Pheasants

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Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

Pheasants

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I was thinking about non-native species at the AGM on Saturday on the weekend before last and wondered when the pheasant shooting season starts - it must be around now.  And it is - the 1 October.

Pheasants are not, of course, native to the UK.  They are an Asian species like the ring-necked parakeet - although pheasants have been running around our countryside for a lot longer so we have got used to them and, I guess, tend to see them as part of the natural scene.

When the Romans brought them here there was no great worry about transporting species around the world. But I wonder what impact, if any, all those pheasants have had, and do have, and may have, on our native wildlife.

We've given this a bit of thought but it is definitely work in progress.

The numbers of pheasants released into the UK countryside is enormous - about 35 million birds a year.  'Only' 15 million of them are shot each year, which means that although the BBS shows a steady increase in numbers, many of them must end up inside natural predators rather than in people's freezers, ovens and tummies.

That's an awful lot of bird meat that is feeding crows and foxes and a range of other species isn't it?

I wonder how much the increase in some predator numbers is fuelled by this meat bonanza?  Maybe not at all?  But given that many of those pheasants are available over the harsh winter period it seems possible that there is some impact.  The most mischievous might suggest that live pheasants are eating food that native species such as finches and buntings should eat and dead pheasants are feeding generalist predators - but it clearly is not that simple. 

Pheasant management at its best provides lots of cover and food that benefits other species.   But the increasing (I think it's increasing) trend for big-shoot days where huge numbers of pheasants are released worries many in the shooting community as well as seeming to me to be at the more worrying end of the specrtrum from an ecological point of view.

I think the pheasant illustrates some interesting points.  First, those 35 million non-native birds are released into the countryside without a licence whereas a few white-tailed eagles, a native species, require a whole lot of bureaucracy.  I'm with the bureaucrats on this one actually - but it's a very interesting difference.  Second, it's sometimes rather tricky to be sure what impact an introduction has or might have, but some species may be relatively benign whereas others cause lots of damage.  Prevention is always easier than cure in these circumstances.

If you have a look at the excellent BirdTrack you'll see that pheasant reporting rates (that is, the proportion of bird lists which include pheasants) have a consistent double peak in the year - in April and in late-October.  I imagine, please correct me if you know or think differently, that the spring peak is because male pheasants make more noise then so they are easier to pick up even if you don't see them, and that the second peak is to do with all those releases?  Is that right?

Comments
  • "Dear M Avery, if you keep on turning out this rubbish then i will have to part company with the RSPB as it is not doing as it should, Birdcrime was a nonsense and the agenda to take down game shooting is underhanded and to be quite honest not in your remit. "

    The main reason I have parted company with RSPB also. I now give my money and support to BTO & SOC for the very reasons you give Jon3012

  • As a memeber of the RSPB and a sporting shooter this sort of rubbish makes me very angry.

    To address all the points here would take forever so lets just look at the facts.

    The annual bird crime figure is just rubbish, Raptors are not persecuted at all, to take figures from a website called raptor politics and take them as true is just stupid. peer reviewed facts i will accept but not just anything spouted out maybe for the wrong reasons. I think Eagle owls are the problem for things such as hen harriers and now the RSPB want to cull them. What does that say about this organisation? In my opinion it is not coincidence that the Kestrel population is going down but Buzzards are shooting up. I spend all my time in the countryside you get to notice things.

    For true facts try looking at the National Wildlife crime figures. Raptors are just picked out because they photo well swans are far more targeted on urban ponds but that doesn`t grab the headlines.

    On the subject of traffic accidents because of released birds. try looking at the figures of accidents for Deer and Badgers.

    On the drop in Butterfly numbers, woods that have been coppiced for the use as sporting woods can support far more moth and butterfly numbers than a non managed woodland and if the game shooting wasn`t there then it wouldn`t get done.

