corpses of pheasants in a pit on duke of somersets land

Mass grave of pheasants found on Duke of Somerset’s land

Protesters on the Duke of Somerset’s land stumbled across a mass grave packed with the corpses of pheasants this May.

Protect the Wild joined hundreds of activists to take part in a mass trespass close to the duke’s Berry Pomeroy castle. The action was part of the wider Right To Roam campaign for greater access to roam our countryside in England.

The duke’s land is used as a forestry plantation and as a pheasant shoot. It is out of bounds to the public. As we picnicked in one of the duke’s fields for lunch, we found a large pit. Inside was a number of blood-stained pheasant carcasses, tangled up with old wire fencing and other rubbish.

Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England?, and part of the Right to Roam campaign organising the trespass, told me:

“This is the hidden side of the countryside. Behind the ‘keep out’ signs and the barbed wire fences this is the damage that’s going on, and yet it’s the public who get blamed for littering.”

The detrimental effects of the shooting industry

Pheasants are non-native birds, reared and then released into the countryside in the summer. The shooting season runs from October to February. Shrubsole said:

50 million pheasants are released into the British countryside every year. And the weight of these birds is more than the biomass of all of the wild birds in Britain put together. Absolutely insane.”

Indeed, the density of pheasants reared and released in the UK greatly exceeds that of any other country in Europe. Shrubsole continued:

“There’s no regulation over pheasant shooting. You try and re-release a beaver into the countryside – which was here for thousands of years before we killed it off – the amount of paperwork that re-wilders have to go through to reintroduce beavers is insane. And you don’t have to do anything if you want to release thousands of pheasants into your massive shooting estate.”

Common Pheasant male

Of the 50 million pheasants and 11 million partridges released into the countryside each year, around 30% are shot for ‘sport’. The others die of disease, starvation and are taken by predators, such as foxes.

Of course, so many million pheasants is going to be detrimental to other wildlife. A Labour Animal Welfare Society (LAWS) report states that:

“Financial interests override the environmental, ecological, conservation and animal welfare and public health impacts of the industry.”

And according to Wild Justice:

“Pheasants and partridges gobble up native vegetation, insects and reptiles, and they leave their droppings all over sensitive habitats. When they are dead, they are feeding foxes and scavengers, which then eat other protected species.”

Pheasants also have a big effect on our adder population, and a study has revealed that the sheer number of the game birds could wipe out our resident snake by 2032.

On top of all this, LAWS has found that the game bird industry uses a “disproportionate amount” of antibiotics, which enter our ecosystem. The report also states that:

“2500 tonnes of lead shot is fired into the environment by game bird shooters representing billions of individual pellets, generating high levels of risk in local areas.”

LAWS states that potentially dangerous levels of lead can be found in game birds eaten by consumers. 

Grey Partridge

Very weak legislation

In 2020, NGO Wild Justice stated that it had won a victory when it took legal action to try to prevent the release of almost 60 million pheasants and partridges into the countryside, arguing that the birds could damage our protected wildlife sites.

Subsequently, Defra added common pheasants and red-legged partridges to Section 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which lists non-native species that cause ecological, environmental or socio-economic harm. New Defra legislation – brought into law in 2021 and applicable in England – states that anyone who wants to release the game birds into protection areas designated as European sites (Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas), or within 500 metres of their boundary, needs to follow the conditions of a new general licence. According to Defra, if you are the authorised owner of a site in which pheasants or partridges will be released, “you do not need to apply or register to use this licence.”

Wild Justice had fought for a 5km buffer zone around the protected areas, but the British Association for Shooting and Conservation worked with Natural England to produce a review, that was then used by Defra in the judicial review, to rebut the wildlife organisation’s proposal.

According to Wild Justice, at the same time as bringing in the new licence for protected areas, the government “exempted all areas away from designated wildlife sites from these restrictions.” A quick look at the map of locations of the protected European sites, which only cover around 5% of land in England, shows that men like the Duke of Somerset can continue with business as usual.

And Sporting Shooter stated that:‍

“Around 90 per cent of the land used for lowland game shooting remains unaffected by this decision.”


Illegally killing wild birds to protect shooting

In order to protect the commercial interests of the game bird industry, other wildlife is lawfully murdered by humans, with the widespread use of poisons, snares and traps, and by shooting.

The government has even issued another general licence, allowing people to murder certain wild birds – mostly corvids – in order to prevent “serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, fisheries or inland waters.” Game birds are included in Defra’s definition of ‘livestock’. Under the licence, any authorised person can kill the target species, as well as destroy their eggs and nests. Wild Justice is taking legal steps to challenge the government. It said:

“The 2022-23 version of [the licence] appears to broaden the circumstances under which game birds can be considered livestock and therefore can be protected from corvids. It does so by introducing the concept that game birds can be ‘dependent’ on their human owners or keepers even after they are released into the countryside, at any time in the future and at any distance from their release site.”

The classification of a game bird as livestock or as a wild bird changes depending on when the law suits. For example, while pheasants are classed as livestock in order for people to shoot corvids, they’re then classed as wild birds if they cause damage once they’re released – absolving the farmer of any responsibility. Their status changes again to livestock when farmers want to gather the birds up again for breeding: it would be against the law to do this to a wild bird.

Chris Packham told The Independent that the designation of game birds as livestock or wild birds is “orchestrated to suit the shooting fraternity.”

He said:

“There’s an economic element here because if it’s livestock, then there are various tax and VAT benefits.”


The issue is with the land-owning elite

Of course, the issue here isn’t with pheasants themselves, but with the landowners who continue to profit from breeding, rearing and releasing them in the name of sport. The Duke of Somerset, whose land we were trespassing on and who is responsible for the bloody pheasant carcasses that we found, is one of 30 dukes in the UK. 24 of them – including the Duke of Somerset – together own around a million acres of land. As outlined by Shrubsole in Who Owns England, the aristocracy has reaped millions of pounds in farm subsidies and continues to benefit from tax breaks.

92% of land in England is off-limits to normal people. We’re not allowed to swim in 97% of our rivers and waterways. The English countryside will continue to be used as playgrounds for the rich – for game bird shooting, stag hunting, or fox hunting – for as long as we don’t have access to it.

In order to protect the land, and the wildlife on it, we need to be able to roam it.

Join the campaign for the right to roam our land in England