‘Ludicrous’: Gamebirds not banned from release in GB-wide bird flu protection zone

An Avian Influenza Protection Zone has been introduced across Great Britain as one of UK’s largest ever outbreaks continues its grip on wild and kept birds, but DEFRA has confirmed that gamebirds can still be released within the zone despite a government risk assessment noting the high risk of disease spreading to wild birds from driven game shooting.

Source - Getty Images, Ring-Necked Pheasant in flight

The UK, along with continental Europe and North America, has experienced one of the largest outbreaks of avian flu on record this year, with poultry, captive birds and wild birds all affected. 

Earlier this year, regulator Natural England confirmed that the outbreak has seen thousands of threatened wild chicks die on its nature reserves.

The severity of the crisis prompted governments across Great Britain to announce a country-wide Avian Influenza Protection Zone (AIPZ), where all bird keepers must implement strict biosecurity measures to help protect their flocks from the threat of avian influenza, “regardless of whatever type or size”.

Relentless tragedy’: 1,000s of threatened wild chicks die on Natural England nature reserves amid bird flu outbreak

However, DEFRA has clarified to ENDS that gamebirds are not banned from release in most of England. 

In Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Essex, there is a bird housing order in place, which means the release of gamebirds is banned there. They are also banned from release in ‘disease control zones’, which refer to the immediate area around known places where there is a bird flu outbreak, however as can be seen in this map from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), for the vast majority of England there is no ban in place.

The department emphasised that gamebird keepers were still expected to implement strict biosecurity measures, and that the introduction of the APIZ made it a legal requirement for keepers do so.

These biosecurity measures include cleansing and disinfecting clothing, footwear, and equipment, and reducing the movement of people to and from areas, and preventing access by poultry to ponds and watercourses.

Jeff Knott, the RSPB’s director of policy took to Twitter to say it was “ludicrous that pheasant release is allowed in an AIPZ and something which must be addressed in advance of next season”. The charity has been calling for an immediate moratorium on the release of game birds and wildfowl for shooting in the UK this summer and autumn. 

However, some within the shooting industry have pushed back against the RSPB’s campaign, pointing to a APHA risk assessment for the spread of bird flu from gamebirds to captive birds carried out in September. It concluded that there was “a very low additional risk nationally above the background risk… to poultry premises or captive birds posed by allowing shooting of wild game in autumn 2022, outside of disease restriction zones.”

However, the risk assessment does not assess the risk associated with gamebird shooting for the spread of bird flu to wild birds. It does nonetheless note that pheasants “are known to be highly susceptible to HPAI H5N1”, and that given the large number of pheasants potentially infected at a pheasant shoot, “it is considered that the activity of driven game shooting will present a high risk of increasing the geographic spread of wild birds infected with HPAI H5N1 over short distances”.

Most releases of gamebirds are likely to have already taken place, with the shooting season for pheasants having started on 1 October. 

The partridge, duck and goose open seasons started on 1 September, and the grouse and snipe open season started on the 12 August, which the APHA notes was during the “unprecedented situation that HPAI H5N1 was present in wild seabirds breeding at coastal sites around much of Great Britain”.