Conservation activists are suing the UK government over the release of millions of game birds on to land which is home to rare and threatened species.

The campaign group Wild Justice accuses ministers of breaching their legal duties to protect sites of high conservation value in England by failing to control the use of large areas of countryside to shoot pheasant and red-legged partridge for sport.

Their judicial review will be heard in the high court in November, as complaints mount about the exemptions given by ministers to the shooting industry to continue field sports during the coronavirus pandemic.

It emerged earlier this week that the UK and Scottish governments had included grouse, pheasant, wildfowl and partridge shooting among dozens of sports exempted from “rule of six” controls on meeting other people.

Labour accused Conservative ministers at Westminster of protecting their friends. The Scottish Greens challenged ministers in Edinburgh on whether it was fair that large shooting parties were exempt yet children’s birthday parties were restricted.

Mark Avery, an ornithologist who co-founded Wild Justice with presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, and Ruth Tingay, a blogger who specialises in bird of prey persecution, said ministers had consistently failed to regulate the industry.

He said about 47m non-native pheasants and 10m red-legged partridges were bred and released each year solely to be shot. About two-thirds of those escaped and were killed by predators, vehicles or disease.

There was evidence game birds ate endangered insects and plant life, unbalancing the delicate ecology of these sites, Avery said. Their excrement added to the over-enrichment of fragile ecosystems with nutrients Releasing millions of game birds into the wild also unnaturally boosted predators such as foxes, crows and rats.

“Given that the government isn’t clamping down on field sports, you can see why the industry thinks they’ve got powerful mates,” Avery said. “The rule of six decision has woken up the Labour party and millions of other people to ask why nothing has been done.”

The Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched a review of its game bird policies last year to fend off an earlier threat of court action by Wild Justice.

The latest case, which is being contested by the shooting industry, focuses on Defra’s alleged breaches of the EU’s habitats and birds directives that protect millions of acres of countryside in England designated as conservation areas.

Avery said the number of pheasants and partridge released for shooting every autumn was 10-fold higher than 50 years ago, with a biomass equal to UK’s entire wild bird population. That dwarfed the 700,000 red grouse shot on the UK’s upland shooting estates each year.

“The scale of it is just massive, yet partridge and pheasant shooting is totally unregulated,” he said.

The British Association of Shooting and Conservation (Basc), the sport’s representative body and a co-defender in the Wild Justice court action, said Natural England had powers to control or ban game sports on protected sites. Avery said those had very rarely been used.

Christopher Graffius, Basc’s communications director, said the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust had guidelines on how many birds could be safely released and estates that broke the rules had been sanctioned.

“Wild Justice aren’t only looking at protected sites, they’re looking at massive buffer zones around them,” he added. “That would effectively cripple game shooting in large areas of the countryside, taking with it all the jobs and conservation work it does.”

Defra said it agreed in principle with Wild Justice’s argument that EU law required it to properly assess releases of game birds on protected sites, but it was still reviewing whether those rules were good enough. “The review will not result in any immediate changes for owners or occupiers of land,” it said.

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