My Lords, this Bill is not about the rights and wrongs of game shooting per se, its merits or demerits. Actually, well-managed shoots can be of conservation benefit, in terms of habitat management, although it would be very good if we finally got around to banning lead ammunition. Game meat is very healthy—unless of course it has lead in it, so that is something else we want to look at. However, the Bill is not about this at all; the Bill is about a welfare issue.
I take issue with the incredible number of pheasants and red-legged partridges that are now being released into the wild on an annual basis. I found a figure from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, which estimated in 2016 that 47 million pheasants and 10 million red-legged partridges were released into the wild for shooting. Those are incredible numbers and there is research by both the GWCT and the RSPB; I declare my interest as a council member of the RSPB. Both organisations have published research which I recommend that noble Lords read. There are just too many—big numbers—being released into the wild for shooting. However, as I said, this is about welfare.
Many people, when they go into the countryside and see pheasants roaming around—rather beautiful birds with their rather evocative call—perhaps in the evening when they are going to roost or whatever, might think that this is part of the rural idyll. What I think a lot of people do not quite realise is that many of these birds, although not all, have actually been bred in what amount to factory farms. My Bill would outlaw raised laying cages—battery cages, in fact.
I have seen estimates that about six to 10 farms still use raised battery-style laying units: small cages that are shared by one male pheasant with up to 10 females, with sometimes as little as 33 square centimetres per bird. Very often the floors are of sloped wire mesh in order for the eggs to fall down to be more readily collected, and they have roofs of wire netting, which can sometimes scalp the birds.
Partridges are kept in even smaller enclosed cages. In fact, I was surprised to find a quantity of Defra papers—which I will show my noble friend the Minister in case he has not seen them—that reckon that nearly all red-legged partridges released on shooting estates were breeding birds with less space than a piece of A4 paper. I find that very difficult to believe, but that is what the Defra research said.
I had hoped to visit a game farm before I came to Second Reading. I have been in discussions with the Game Farmers’ Association and I am hoping to visit next week to see one in operation, avian flu allowing—I think avian flu has hit a lot of the imports that we have been getting from France, which is another bone of contention for me, given the possibility of the introduction of not just avian flu but other diseases. I understand that the Game Farmers’ Association encourages good practice with a code of conduct—I am sure it does, as I am sure I will see—but I do not think every game farm is a member. That is why we need legislation.
I know a lot of my colleagues, both in this place and the other place, will say that the Conservative way is self-regulation. I am afraid that, from time to time, self-regulation has been proved not to be effective. I feel that there must be something that can be done.
Clause 1 of my Bill would outlaw, as I have said already, keeping pheasants or partridges in raised laying or battery cages for producing eggs. Clause 2 sets minimum sizes for enclosure. Clause 3 covers the penalties.
I noticed a Statement from my friend in the other place last year saying that the Government were going to be calling for evidence. That is the very least that should be happening, and it should be happening soon. This Government have a pretty good record on animal welfare, but there is a bit of a problem with game birds. They start of possibly as livestock, if they are in cages, and so should have the same regulations as other livestock do. That is one of the things I find strange. Once they are released, they become wild birds, and then have a different status. Sometimes, of course, they are caught again at the end of the season—I am not an expert on these things at all—and they become livestock again. It is actually quite a complicated business—I would say it is a ridiculous situation.
We need to give these birds the very best opportunity of having high welfare standards, as we would to poultry or ducks. It is about time we had regulation on the statute books. I beg to move.
My Lords, I begin by sincerely commending the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for stepping into what is a gaping hole in the law for the protection of birds in this land: protection for what, for some of the year at least, represents 50% of the total avian bird weight. I thank the noble Lord also, in his very clear and concise introduction, for painting a picture of what life is like for these caged partridges and pheasants—the actual physical circumstances. I think many of us may have encountered the experiences of chickens in this situation but here we have what are at least genetically wild birds in what can be described only as torturous circumstances.
There is a broader question here, which the noble Lord hinted at, of whether it is appropriate to cage, breed and mass release in such enormous quantities. The figures are uncertain, but I would also go with the figures the noble Lord used: 47 million pheasants and 10 million red-legged partridges. This question is one that the nation, and its ecologists and nature lovers, are increasingly becoming aware of, but that is an issue for another day. However, I have to note that, in the 1970s, the estimated combined figure was 4 million, against 57 million now. That is one way in which the usage of our landscape has massively intensified.
In commenting on issues covered by the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, Victoria Prentis, speaking for the Government in the other place, said that the Government wanted to remain “world-leading” in animal welfare. Yes, that astonishingly common and so frequently unwarranted phrase pops up again. I can only believe that if the Government want to be world-leading, we will hear from the Minister that this Bill will have full backing and a push to get it through your Lordships’ House before the end of this Session.