    My final point is that on the shoot i mainly go on we supply the birds(Pheasants, Grey Partridge, Red Legged Partridge) with tons, and i mean tons of grain every year, evey song bird in the area comes to feed on that grain making for a tremendous mix in wildlife. I can honestly say i would take someone round the shoot with pleasure to show them all the good we do. You only have to compare the bird count on RSPB moors to moors used for shooting to show you what predator control does for ground nesting birds.

    Dear M Avery, if you keep on turning out this rubbish then i will have to part company with the RSPB as it is not doing as it should, Birdcrime was a nonsense and the agenda to take down game shooting is underhanded and to be quite honest not in your remit.

  • Mark Avery’s comments about any possible impact the millions of captive bred pheasants released into the wild each in Britain may be having was not only interesting they were revealing.

    Of course Mark Avery is correct pheasants are a non native species but the $64,000 question is, “are they invasive posing a risk or harm to any of our native wildlife?” The answer to that question is yes and no.

    On one hand these game birds are not a threat as they are predated upon by a variety of hungry predators. These predators including fox, corvids together with a wide variety of raptors may to some degree depend upon such a valuable supply of ready meals to feed their young in the breeding season and during the harsh winter months to survive.

    On the other hand, having read the appalling details in the RSPB’s annual Bird Crime figures and the information supplied by web sites like Raptor Politics, the evidence shows the scale of illegal raptor persecution throughout the UK is brought about indirectly by such alien species because of a need of sporting land owners and their gamekeepers to protect game birds like pheasant and red legged partridge which they rear for shooting.

  • In the Scottish parliament some people are trying to suggest that pheasants should be classed as livestock while in their rearing pens but become wild once they were released. I wrote this to Rhona Brankin

    I was amazed to find in the Scottish Parliament the words 'livestock' used for the pheasant and partridge. I know the land owners want to use that word only when the species are found in release pens but hens born in incubators and reared and released as 'free range' are still classed as livestock.

    Therefore if land owners want to use the word 'livestock' for rearing of these birds they will be still livestock when they are released from the pens. As pheasant has been scientifically proven to be the number one bird killed on our roads, land owners would then be faced with huge court cases [no win no fee] totaling £billions over all the estates by members of the public facing 'stress after seeing/hitting these livestock on the road.

    Another problem for the estates would come from the fact that these livestock are then driven into the air and shot. Not many hens are punished this way for not laying eggs!! A great animal welfare issue.

    I feel you should question the word 'livestock' in parliament as most shooting estates in Scotland would soon be bankrupt due to the publics action against them.

    This in turn would rid the use of licenses for the destructions of Birds of Prey taking these 'wild birds'. -  

  • I used to drive from Diss to Thetford in Norfolk on a daily basis. At this time of the year it was carnage!  Literally hundreds of pheasant carcasses strewn across the road.   Surely a bonanza for foxes and corvids?   One day my lift share hit a pheasant whist driving along at about 50mph.   It took their electric wing mirror off the passenger side, costing several hundred pounds and was a pretty upsetting experience for us both.  It made me wonder, how much do pheasant related collisions cost the insurance companies each year?  It is us who pay of course.    More importantly how many people are injured or perhaps even killed as a result of traffic accidents involving collisions with these naive bulky birds released en masse?   Anybody else out there been involved in a pheasant-related collision?

  • Pheasants present in reasonable numbers have a particularly adverse effect on many of or native species, especially amphbians and reptiles. Pheasants prey on the common lizard and newts as well as the young of sloworms, grassanakes and adders especially. I kinow of a number of locations where reptiles used to be present in good numbers and their demise has coincided with a massive increase in pheasant numbers. It is also strongly suspected that pheasants are responsible, at least in part, for the big drop in some of our butterfly populations through their predation of the catterpillars. So you are quite right Mark why is the reintroduction of a few White-tailed Eagles, which are essentially not an foreign species, subject to such bureaucracy when breeding hundreds of thousands of pheasants have no restictions and and the species is most definitely alien.