0 Pheasants - cultural heritage

Old age provides few consolations, but that my loyal Labrador cross Collie, Sidbury, is becoming increasingly deaf has made one aspect of our winter walks more bearable: he has never liked loud noises, so the period between bonfire night and the end of the shooting season has, until recently, been a cause of distress. Pitchcare Technical Manager, John Handley reports.

Winter walks at the weekend were frequently curtailed by the sound of pheasants being shot; Sidbury would act as if I were beating him, but it would be my hackles that would rise: "Why can't I enjoy a walk in the countryside without this insufferable shooting?", "It's inconsiderate of them to inflict their sport on everyone within hearing distance" and "What pleasure can they get from shooting a bird that has to be forced off the ground in order to be killed?"

At this point, I have to confess to being a walking cliché: I'm a sandal-wearing vegetarian. A liberal product of the BBC with all the self-inflicted angst and doubt that accompanies such an individual; more inclined to passive-aggressive self-justification than outright confrontation, and my further reaction is to consider the impact upon wildlife generally. So what is actually involved in rearing pheasants to be shot and can it be seen as a positive thing?

Pheasants have followed man's development of farming for over 5,000 years, from their native range across much of China and Asia to the Black Sea, they are now firmly rooted in much of Europe, North America and New Zealand. The Americans call the pheasant the ring-neck, but many species have no white collar so the name does not make much sense outside of North America.


The pheasant's formal scientific name is Phasianus colchicus. Both Phasianus and "pheasant" originally come from the Greek word phāsiānos, meaning "(bird) of the Phasis". Phasis is the ancient name of the main river of western Georgia, currently called the Rioni. Colchicus comes from Colchis, a reference to the mythical visit of Jason and the Argonauts to the Phasis Valley in Colchis, part of modern Georgia on the Black Sea, in search of the Golden Fleece. On Jason's return to Greece, he supposedly brought back the first pheasants to Europe, possibly around 1300 BC. The Greeks, and later the Romans, appear to have kept them as table birds. The Romans left recipes and accounts of how to keep them in captivity. Whether or not pheasants were established in Britain in Roman times is open to debate. There are Romano-British mosaic pavements from about the fourth century AD which appear to show pheasants, but these may have been copies from Europe. Even if they had spread to this country, they were certainly not common during the Dark Ages.

Left: Common pheasant nest Right: Extra large Ringneck chicks

More birds were almost certainly brought over by the Normans some time after their invasion in 1066. There are accounts of 'cocks of the wood' being served at banquets although these were very probably black grouse - it is impossible to tell. The next definitive evidence is the Sherborne Missal, an illuminated manuscript depicting a pheasant in the margin which was probably produced around 1400. After this, evidence starts to become more frequent. They were definitely breeding in the wild at the end of the 1400s, when their nests were protected by royal decree. Their range also began to spread, with records from Scotland and Ireland in the 1600s and slightly later in Wales.

Current practice

Game shooting is a thriving activity in the UK, worth over £2 billion each year with 83% of shoots relying on hand reared pheasants released into the countryside to supplement wild stocks. For over 100 years, pheasants, partridge and some duck have been reared on game farms to re-stock shoots. In Britain today there are around 300 game farms, mostly rearing pheasants and partridges. Some retain a breeding flock to produce their own eggs, others buy eggs or day-old chicks and rear them on.

The game farming year starts in February when laying birds are penned for mating and egg production. Eggs are collected daily from April onwards and are hatched in electronic incubators. The chicks are then reared on in purpose-built shelters, where they are provided with food, water, grit and all their other needs. As they grow, the chicks (now known as 'poults') are given access to outdoor runs where they can get used to the natural environment and 'harden off'. In about August, when the birds are some eight to ten weeks of age, they are sold to shoots, where gamekeepers will take over their care, releasing them carefully into the countryside. The shooting season for pheasants in England, Scotland and Wales the season is from 1 October to 1 February (31 January in Northern Ireland). The shot birds enter the human food chain but not all the birds released will be shot. The remainder live free in the wild, where some will breed naturally the following spring and contribute to the wild stock.

A distinction should be made between rough shooting and driven-game shooting. Rough shooting is where shooters use their dogs to flush game from hedgerows, woods or crops as they walk. Driven game shooting is where a group of shooters stand at given points or pegs across a piece of land and wait for game to fly up, flushed out by a team of beaters and dogs.