The Green Party also supports the Bill. It provides some limited but important protections for the welfare of animals whose short life begins in captivity before they are released into the landscape, often without the capacity to survive, so that they can be blasted from the sky, dead or injured. This is the fate that is estimated for 25% of these birds, the others helping to massively grow the fox population, getting killed on the roads, or otherwise suffering a miserable death in an alien environment.
That the breeding birds be not kept in a raised laying cage or battery cage to produce eggs is surely a basic essential of welfare. However, I am interested in where the 2 square metres of floor space per bird in the Bill comes from. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Randall, could tell us in his summing up. It seems like a vast improvement on what we have now, but it would be interesting to know where it came from.
It is interesting to look at where we are now in the law for the protection of these birds. Essentially, there is none. There is the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds Reared for Sporting Purposes, from July 2010, which is the voluntary industry regulation that the Government are so fond of. As the noble Lord, Lord Randall, has indicated, it is clearly inadequate. I note that the code of practice says:
“Failure to comply with a provision of this Code shall not of itself render you liable to proceedings of any kind”.
The very valuable Library briefing notes that the Animal and Plant Health Agency carries out targeted inspections on game bird farms and notes that the plan is that appropriate action is taken against anyone who breaks the law. Given that the noble Lord, Lord Randall, has raised the issue here, can the Minister tell me, now or in writing, how many such inspections have been carried out in the past 10 years since the code has been in place, how many enforcement actions have been undertaken, and whether any legal cases have been taken out or concluded?
I note that the 2010 impact assessment estimates there are about 5,000 establishments rearing 50 or more game birds per year in England, 400 of them being major establishments. It also notes that
“larger cage rearing farms can produce up to 3 million eggs a year.”
We are talking about something of a very significant scale.
I have a couple of questions about jurisdiction. The Bill is for England and Wales. I understand that it is not under the Minister’s powers, but what is the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland? Obviously, it is a devolved competence, but are the Government looking to co-operate to achieve the standards in this Bill, or ideally higher standards, across these islands? Birds obviously do not stop at the Scottish border—there is not a line where they show their passports.
Moreover, I would like to ask about the situation with the many millions of birds imported from the continent. The 2010 impact assessment notes that about 50% of pheasants and 90% of partridges that are released are imported into Great Britain, mostly as hatching eggs, with a lesser number of day-old chicks from France. The impact assessment also says that some may be from beyond Europe. What are the standards being imposed on those imports? Are the Government at least looking to ensure that imported birds are raised under at least the same standards as are applied under this Bill? If not, there is obviously a risk that breeding would simply stop in the UK and birds would be shipped in from the continent under factory conditions.
Going back to where we are now in the UK, I also note that the 2010 impact assessment concluded that there were about 40,000 birds being kept in small barren cages. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Randall, is seeking to address. The impact assessment recommended a post-implementation review plan after the introduction of the code. I have not been able to find such a review, so I would be interested if the Minister could point me towards it.
I might have asked whether the Bill should not have gone further to guarantee that birds are kept for eggs only under free-range conditions. But, sadly, with the increased virulence and prevalence of bird flu, there is now no such rearing occurring even for chickens, as well as for pheasants and partridges, with farmers having been ordered to keep birds indoors since November. The noble Lord, Lord Randall, also raised this point. I wonder about the bird flu implications and concerns of the game bird rearing and release industry. Perhaps I will come back to this with a Written Question, but it would be interesting if the Minister could comment on that.
Finally, I also note that the 2010 impact assessment goes into considerable detail about the animal welfare implications of the use of bits and spectacles designed to prevent the birds hurting each other under these extremely stressful conditions and to prevent the pecking of eggs. I do not know whether the noble Lord considered including that in this Bill; I would be interested in any thoughts he, or indeed the Minister, might have on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall, has raised a crucial issue today. It is a pity that it is a quiet Friday and that this is not getting more attention from across the House. I thank the noble Lord for highlighting the issue and for using his successful place in the ballot very well, and I look forward to the rest of the debate.
My Lords, I thank your Lordships for allowing me to speak at such late notice, and I refer to my interests in the register with regard to land management, farming and forestry.
Policy towards animal welfare, including the welfare of game birds, should be based on principle and evidence, not opinion. The evidence from the Defra research in 2015 clearly demonstrated that there was no need for further restrictions on the use of laying units, including raised laying units, when they are used in accordance with the existing statutory code of practice and industry guidance. The evidence from this research suggests that restricting or banning the use of properly managed raised laying systems could very well compromise the welfare of breeding birds. Advice from the game bird veterinary sector suggests that if RLUs are replaced with alternative systems, a rise in the use of antibiotics is almost inevitable. This is important.
