Avian Influenza: Game Birds - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 18 January 2023.

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Photo of Lord Colgrain Lord Colgrain Conservative 3:30, 18 January 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in determining a link between avian influenza and game birds; and in respect of any such link, what plans they have to ban the rearing and release of game birds, given the impact that this could have on the rural labour market.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I again declare my farming interests as set out in the register. We have strict biosecurity rules in place to limit the spread of avian influenza, including for the catching up and release of game birds, which are not permitted to be released in disease control zones or in avian influenza prevention zones with housing measures. The Government will keep the policy regarding future game bird releases under review and will take into consideration the outcomes of the risk assessments beyond risk levels and the ongoing avian influenza outbreak.

Photo of Lord Colgrain Lord Colgrain Conservative

I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his reply, which in large part is reassuring. Nevertheless, he will know that plans need to be made over the next few weeks to decide whether many shoots, and the direct and indirect employment that goes with them, will continue for the new season. The financial contribution of shooting to the rural economy has been put annually at over £2 billion, with the hospitality sector in particular being a major beneficiary. Thousands of full-time jobs are at risk, as well as many part-time jobs. Can my noble friend the Minister indicate when he thinks any formal guidance on other issues affecting shooting can be given, such as the banning of the import of eggs or poults? Given the recent pandemic experience gained from the autumn migration, to what extent does he think that the spring migration arrivals will make a difference to current avian influenza levels?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Because this outbreak was originally brought by migrating birds, we follow the patterns of migrating birds very closely. The noble Lord is right that there is a concern in the autumn as migrating birds come in and move either south to north or west to east. We continue to monitor that. The increase in cases in poultry settings is slightly below what we feared it would be and we hope that trend continues. On the noble Lord’s other point, he is absolutely right that the businesses will want to de-risk as much as they can. We are trying to support them by giving as much information as we can. That is why we have just given guidance, on the basis of scientific evidence, on the practice of catching up birds to breed from later this year. That is now published.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, would my noble friend confirm that, when decisions are taken, they will be made on the best scientific evidence and not emotion or by those who shout the loudest? Has he seen the latest thorough scientific research which shows that shooting is beneficial to biodiversity in the same area?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My noble friend is right to raise this point. My department will make decisions on the basis of evidence. We will not be swayed by those who say we should allow activities like shooting regardless of the risks or by those who use this tragic outbreak as a hook on which to limit shooting or even ban it. We will make evidence-based decisions. However, we better make sure we are thinking of the counterfactuals as well, such as £2 billion of investment to some of the most remote parts of the country and 74,000 jobs. These are factors we also have to consider. If a shoot no longer exists, there will be no predation control, and cover crops being planted and other activities which are of massive benefit to wildlife in this country will no longer take place. That needs to be remembered.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, once game birds have been released, they are classed as wild birds for bird flu purposes. The person who releases the game birds is no longer their keeper. Currently, game birds may not be released into the wild if in a disease control zone or an avian influenza prevention zone with housing measures. Does the Minister think these provisions are sufficient?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We constantly monitor that, and we understand that people will want to make decisions about the release of game birds later in the summer. We want to ensure that we are providing them with information so that they know whether to invest or not. This is a very worrying time for the industry, and we want to try to support it. People in the industry will not be able to move birds from one area to another if one of those is a protection zone. That must be the case, because we cannot allow anything that would put at risk the spread of this disease. Our information about many of those activities is that the vast majority of outbreaks in wild birds, particularly shore birds, happened before the pheasant releases last summer—that needs to be considered as well.

Photo of Lord Trees Lord Trees Crossbench

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his answer on avian flu. However, putting that to one side, given that some 30 million to 45 million pheasants and some 10 million red-legged partridges are released in England and Wales every year, what assessment have His Majesty’s Government made of the effect that that might have on ecological balance, the prevalence of other pathogens and parasites, and biodiversity in the habitats which those birds share with other birds and other wildlife?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Some work has been done with Natural England and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation to try to assess the impact. For the vast majority of cases, the birds disperse among other wildlife in a way which does not affect it, but there may be certain areas where there is an impact. We want to learn more about that, and we are working with shooting organisations to ensure that we are getting the best possible evidence.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that all the grouse moors and pheasant shoots to which the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, and others referred are up in Scotland? Following his answer to the previous Question, a large number of national parks are also in Scotland. That is not surprising, because Scotland represents one-third of the land area of the whole of the United Kingdom, which Lord Barnett, in his wisdom, took account of when deciding his formula.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The noble Lord is dexterous and ingenious at trying to wangle the previous Question into this one. Lots of those kinds of activities take place in England, and an enormous proportion of our uplands are in England as well as Scotland, so that has absolutely nothing to do with the Barnett formula.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, returning to the evidence on avian flu, figures from the US, Japan and across Europe show that the outbreaks of avian flu are not in any way reducing in either virulence or scale. Is it not clear from the figures we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Trees, that there is no way that we can continue, into the future, releasing those massive numbers of reared birds into the natural world? Is it not the case, for the sake of both public health and animal health, that we cannot continue that industry certainly on anything like the current scale?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Given the absolute assurance that we will follow the science, and that it will be evidence-led and neither anecdotal nor the sort of knee-jerk reactions of people coming from both ends of the issue, the noble Baroness must also agree with me that she wants to see—she is shaking her head already, but she has not listened to what I have to say, and she might actually agree with me—a reversal in the tragic decline in farmland birds and an increase in biodiversity in this country. Some £250 million a year is spent by private individuals on conservation, because of activities such as shooting, so she must think of the counterfactual when she argues her point.

Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative

Is the Minister aware that a tremendous number of gannets have died from avian flu? Most of those birds have a wing-span of six feet, and there is a considerable danger that, instead of having a life expectancy of 70 years, they are transmitting the illness to game birds and other species. Can something more be done, either through vaccination or other preventive measures?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

What is happening to shore birds is a tragedy. There is a slightly different strain affecting shore birds and poultry—and pheasants I class with the latter. It is a tragedy that is apparent when you look at Bass Rock, which for centuries has been white and is now black, because there are not the sea-birds on it. We are working across government to make sure that we address the disease in wild as well as domestic birds.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, following on from the question about vaccination, we know that researchers are confident that they will make progress down this route—potentially through gene-editing techniques. Obviously, that is going to take some time, so in the interim the disease is going to continue to mutate, with all the risks that that brings for animals and, potentially, even humans. Given the cross-border nature of the problem, what steps are the Government taking to ensure an international research effort similar to that which we saw during the Covid pandemic?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can absolutely assure the noble Baroness that this is happening. As she says, this is a global issue, and there are many forums in which we deal with it. The World Organisation for Animal Health is one of them, and our chief vet and her team are completely embedded in this. If we can find a vaccination solution that is both effective and practical, I assure her that we will take every measure to see it implemented here, and we are working hard to achieve that.