Conservationists say Britain’s native wildlife will benefit from a new licensing system for game-bird shooting - which ministers announced just days before being taken to court in an effort to force their hand.
The government has resisted years of pressure from environmental experts to bring in mandatory licences for landowners who allow non-native pheasants and partridges to be shot for “sport”.
But now officials have accepted the game birds as a “problem species”, say campaigners who hailed the announcement as a “historic environmental victory”.
Wildlife group Wild Justice, jointly led by BBC naturalist Chris Packham, says releasing game birds into the countryside harms native flora and fauna, including native birds, reptiles such as common lizards and adders, and vegetation. The group had been preparing for a legal battle with the government next week over introducing licensing.
More than 60 million birds are bred for shooting each year on Britain’s 300 game farms, in an industry that is worth more than £2bn a year, according to the Game Farmers’ Association.
At least 50 million captive-reared pheasants and nearly 12 million red-legged partridges are released to be shot – numbers that have risen sharply since the 1980s.
The released birds threaten native wildlife by increasing predator numbers and creating competition for food, according to Natural England, the government’s nature advisers.
In announcing the outcome of a review launched earlier this year of the effects of releasing the birds, the Department for Enivronment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “There are minimal or no effects beyond 500m from the point of release.”
But it also said a new interim licensing regime would be launched for next year’s releases of common pheasant and red-legged partridge within European protected sites and within a 500m buffer zone around the sites.
Wild Justice said in a statement: “We’re delighted. This is a historic environmental victory by the smallest wildlife NGO in the UK against the massed ranks of government lawyers, Defra, Natural England and the shooting industry.
“Thanks to our legal challenge, the shooting industry faces its largest dose of regulation since a ban on the use of lead ammunition in wildfowling in England in 1999.”
Opponents of game shooting also say it is cruel, with birds kept in cages suffering severe feather loss and wounding themselves in futile efforts to esape.
One study found only 6 per cent of birds reared make it to the food chain through licensed game-processing plants as demand for shooting them far outstrips demand for their meat. Dead pheasants have been found dumped in pits, but estate owners say most birds are taken home by shooters or sold to pubs and butchers.
Wild Justice added: “Pheasants and red-legged partridges are now recognised by government as problem species where their numbers are too high and they cause damage to vegetation, soils, invertebrates, reptiles etc.”
Environment secretary George Eustice said: “The negative effects of game-bird releases on protected sites tend to be localised with minimal or no effects beyond 500m from the point of release.
“However, our review highlighted a need to gain a better understanding of how any localised impacts might be mitigated and existing arrangements strengthened.
“The introduction of an interim licensing regime for next year will enable us to manage any potential impacts while gathering more information where evidence gaps exist. We will continue to engage and consult with industry in order to minimise any disruption.”
Wild Justice said it would go back to court if Defra failed to implement the licensing system, for which the EU Habitats Directive allows.
Tim Bonner, of the Countryside Alliance, said licensing would achieve nothing as there was “no evidence” game birds were doing any damage but welcomed the announcement.
Duncan Orr-Ewing, the RSPB’s head of species and land management said: “This is a positive announcement and an important step in recognising that releasing non-native game birds into our countryside every year is not sustainable or in line with the urgent need to protect and restore the best spaces for our native wildlife.
“There is no escaping that the UK’s wildlife is facing a crisis with once-common species becoming rarer and vital habitat under threat, so it is essential we understand the threats to our natural world.”