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—AMR. The WHO has predicted that AMR, if left unchecked, could be responsible for more human deaths in the world than cancer by 2050.
Finally, I will go part of the way to answering the assertion or question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on the number of prosecutions. There have been no successful prosecutions against game farms by the Animal and Plant Health Agency, which carries out regular targeted game bird farm inspections. We also need to put this into perspective: each year, 50 million pheasants are reared, but we must remember that 1 billion broiler chickens are also reared in this country.
My Lords, I am sorry to intervene, but I asked whether I could quickly make a comment in the gap after listening to the debate. I am afraid that I have been abroad and did not get my name down in time.
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 am not a game breeder myself at all, but 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. That is a very different concept from battery cages, about which I know absolutely nothing. The least we can do in the interests of the birds is to give them the better, hygienic conditions. At the end of the day, this is not about trying to ban everything, but I think it is counterproductive if you deliberately make it worse for the birds in law. That is really all I want to say.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for his excellent introduction. It is important to protect the welfare of breeding game birds and the raising of chicks.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall, set out the case for this short Bill extremely well. I agree with him that it is time that lead shot was banned, as discussed during the passage of the Agriculture Act. There will, of course, be those who find it abhorrent that chicks are raised to be shot at for the purposes of enjoyment and later to appear on the dinner table. However, the shooting of game is part of the country way of life. In the village from which I take my name, the pheasant shoot was a regular occurrence in season, with people from all walks of life taking part. There will be those who have paid for a gun down to those who are taking part as beaters. The enjoyment of being outdoors, even in inclement weather, is all part of the experience.
I am a country girl—or woman, to be more precise—and accept that there are those who take part in activities which I do not, but I have no wish to curtail their activities. I am only too happy to eat pheasant, partridge and even pigeon. The meat from game birds is extremely healthy, as the noble Lord, Lord Randall, referred to, and the birds have enjoyed a previously carefree life. It is therefore important that those birds kept for breeding should have a decent life and should not be raised under battery conditions, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. I regret that I cannot agree with the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, but I understand that the use of antibiotics should be avoided wherever possible.
The requirement of this short Bill is clearly explained: that the cage used for rearing should be a minimum size of two metres square per bird, so that the bird can move around. It should have nesting material, a scratch pad and a least one perch so that the cage can produce a modicum of reality closer to that which the bird would experience if laying its eggs in the wild.
The conditions in the Bill are not onerous, but I suspect that there will be those game farmers who will consider this to be an added burden and cost on their business and will attempt to avoid compliance. The penalties for not treating breeding game birds properly could be imprisonment of not more than 51 weeks and a hefty fine. I understand that the game breeding fraternity needs some time to adapt to these changes and has been given a year in which to do this. As the game bird shooting seasons are cyclical, this gives gamekeepers plenty of time in which to make adaptations to their breeding and rearing accommodation. The Government indicate that they will be gathering evidence from the sector to inform policy development and will be calling for evidence later this year, and I welcome this commitment to consult.
The welfare of game birds is covered in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. There is also the statutory Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds Reared for Sporting Purposes, which offers additional protection and requires that barren cages should not be used for breeding pheasants or partridges. I support the noble Lord, Lord Randall, in his Bill and welcome the additional measures in it to help protect the welfare of game birds.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Randall, for tabling this Bill and for his comprehensive introduction of its purposes. He is right to pursue the issue. It is a reminder that, although we have good animal welfare standards in the UK, our work is never done and there will always be categories of animals and birds that get left behind when we draw up legislation.
This seems to be the case when it comes to breeding pheasants and partridges. It seems an anomaly that they can be kept in battery cages when their use for hens laying eggs for human consumption has been banned in the UK, along with the rest of the EU, since 2012. It seems that game birds have a particularly dismal life on two counts. They are condemned to live in unsuitable conditions and produce offspring for the sole purpose of being shot for “sport”. I am grateful to the League Against Cruel Sports and Animal Aid for providing distressing accounts of the continuing suffering still being experienced by game birds in battery cages. Some of their evidence was reflected in the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Randall, who illustrated well the scale of the problem and the disgrace of some of the provision that still exists.
As the noble Lord acknowledged, we understand that the Government are looking to issue a call for evidence later this year to examine the case for further reforms to the welfare provisions for game birds; as he said, this is the minimum we should expect. It would be helpful if the Minister could offer further details of the scope and timescale for this review because, with the best will in the world, this commitment seems rather vague. Sadly, this has been a mark of this Government’s approach to animal welfare legislation—a policy of stop/go, and the more recent abandonment of the legislation on banning trophy hunting and the importing of fur and foie gras, show that they succumb all too easily to pressure from the powerful lobby groups among their membership. To be clear, these are all issues that a Labour Government intend to tackle when we come to office.
