This weekend, it will not be uncommon to come across a pheasant along country roads. Recognizable by its beautiful colorful plumage, punctuated with red and bluish reflections, this bird always reappears in rural landscapes, at weekends, from mid-September.
The reason ? Game releases for the opening of the hunting season. This will begin on September 11 in the departments of southern France – from September 18 or 25 for the others – and will end at the beginning of 2023. .
Throughout this period, hunters will (among other things) track pheasants and partridges. Wild birds, which for the most part are no longer wild. Many of them are bred in captivity for months, in order to be sold to hunters – who release them a few days before the start of the hunt, then try to kill them.
The practice exists “ for centuries », says naturalist Pierre Rigaux. But hunting game farms developed particularly in the 1970s, when small wild animals (hares, rabbits, birds, etc.) disappeared from the French countryside. “ It was necessary to bring a complement of game to be able to practice hunting without creating or deteriorating the central capital of the populations »justifies Jean-Christophe Chastang, president of the national union of game producers (SNPGC), in an interview with Chassons TV.
The practice has continued ever since. But not just for hunting, insists Nicolas Rivet, director general of the National Federation of Hunters (FNC). “ There are different times when game is returned to nature, with completely different objectives, he explains to Reporterre. There is shooting game of course, but also breeding game, released at the end of spring, and restocking game. The objective is to reintegrate pheasants in certain places, by releasing birds, but also by developing the territory, by replanting hedges, or by prohibiting the shooting of pheasant hens, for example. »
10 to 15 million birds bred in France
How many game farms are there today, and how many animals are kept there ? Hard to know. No census work is made public by the prefectures or the hunting federations.
In 2013, the SNPGC gave several figures: 1,500 farms in France for 14 million pheasants bred, 5 million gray and red partridges, 1 million mallard ducks… Since then, Jean-Christophe Chastang told the newspaper 20 minutes that an investigation was underway to update these figures. According to a first estimate, there would now be “ 350 to 400 breeders » which would produce each year in France “ 10 to 15 million birds » – mainly partridges and pheasants. A part is exported, notably to England, Spain and Italy.
- Release of partridges the day before a hunting day in Brittany by a local hunting society. © Arnaud Le Vu / Hans Lucas / via AFP
“ Breeders are obliged to note the entrances to their breeding, and the exits (sales to hunters), says Pierre Rigaux. We can know the number of birds sold, but that does not mean that we will know where they are released, or by whom, or even if it is in France or abroad. » “ All this deserves to be framed much more than it is »believes Yves Verilhac, director general of the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO).
Contacted, nor the national union of hatcheries (ANSfor the reproduction part), nor the SNPGC (for the breeding part) did not respond to our interview requests within the time allowed.
Imprisoned in cages for their eggs
Because there are two distinct aspects in this sector: the reproduction of animals, and their breeding as such. Breeding farms are recognizable by their rows of hundreds of cages, placed next to each other, outdoors. Birds are usually two per cage for partridges (one male and one female), and ten per cage for pheasants (one rooster and eight to nine pheasant hens). The height of the cages, suspended above the ground, is 10 centimeters. The floor of the cages is meshed, so that the droppings of the birds fall on the ground, and tilted, so that the eggs can be collected and placed in incubators, where they can hatch. 
These animals called “ breeders » remain imprisoned there, in all weathers, until the age of two or three years, when they are sold to hunters. “ It’s battery farming of wild animals, denounces Muriel Arnal, president of the association for the defense of animal rights One Voice. They are however territorial animals, which need vast spaces. »
“ It’s battery farming »
In France, these farms mainly belong to the Gibovendée company. “ Leader in game breeding in France and Europe », as its slogan suggests. In 2020, the association for the defense of animal rights L214 published videos of a farm belonging to Gibovendée, located in Missé (Deux-Sèvres). We saw agitated birds, trying to fly out of their cage, and bumping against the ceiling of it. Some stuck their heads in the egg passage, dying. The trash can was littered with corpses. Rebelote in 2022: One Voice broadcast similar images, from another Gibovendée farm, this time located in La Peyratte (still in Deux-Sèvres).
