Pheasants have been found in the UK since at least the Norman period, and possibly since Roman times
By Roger Draycott
Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Giving thanks for shooting's favourite bird
Monday marked arguably the most important date of any gameshooter’s calendar: the start of the pheasant shooting season. Of course, there is much anticipation for the first grouse and partridge, too, but it is pheasants that form the bulk of gameshooting in the UK, accounting for 80 per cent of all gamebirds shot. Equally cherished by roughshooters and driven shooters alike, there is nothing quite like the first cackling and crowing cock bird of the season breaking cover and hurtling into the sky.
In some conservation circles, pheasants are much maligned as being non-natives, but they have actually been around for a long time — at least since the Norman period, and possibly since Roman times — and I would argue that they are very much part of our rural heritage. Our lowland agricultural landscape, with its network of woodlands and hedgerows, owes a great deal to the humble pheasant. How many small farm woodlands would remain today if it wasn’t for generation after generation of farmers with a desire to have a pheasant shoot? Indeed, it is the interest in pheasant shooting that is usually one of the principal reasons for planting new woodlands and sympathetically managing existing ones.
Recent research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has sought to quantify how much wildlife benefits from the management associated with pheasant shooting. For example, it showed that woodlands managed for pheasants have between 50 and 70 per cent more breeding songbirds such as migratory warblers than non-game woods. The reason there are more warblers is because of the thinning and shrub planting that is undertaken by keepers and foresters in game woods.
It found that farms with a pheasant shoot have up to 65 per cent more hedgerow, and that thousands of tons of wheat fed to pheasants is shared with millions of songbirds in winter — a lifeline recognised by DEFRA, which, from January, is offering payments for the supplementary feeding of songbirds as an option in Environmental Stewardship Schemes.
The rise of pheasant shooting
So how did pheasant shooting become so popular in the UK? In large part it is because the birds are so adaptable, and they have followed man’s development of agriculture across the globe. With the help of man, pheasants have successfully colonised large parts of Europe and North America — a long way from their native range in China. In most of their native and naturalised ranges, the majority of birds are wild, breeding successfully in areas where the habitat is right, but usually limited from reaching high densities due to predation. In the UK and parts of Europe, the majority of pheasants are, of course, reared ones. It is the relative ease with which they are reared that has resulted in their becoming so popular.
However, despite the fact that more than nine out of 10 birds are of reared origin, given the right conditions, wild pheasants can thrive, too. After a determined springtime effort controlling foxes and crows and heaving sacks of grain along hedgerows to keep hoppers running, there can be few more rewarding sights for a keeper than seeing several wild broods of varying ages — from chicks to gangly teenagers — foraging on the late-summer stubbles. Unfortunately, this has been a rare sight this summer, as the catastrophic weather has seriously impacted on wild pheasant productivity.
Most wild pheasant shoots will be cutting back on shooting this season and shooting only cocks — a wise move that will surely benefit breeding stocks next year. A few wild shoots have also reported more signs of disease in recent years.
Is this a worrying trend or just a short-term blip caused by unusual weather patterns? This is an issue the GWCT research team is currently investigating.
Nurturing wild birds
All pheasant shoots — not only the exclusively wild ones — can help boost stocks of wild pheasants by carefully nurturing the surviving reared birds at the end of the shooting season. There are probably two-million released hens left on the ground after 1 February. These should be considered a valuable resource, but sometimes they are left in suboptimal breeding habitat with a lack of supplementary food and predator control — right when they need it most.
Spring feeding — combined with predator control and decent nesting and brood-rearing habitat — can enable reared hens successfully to raise a brood. A GWCT study of radio-tagged reared hens last year showed that 50 reared hens alive on 1 March produced 34 wild poults. Multiply this number across a shoot and the numbers become significant — and remember, these are wild birds whose potential to survive and breed in subsequent years will be much higher than the naive juvenile birds released in the summer.
Whatever you will be shooting this season — reared or wild, driven or walked-up — it will be the pheasant that is at the heart of all this enjoyment. What would we do without it?
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