The Game Conservancy Trust (GCT) estimates that there are around 30-35 million game birds raised each year - roughly the same size as the UK commercial table egg production flock. The Game Farmers Association (GFA) put the figure for birds reared for release at 20-30 million, of which the majority (80%) are pheasants and most of the rest (16-17%) are Red-leg partridge. The final few percent are Grey partridge and ducks. Quoting the GCT as the source, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) suggest that 20-22 million pheasants are released each summer, with more than 2 million surviving until spring. Thus, there is a wide range of estimates of the size of the industry. The upper limit equates to some 44,000 tonnes of pheasants!

It is worth pointing out that there are a small number of shoots in lowland Britain where the wild pheasant population is managed for shooting. In this scenario, no birds are brought in and a considerable area of habitat can be managed to yield a limited number of shooting days. An example of this practice can be seen on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk.

According to Game Farmers Association (GFA) data, around 40% of pheasants reared come from France, either eggs or as day-old chicks (the transport limit is 24 hours providing it is completed within 72 hours after hatching). The high level of imports is largely due to the competitive pricing of the French stock and the belief in some quarters that the French birds give "better sport". There is also a small trade in 6-8-week old poults from France. This is likely to be no more than 1-2% of the pheasants reared. The maximum journey time of 12 hours for these birds makes much of the UK out of range for many French game farms, which limits this particular trade, providing transport regulations are followed.

It is understood that hatchability is around 75% for pheasant eggs. Estimates suggest that around 5% of chicks die in the first 2 weeks and a further 5% die prior to being placed in the release pens. The Game Farmers Association (GFA) estimate that around 5-10% of the birds placed into release pens die between release and shooting. The Gamekeepers Conservation Trust (GCT) puts the figure nearer 25%. Birds can perish from starvation, exposure, disease, predation, natural causes or under the wheels of motor vehicles as they begin to range further. Most of the predation of adult birds is by foxes, but mink can be a problem in some parts of the country.

In studies of radio-tagged pheasants it was discovered that between 2.7-5% were killed on the road. This equates to between 0.9 and 1.8 million pheasants each year. The insurance and damage costs of these collisions are unknown, but likely to be substantial.

The world of game shooting is split to some degree in its views on importing birds. Many large commercially-run shoots, particularly in the southern counties of England, opt for French stock. They require large numbers of birds, and price is an issue as they are competing in the top class world of corporate entertainment and recreation where margins are slim. The more traditional approach to game shooting is for release of moderate numbers of birds from locally sourced eggs. This system is less price-competitive, gives a degree of in-built biosecurity and could be viewed as being more sustainable.

The Gamekeepers Association of Britain and Northern Ireland was incorporated into the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) in 1975. BASC has 5,500 gamekeeper members, the majority of whom, it suggests, will also be members of the National Gamekeepers Organisation. In addition, 75% of its 122,000 members are actively involved in game shooting and land management.

A recent BASC survey showed that gamekeepers manage around 7.3 million hectares of land in the UK - an area almost the size of Scotland. The Game Conservation Trust (GCT) estimates that there is in excess of 10,000 holdings where pheasants are reared. The National Gamekeepers Organisation, however, believe this figure is too high.

Left: Melanistic Mutant Ringneck Cross pheasant


Fertile (hatching) eggs are around 40p each. Day old chicks currently cost between 60p and £1.00. Six to seven week-old poults are £3.50 each. There is also a limited market for 10 (or so) week old growers (i.e. out of the release pens) with prices ranging between £6.50 and £7 each. Prices will vary with demand and quantities traded.

The shot pheasant is worth only around 50p. The market is driven by the sale of the actual shooting. Costs for a shoot can vary enormously. One day's shooting can be between £25 and £35 per bird shot. The cost of a day's shooting varies between £100/gun for a smaller shoot, to £1000s/gun on a larger shoot. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation suggest that on smaller syndicates a full gun can be less than £350 for the season.

The BASC state that 80% of birds shot in the UK are exported to the Continent, with Belgium being a key market. Efforts are being made to increase domestic consumption, through, for example Game-to-Eat, a promotional body for the sector, which provides information and recipes to the public and is supported by celebrity chefs.

In the UK, 480,000 people shoot game. It is estimated that the industry supports the equivalent of 70,000 full-time jobs, and shooters spend £2 billion each year on goods and services. However, the objective of just 18% of shoot providers is to make a profit, as for most, shooting is a hobby. Each year £91 million is spent on eggs/chicks reared either in the UK or France, and of birds shot approximately 46% of pheasants and 37% of partridge are sold to dealers for human consumption, the rest being consumed by the shooting providers and the shooters. 2.7 million man-days per year are spent undertaking estate management, equivalent to 12,000 full-time jobs, and each year £12 million is spent on cover crop seed.