Of course, the provision for game birds should have been covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to animals. However, if neither that legislation nor the statutory code of practice provides sufficient guarantees that game birds will be housed in appropriate accommodation, clearly, more action is necessary. As the league points out, it is difficult to imagine how the current arrangements conform to the five freedoms that are the basis of UK animal welfare law.
The current code of practice sets out explicit conditions to provide the basic health and welfare that we would all expect to be provided, so there has obviously been a failure of oversight and enforcement if breaches of the code continue to take place. I support the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in asking for more information on the statistics on the numbers of inspections that have taken place and enforcement actions that have been followed up.
As the years go by, our expectations of animal welfare standards rightly continue to rise. We have still not banned enriched cages for laying hens, which are glorified battery cages. What consideration is being given to such a ban? Does the Minister agree that this should apply to pheasants and partridges too?
Finally, the British people now expect their laying hens and chickens to have a decent quality of life; this means the ability to roam about, as free-range chickens are enabled to do. We all understand why the current threat of avian flu has required hens to be kept indoors, with the loss of eggs described as free range in the supermarkets. However, now that spring is coming and the birds will be increasingly anxious to get outside, can the Minister update us on when the ban on outdoor access is likely to be lifted?
Sadly, parliamentary time means that this Bill is unlikely to jump through all the hoops before the end of the Session. However, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Randall, will work with us to pursue these issues in the coming Session, and I hope the Minister will be able to commit to giving it government support if he does so. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I remind your Lordships of my entry in the register.
I congratulate my noble friend on introducing the Bill. He is known for his interest in fauna and flora and for pursuing conservation and animal welfare issues, and I have enjoyed working with him over many years on many of these issues. The Bill, which aims to improve the welfare of game birds during breeding, addresses a subject on which he has spoken eloquently today.
I certainly support the principle behind my noble friend’s Bill. The Government are clear that we want all kept animals to experience good welfare throughout their lives. As outlined in Defra’s Our Action Plan for Animal Welfare, published in May last year, the Government are committed to maintaining our position as a world leader on animal welfare, and we want to build upon that record. The noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Bennett, questioned that. If I had time I would go through a list, which would include extensive measures that take us way beyond what most other similar economies have done on animal welfare. However, I will not rise to that goading, because time is pressing.
Since 2010, we have raised the bar on farm animal welfare standards. We have introduced new regulations for minimum standards for meat chickens, made CCTV mandatory in slaughterhouses in England and banned the use of battery cages for laying hens, sow stalls for pigs and veal crates for calves. We want to continue with these achievements.
Our Action Plan for Animal Welfare refers to the Government’s ambition to improve the welfare of farmed animals in relation to confinement. We recognise the growing concern over the use of cages for farmed animals on the part of the general public, animal welfare organisations and parliamentarians.
Of course, game birds such as pheasants and partridges are different from other farmed animals, in that they are reared principally for sport, rather than meat. I, like many noble Lords who have spoken today, have never visited a game farm. In fact, my noble friend’s actions today have prompted me to want to do so to gain a greater degree of knowledge about how these birds are produced. We know that a large number are produced in purpose-built game farms while others are produced in closed flocks, reared on the same farm in which they are released. We need to understand more about that.
The noble Baroness speaking for the Labour Party asked about a call for evidence, which was mentioned in the other place. The word “soon” infuriates Members of this House, but it will be soon. I hope that she will see that it is comprehensive in seeking to find out more about how we are raising game birds in this country and making sure that, if necessary, we can change the regulations.
As has been said, farmed game birds are bred on farms or are imported as eggs or day-old chicks, mostly from France. A number of noble Lords referred to the issue of avian influenza. There has been an enormous number of outbreaks of avian influenza in areas such as the Vendée and the Loire, regions of France from which a lot of these eggs come. The French authorities, as we have done in this country, have created restriction zones from which no eggs may be exported. We are working closely with the French authorities, as we are with other countries, to make sure that we are minimising the risk and moving this country beyond the restrictions we are placing as soon as it is safe to do so. However, we are still having new outbreaks in this country, which are distressing both in terms of animal welfare and for the people who manage these farms. We will continue to learn lessons from this severe and damaging outbreak, and we want to make sure that we are as well protected as we can be from a disease that, of course, comes in on wild migrating flocks of birds.
