A contradictory case: Game birds and avian flu

Jonathan Elmer, Green Party Natural World spokesperson, discusses how the release of game birds could be spreading avian flu and increasing the chances of a mutation harmful to humans.

Game birds behind a fence
Game birds behind a fence

Image credit: League Against Cruel Sports

Jonathan Elmer

The rapid spread of avian flu represents an existential crisis for the wild bird population, and the current outbreak is worse than has ever been by some margin. It may be that the virus has mutated to become more transmissible between birds or that it simply persists longer in the environment. Whatever the reason, 160 million wild and domestic birds have now died directly from the virus or through being culled following infection to contain its spread.  To gain a sense of what this means for the population of a specific species, Professor Munir Iqbal of the UK's Pirbright Institute, which specialises in animal welfare, states "For example, it has killed 40 per cent of the skua population in Scotland, and 2,000 Dalmatian pelicans in Greece”. Avian flu is thought to have originally emerged from intensive poultry farms, and given that it has now spread around the world, it now represents a global pandemic for wild birds.

As in previous outbreaks, the response from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been to monitor outbreaks and the overall geographical spread of the virus and instigate requirements for all domestic birds to be housed indoors when bird flu is observed in proximity. This serves to reduce the likelihood of domestic flocks becoming infected but also reduces the likelihood of the virus being transmitted back into wild bird populations. When a domestic flock does become infected, all birds are destroyed. This seems cruel but is more humane than letting the birds die from the virus. It also serves to reduce the likelihood of dangerous mutations occurring that may increase the transmissibility of the virus within bird populations and potentially to humans. So far so good in terms of the UK response to this terrible situation!

A UK Government backed project, dubbed FluMap, has been set up to study the spread of Bird Flu. Currently, there is a low risk that the virus might spread from birds to humans as this requires prolonged exposure for humans to catch the virus. However, the Government’s FluMap task force believes there is a chance that the virus could mutate, making it more transmissible to humans. In an interview with iNews, leading influenza virologist, Professor Wendy Barclay, says ‘it’s a roll of the dice that will decide if bird flu mutates to become airborne and highly transmissible to humans’. She goes on to state: “We do have what we call seed strains for all of these dangerous viruses laid down”. 

“They’re not the perfect match because the virus is always mutating a little bit. But my understanding is that the current vaccine for the H5N1 strain we had one or two years ago has been tested and is cross-reactive with the current strain.

“We would expect it to work properly if the current strain were to mutate and cause mass infection of humans, which I stress is considered a low risk at the moment.”

Health officials believe that the risk of the avian flu virus becoming airborne is low, therefore humans are unlikely to become infected, however, if the virus mutates and becomes airborne then the situation is very different. The government puts the mortality rate of unvaccinated people contracting Avian Flu at 60 per cent. You can compare this to Covid-19 which is 2 per cent.

We know from Covid-19, that the more the virus is able to replicate, the more likely a mutation will occur. Why then are the regulations that are applied to domestic birds not also applied to game birds and in particular pheasants? Currently, these birds are reared in captivity, sometimes densely packed together, and then released into the wild to be shot by hunters. Natural England, in their report to Defra entitled ‘Ecological Consequences of Gamebird Releasing and Management on Lowland Shoots in England’ estimates that an astonishing 39 to 57 million pheasants are released from holding pens into the wild each year. This situation couldn’t be more problematic in terms of increasing the likelihood of a harmful mutation, then the transition of that mutation to wreak havoc within wild bird populations, then humans.  

It seems likely that current practices within the game shooting industry increase the chances of viral transmission within wild bird populations as infected game birds could be released into the wild before an infection becomes apparent. It’s also likely that these practices increase the chances of a mutation emerging that enables the transmissibility of avian flu to humans, as when in captivity the birds are often densely packed together.

The UK Government needs to act immediately and impose an outright ban on the release of game birds into the wild as long as avian flu is present. In the longer term, and given what we now know about the ecological impact associated with the game bird industry (regardless of avian flu), this ban should be permanent.

If the Government is not prepared to consider an outright ban on these practices, then current regulations need to be changed so that game birds are treated as domestic birds throughout their life, and not – as is currently the case – classed as wild birds following their release. This would at least serve to ensure that the owners of the birds can be held legally liable for any consequences associated with their release