Ecological impact

A report written by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 2010 provided the following summary on the likely impact of gamebirds and shooting:

Game estate management

  • Game estate habitat management includes woodland sky-lighting, planting covercrops, conservation headlands, and more
  • It is likely that game estate management, including woodland and farmland habitat management, provision of supplemental food, and predator control increases the numbers of some bird groups, particularly warblers, finches and ground feeders
  • Estate management also benefits some small mammals, particularly wood mice and bank voles

Direct impacts of gamebirds

  • Gamebirds, mostly pheasants, modify woodland ground flora within release pens, through browsing and soil enrichment
  • Pheasants at high densities can modify hedgerow and hedgebank floral structure, and this may have knock-on effects for hedge nesting birds
  • Pheasants reduce the biomass of overwintering ground-active invertebrates and caterpillars that are important food resources for breeding birds
  • Breeding gamebirds may compete with native birds for invertebrate resources
  • Gamebirds on moorland fringe habitat threaten rare and endangered bryophyte communities, and may impact on red grouse and other fragile moorland bird species

Gamebirds and disease

  • Pheasants may spread numerous parasites to wild birds, particularly at feeders

Shooting practices

  • Birds of prey and other animals suffer lead poisoning following the consumption of gamebirds that are shot but not collected
  • Spent lead shot on game estates is ingested by some birds, leading to poisoning at sufficient concentrations
  • Lead shot in the environment may escalate the food chain from soil invertebrates to small mammals to predators
  • Unintentional by-catch of grey partridge results in population impacts on this declining species

Impacts on predators and predation dynamics

  • Predator abundance may be increased by excess prey abundance in the form of gamebirds Predators such as foxes and corvids may become more ubiquitous, and protected predators, such as raptors may also benefit
  • At the end of the shooting season, gamebirds may be reduced to such an extent that predators sustained at elevated numbers due to abundant overwinter prey may switch to other prey types. This period of low gamebird abundance coincides with the nesting season for most bird species, and over-abundant predators may have detrimental effects on nesting birds
  • Some gamekeepers persecute protected predators such as birds of prey, particularly buzzards and goshawks, which are perceived as threats to gamebirds

The overall perspective is that the impacts of gamebirds and gamebird shooting practices span multiple disciplines, but few have been extensively investigated. The data available shows that at high densities of gamebird release, negative environmental impacts are likely to occur, and may in some cases be severe. In the majority of cases however, where densities are moderate, it is likely that impacts are minor or may be offset by beneficial habitat management. In areas where good habitat management is combined with low release densities, or in areas that work to promote breeding populations of gamebirds, impacts may be largely positive.

However, the impact of my dog-walking activities may not be as benign as I'd assumed, according to a paper written recently. The evidence that dogs negatively impact wildlife is overwhelming. It is clear that people with dogs - on leads or off - are much more detrimental to wildlife than people without dogs.

  1. Physical and temporal displacement. The presence of dogs causes wildlife to move away, temporarily or permanently reducing the amount of available habitat in which to feed, breed and rest. Animals become less active during the day to avoid dog interactions. Furthermore, the scent of dogs repels wildlife and the effects remain after the dogs are gone.
  2. Disturbance and stress response. Animals are alarmed and cease their routine activities. This increases the amount of energy they use, while simultaneously reducing their opportunities to feed. Repeated stress causes long-term
  3. impacts on wildlife including reduced reproduction and growth, suppressed immune system and increased vulnerability to disease and parasites.
  4. Indirect and direct mortality. Dogs transmit diseases (such as canine distemper and rabies) to and from wildlife. Loose dogs kill wildlife.
  5. Human disease and water quality impacts. Dog waste pollutes water and transmits harmful parasites and diseases to people.

So what is my conclusion? Another aspect of getting older is an increasing capacity to reflect on my experience. Tolerance is also a liberal value, it requires a willingness to engage, learn and attempt to understand somebody else's perspective. To be willing to share the same space knowing that this may involve a certain amount of discomfort, and the more I become aware of this, the more I recognise that it's generally my own entrenched views, generally based upon very little evidence, which is the cause of my own discomfort. I enjoy seeing pheasants, they are such gaudy birds and their presence within the landscape is undoubtedly part of our cultural heritage.

I'd miss them if they weren't put there.

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