The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Benyon) (Con)
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.