Sunday, 20 January 2013

100 Species, Number 3: Pheasant

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

In the weeks leading up to Christmas large areas of Norfolk’s countryside sounded like a war zone. Fortunately civil war hasn’t been declared, nor were we being invaded, but the target of these fusillades is, in the main, one species of bird, the pheasant.

It is said that as much money is spent nationally by landowners on the ‘welfare’ of this one species as is spent by conservation charities and Government on the protection of all other wild bird species. 

When I first moved to Norfolk more than 25 years ago one of my most striking impressions, apart from its relative flatness - well I had moved from Wales - was the sheer numbers of pheasants that I saw. Pheasants lying dead on roads, pheasants standing in groups in the middle of country lanes looking lost (it was October), pheasants trying their best to commit suicide by diving from the verge into the path of my car, pheasants exploding noisily into the air causing me to jump on country walks, pheasants in my garden eating the bird seed... Norfolk had a lot of pheasants 25 years ago and it still does today.

Pheasant at East Carleton, by Duncan Macnab. Submitted to NWT online gallery
Not that I have anything against pheasants. The cock is surely one of our most striking British birds, if British we can call it. In sunshine they shine as bright and beautiful as kingfishers, though rather than blues their iridescent colour mix is of bronze, gold and black on their bodies plus blues, greens or purples, depending on the angle of the light, on their necks, topped off with those extraordinary, erectile red wattles around each eye. And that’s not all! They sport one of the longest tails of any British bird and strange tufts of feathers behind each ear which they erect when excited. And as a male in late winter will gather a harem of up to a dozen females that can be quite often! They are also more variable in plumage than almost any bird I know. A product of the long history of gamekeepers introducing different races: ring necked, black necked, melanistic ‘French blacks’, Michigan blue backs, fen pheasants, ‘Scandinavian’ are just some breeds that are favoured. In contrast the females are shades of brown, though with an attractive plainness and a quiet beauty all of their own.

So why have I included this species on my list of 100 species that made Norfolk? Well this is a bird that has determined the landscape of many large estates and much Norfolk farmland. It has even changed the routes of major roads and, I was about to say, caused whole villages to be destroyed and moved, but perhaps that was more to do with deer! Another story for a future post. However our history of obsession with this one bird is certainly an interesting one for any landscape or social historian, especially here in Norfolk.

So let’s start at the beginning, perhaps that should be with a ‘once upon a time’. To do this we need to go back at least 2,000 years, or perhaps even further, for, of course, the pheasant, with its brilliant tropical looking plumage, is not a British native species at all. This is an Asian bird. The first record of an introduction into Europe goes back to the story of Jason and the Argonauts who, in their search for the Golden Fleece, visited the valley of the River Phasis in the Colchis region of Georgia – hence the pheasant’s name, Phasianus colchicus, and returned to Greece bearing pheasants. Almost certainly it was the Romans who first brought pheasants to East Anglia. They left recipes, and pictured pheasants in their mosaics. It’s most likely that they kept pheasants as cage birds for the table. Doubtless some would have escaped. However there is little real evidence of wild pheasants in Norfolk until after the Norman conquest. What is more certain is that by the time of Henry VIII pheasants were established and were highly valued. Henry passed laws making taking a pheasant’s eggs punishable by a year’s imprisonment. 

Today in Norfolk we think of the pheasant as the game bird par excellence. I have no idea how many are released by gamekeepers each year into the Norfolk countryside but it must be a lot! Hundreds of thousands each year, perhaps over a million as it’s estimated that 35 million are released each autumn nationally. 

So what have been the impacts on the Norfolk countryside of more than 100 years obsession with this bird? On the plus side, the planting and management of many small farmland woodlands across Norfolk has been to provide cover for pheasants in the winter. The huge annual releases of pheasants into the countryside must also provide both carrion, through road kills, and live prey, for a whole range of predators, foxes, crows and buzzards among them. The provision of large amounts of grain in bins and hoppers scattered across farmland as pheasant food must also support large populations of rats that might not otherwise survive the winter. The now widespread practice of planting game cover and food plants in strips along field margins also benefits a range of other farmland bird species that feed on seeds. 

On the down side pheasants will predate a surprisingly wide range of native species, including reptiles such as slow worms, young grass snakes and adders, and of course countless caterpillars including those of butterflies and moths. It’s unlikely that the release of the sheer volume of birds of this size, some estimates are that between 10% and 20% of the biomass (weight) of all birds in Norfolk are pheasants, has no impacts on other wildlife. Around 40% of the hundreds of thousands of pheasants released in Norfolk come from France, either imported as eggs for the incubator, or as day old chicks. So, one wonders what risks, for example the inadvertent import of avian diseases, could arise with this trade.
Pheasants flying, by Elizabeth Dack.Submitted to NWT online gallery
However the biggest impacts of the pheasant in Norfolk have been on the big estates. Pheasant shooting, certainly from the late nineteenth century through to the 1950s, was largely a pastime of the wealthy. On these wealthy shooting estates the impacts of pheasant management ranged from the employment of game keepers, leading to the mass control of predators , sadly on occasions including the illegal persecution of rare birds of prey, to the landscaping of large areas of estate countryside specifically to favour game. Nationally a recent survey showed that gamekeepers manage around 7.3 million acres of land, an area almost the size of Scotland, and though not all of this land is managed for pheasants, in Norfolk the pheasant is by far the most economically important game bird.

The growth of the importance of pheasant shooting in Norfolk started on these big estates. A fashion gaining popularity in the late nineteenth century in part because of its enthusiastic adoption by the Sandringham Estate. This growing significance is shown by the game bags on major estates. For example, on Lord Walsingham’s Breckland estate, in 1821 39 pheasants were shot, rising to 1,011 in 1845, 2,887 by 1865 and 5,069 by 1875. Surprisingly early in this period game laws were established with the Game Act (1831) restricting the  pheasant shooting season to the period between October 1 and January 31, very similar to that of today. By the early 1900’s shooting was competing with fox hunting as the wealthy gentleman’s favourite pastime. The game books on the Holkham estate record over 104,000 pheasants shot over 30 winters beginning in 1900.

There is doubtless much more that could be said about the impact of this one species on Norfolk’s countryside. After more than 100 years the scale and popularity of the pheasant shoot remains as great as ever. However surprisingly little research seems to have been done on the impact of this beautiful bird and the people who shoot it, on social structures, landscape conservation and wildlife in Norfolk. That this bird, and the industry which now surrounds it, has had an impact, is surely not in doubt.

1 comment:

  1. there are ongoing scientific trials on the subject: