ducks, were bred annually in commercial facilities, chiefly in France, before being released into the countryside to be shot by country sports enthusiasts from 1 October.

Calculations vary, but it is estimated that in August each year, the volume of gamebirds being reared for shooting in the UK is equal to half the biomass of all Britain’s wild birds.

The virus has been detected at least nine times in wild and farmed pheasants in England, Wales and Scotland since early 2021.

Related: Bird flu is on the rise in the UK. Are chickens in the back garden to blame?

In France, where most of the UK’s gamebirds are bred, the government has imposed controls on the transport of chicks in regions heavily affected by the virus.

Jeff Knott, RSPB UK’s director of policy, said there was an overriding need to take precautionary measures. If the virus caught hold in commercial pheasant shoots and then spread into the wider environment, it would be too late.

“The reason we are calling for this now is that the effects of doing nothing could be absolutely catastrophic,” he said. “We know this virus can spread incredibly quickly and easily. It could get really scary.”

Senior government wildlife experts are sceptical about the RSPB’s case, arguing that so far there is too little evidence to substantiate its demands. Even so, Defra is regarded by other regulators as having dragged its feet in its response to the Avian flu outbreak.

Defra indicated it would consider a ban on shooting if H5N1 took hold in gamebird flocks, and said the release of gamebirds in avian influenza control areas was already banned.

“We recognise the significant threat posed by highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) to the UK’s precious wild bird populations,” a spokesperson said. “There is a ban on releasing gamebirds in all control zones, and businesses that wish to release them outside of zones are required to maintain stringent biosecurity standards and report any signs of avian influenza to minimise the spread of disease.”

The UK introduced sweeping biosecurity measures for poultry farms last winter to prevent its spread. In Scotland, where ministers convened a multi-agency taskforce, seabird nature reserves were closed down as the virus took hold. It has also been detected in foxes and otters, and in sea eagle chicks.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) said last month many game estates had cancelled or pared back their shoots this autumn because of a shortage of supply of French chicks.

Glynn Evans, BASC’s head of game and gundogs, accused the RSPB of “political grandstanding” and ignorance about the virus’s behaviour. “The RSPB has failed to present a single piece of evidence to support their call and has chosen to ignore the substantial role shooting plays in the countryside,” he said.

“This year’s outbreak of avian influenza is of serious concern and BASC and other representatives of the shooting sector have been working closely with Defra, the devolved administrations and a wide range of stakeholders to ensure all necessary actions to reduce the transmission of avian flu are taken.”

Dr Mark Avery, a former RSPB director of conservation now with the Wild Justice campaign group which opposes large scale gamebird releases, said: Given how little is understood about the spread of avian flu it makes no sense to release tens of millions of captive-bred birds into the countryside for shooting. They constitute an unnecessary threat to wild birds and domestic poultry.”