- One of the largest hunting animal farms located in Missé in Deux-Sèvres, owned by Gibovendée. Screenshot from a video by L214
One Voice and L214 therefore opposed the expansion of this La Peyratte farm, which now has 95,200 poultry places. In vain. The extension has been validated, a posterioriby the prefecture. “ Breeders are regularly trained on breeding, animal welfare and even ethology », can we read in the report of the commissioner-investigator justifying the authorization. Solicited, the Gibovendée company did not answer our questions.
Even unhunted, they can’t survive in the wild
Once the chicks are out of their shell on the breeding farms, they are housed on the same farm, or put in crates and transported to a non-breeding operation. There, they are also installed in a heated hangar.
“ In nature, these are animals that live with their mother, or in small social groups, recalls Pierre Rigaux, who investigated about thirty farms. There, on the contrary, they are without their parents, in sheds in which there are thousands of chicks of the same age and of the same species. » To avoid aggression, the birds are kept in the dark. Breeders install caps on them. “ When the birds begin to be old enough to be able to fly, there are regularly some that fly away, continues Pierre Rigaux. There are movements of panic, they smash against the ceiling, against the metal beams. » In these buildings, the quality charter of the SNPGC requires breeders to respect a density of 35 pheasants maximum per square meter, and 50 partridges maximum per square meter. After a few weeks, the birds move from the shed to the outdoor aviaries.
At first glance, these aviaries – long fields where netting is set up several meters high to prevent birds from escaping – give the impression of space, after weeks spent building them. But even this step poses a problem, according to Pierre Rigaux: “ As soon as there is a moment of panic, all the birds take flight in a group effect, and smash against the net. There are birds whose necks are caught in the meshes of the net, which are found hanged. That is linked to the still somewhat wild side of these animals. »
- A male pheasant. Flickr / CC BY–CN–n/a 2.0 / cedric deplanque
Finally, after a few months of existence, comes the moment of sale. The birds are beaten up and put in crates to be transported. They are then released by the hunters – the president of the SNPGC prefer to talk about “ return in kind ». “ It’s all abuse, from the beginning – growing up in the dark without their parents – to the end, being released into the wild, something they don’t know, which scares them, where they can’t feed themselves. . They are victims of all possible predations »denounces Muriel Arnal, of the association One Voice.
Indeed, the National Health Security Agency (ANSES) pointed out, in an opinion published in 2016, that “ very high mortality rates are observed in the days and weeks » following the releases, including those “ restocking ». “ These rates can range from 45-55 % up to 60-80 % »continues ANSES, emphasizing a “ maladjustment of these birds to the environment » and an “ significant and rapid predation by carnivores or raptors ». Thus, even if they are not killed directly by hunters, the birds do not manage to survive.
“ Yes, as in any repopulation, there is mortality. It’s nature »says Nicolas Rivet of the FNC. He pursues : “ To carry out these operations, there must also be territorial management measures, we must think globally. Do we stop everything because there is mortality? ? No more restocking ? »
“ Droppings add nitrates to the water »
“ The breeding of hunting game brings together all the negative signals, judge Guillaume Dumoulin, spokesman for the section of Europe Écologie-Les Verts in Deux-Sèvres. These are factory farms, which limit animal welfare and generate pollution. Birds produce very nitrogenous droppings, this adds nitrates to already very low surface waters, this can affect the water table, aquatic fauna… » Not to mention that this type of intensive poultry farming increases the risk of an avian flu epidemic.
- Birds are usually two per cage for partridges (one male and one female), and ten per cage for pheasants (one rooster and eight to nine pheasant hens). Screenshot from a video by L214.
Faced with this avalanche of problems, anger rises. “ Breeding birds in miserable conditions just for the sake of shooting them, I don’t think that’s defensible. », says the naturalist Pierre Rigaux. Like several associations, it calls for a radical reform of hunting and the prohibition of game farms.
We are still far from it: it is clear that the State supports this type of breeding. During the health crisis in 2021, derogations were granted to extend the hunting period for small game, and thus sell the stock of producers. The Ministry of Agriculture has deployed a budget of nine million euros to “ to accompany » Breeders. It remains to be seen whether the newly elected deputies will want to take up the subject, and propose a regulation of the sector.