The Pheasant (Phasianus colchic
us) is surely one of our most recognisable birds in the countryside, especially the large male or “cock” bird with his strutting style and multi-coloured plumage, so often depicted amid a snowy scene on numerous Christmas cards.
Despite being so well known, the pheasant is of course not native to our shores, but originates from Asia. 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, an area east of the Black sea coast – hence the pheasant’s name, Phasianus colchicus.
They returned to Greece bearing pheasants and from there they began to be introduced to other parts of Europe. Almost certainly it was the Romans who first brought pheasants to the UK, but there is some debate over the success of various possible introductions, however it is generally agreed that pheasants were common by the 15th century.
The pheasant’s popularity is firmly linked with it being the key sporting game bird in this country, although this was not always the case, as the wild, indigenous Grey partridge once held this claim. In 1900, the average “bag” of pheasants was approximately 25 per 250 acres, rising to almost 150 per 250 acres by the 1980s.
Today, the shooting industry is worth around £1.6 billion to UK economy and employs 70,000 people in full time jobs. The pheasant makes up around 80% of the game birds shot in the UK and as a direct result of the increase in the rearing of this bird, an estimated 35 million pheasants are now currently released each year, resulting in a total pheasant bag of around 15 million birds a year.
As game shooting became increasingly important in the latter half of the 19th Century, large parts of the British landscape were “designed” for sporting purposes, with many great estates managing their land not only for shooting, but also for hunting and fishing. A quote from Oliver Rackham, the leading authority on the British countryside until his death a few years ago, sums up the role that field sports played in how our landscape looks today. “A multitude of groves is maintained for shooting and hunting, without which they would vanish almost overnight.
Many of these woods continue to be managed for the benefit of the pheasant and indeed new woodlands continue to be planted to “enhance” the landscape for shooting purposes. The pheasant requires coppiced “open” woodland with a shrubby under-storey to thrive, which is the same habitat that many other species of wildlife also like. Surveys carried out in East Anglia have shown that butterfly numbers were 2.2 times greater and the number of species 1.5 times higher in game woods than non-game woods.
Finally, most shoots don’t only rely on their woodlands to provide cover for Pheasants, but also plant extra game cover, which supplies food and protection not just for game species, but for a wide range of our declining farmland birds too. So, how much is grown? Well, unbelievably, around 22,000 acres of cover/seed mixes are grown in England, most of which is positioned as part of a Pheasant drive. Now that is some bird table!
So, love or loath the pheasant (it has on occasions been voted Britain’s thickest bird!) there is no doubt that this one species has had a bigger impact on the way our lowland landscape looks today than probably any other species – not a bad claim for a colourful invader from Asia!