One of the welfare challenges in game bird production relates to the confinement of breeding birds, which restricts the expression of normal behaviours. While the majority of breeding pheasants are in harem-based floor pens, an increasing number are kept in raised cages, with one cock to about seven females. Almost all breeding partridges are kept in pairs, some in raised units, either in wooden boxes or cages to keep the males away from each other. Other welfare challenges relate to stockmanship, the use of various management devices and procedures and transport.
Unlike other poultry, game birds are not subject to any specific animal welfare legislation but, as has been said, are covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 until they are released into the wild. The Act makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal, or to fail to provide an animal with its welfare needs, such as a suitable environment, an appropriate diet, and protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease.
Defra’s 2010 Code of Practice for the Welfare of Gamebirds Reared for Sporting Purposes also provides practical guidance for those breeding and rearing game birds for the purpose of release for sport shooting, together with birds retained for breeding purposes. The code applies to game birds up to and including the period for which they are confined to the release pens. It includes advice on inspections, good biosecurity, disease treatment, record keeping and catching and transportation.
A question was asked about the number of investigations, and I can confirm that, according to the Animal and Plant Health Agency, 14 inspections took place across Great Britain in 2020 and 16 in 2021. One inspection in England resulted in non-compliance being identified, and a follow-up inspection was carried out to ensure corrective action was taken. There have been no game bird welfare prosecutions in the past three years.
The code also advises that the use of management devices, such as spectacles and bits, which are used to prevent feather pecking and egg eating, should not be considered as routine, as they do not allow birds fully to express their range of normal behaviours, and that these devices should not be relied upon. On the issue of how breeding pheasants and partridges should be housed, the code already states that barren raised cages for breeding pheasants and small barren cages for breeding partridges should not be used, and any system should be properly enriched. My noble friend Lord Randall’s Bill aims to prohibit the use of these cages.
Noble Lords will be pleased to hear that one of the areas we are already reviewing is game bird welfare, including examining the evidence on the use of cages for breeding pheasants and partridges, but also considering management practices and the use of enrichment. I pay tribute to the industry for the steps it has taken to self-regulate. 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.
A question was put about antimicrobial resistance. I am pleased to see that usage has dropped by 43% to 6 tonnes of active ingredients since 2019, and by 70% since 2016, but there is still a long way to go
The Government wish to support the sector in its continual improvement of bird welfare, so we want to look at current practices in the sector, including the current use of cages for breeding pheasants and partridges and the possible alternatives. We also propose to seek the views of the independent, expert Animal Welfare Committee on breeding and rearing game birds and where improvements can and should be made, but we will also need to understand how any proposed changes will impact on the game bird industry, which provides a significant contribution to the rural economy. Shooting has many benefits for wider conservation and biodiversity, as many noble Lords, including the proposer of the Bill, said.
It is for these reasons that the Government must express our opposition to this Bill. We believe it is premature and unnecessary, as we already have the power to make regulations under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, should we wish to ban cages for game birds.
I recognise and welcome the passion and commitment of my noble friend on issues of animal welfare, and I am sure that he will continue to press the Government on this important issue. We have listened keenly to what he and other noble Lords have said today and we will continue to listen to what is said in the future. The Government’s opposition to the proposed Bill is based not on any lack of respect for those views but rather that we wish to make progress on improving animal welfare first by way of engagement with the sector and other key stakeholders.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate; some very good points were made. I mention in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, but I also very much welcomed the comments from my noble friends Lord Leicester and Lord Erroll. Private Members’ Bills come in a variety of categories. There are those that aim to legislate—obviously, that is their nature—but others that aim to raise the issues higher up the agenda.
My noble friend Lord Leicester suggested that I might have conflated raised cages with battery cages. In a normal cycle, these things would be raised and discussed in Committee, and a Bill could be amended. I am not going to sob myself to sleep over this one. The Government have described my proposals as unnecessary and premature—this is not the first time that I have been described in such terms, including by various family members—but it has been important to raise these issues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked me where the suggestion of two square metres came from. That was put in with a view to establishing through debate whether that would be the correct measurement. I recognise that many people, both within your Lordships’ House and outside, have direct knowledge of this. I have already spoken to game farm specialists and I will be meeting some. But the point of some of these things is exactly what we have heard.
I know that my noble friend the Minister cares as much as I do about conservation and the welfare of animals, but he sits on the Front Bench. That is a slight difference; he is somewhat constrained, not necessarily by his immediate colleagues but by other forces out there, including even, perhaps, some down the road. We have had a very interesting debate. I live in hope that this will be given a Second Reading, because this is the House of Lords—if we were the House of Commons, we would have booted it out. With that, I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.