The shooting season for pheasant started yesterday, so what is this bird’s place in the UK?
It’s extraordinary to think a bird that numbers in the tens of millions at the peak of the season isn’t really a native species. But that is the reality. It is sometimes noted that the pheasant has been here well over a thousand years, but it must be noted this includes all the different types of pheasant released over the years, many of which never took. The populations we see today were almost certainly released in the early 19th century.
The wild population probably numbers some 2-3 million pairs, but as many as 30 million captive-bred birds are released in Autumn to support the shooting industry. In pure weight (biomass) that dwarves any other bird species in the UK. But is this a good thing, or a bad thing?
On the one hand, maintaining habitat for game birds has incidental benefits for other species that enjoy similar habitat. The industry also puts a lot of money into rural communities and it is by no means guaranteed that removing the shoot would lead to better habitat. The scrub used as cover helps further breeding birds.
On the other hand, only around 15 million pheasants are shot so at least half end up in the ecosystem. Studies suggest they don’t last long, being predated, hit by cars, or just failing to find food. But while there they are taking food sources that native species could instead by exploiting. They are taking nest sites native species could be in.
More surprising to many is that the pheasant is itself a predator. Like the humble chicken they enjoy snacking on small mammals and reptiles and this could, in the wrong area, do real damage.
There is also the conflict between the human desire for the shoot, and the action and instinct of wild birds such as corvids, harriers, buzzards and other potential predators. To say nothing of foxes, stoats, weasels, and more. Even rabbits and hares are seen as a threat due to their own consumption of pheasant habitat.
On balance I think we’d be better off without, but it is unrealistic to expect this to happen while so much money and political support remains. As such, pressure should always be placed on government not for bans, but for better practices, less birds, and much stricter law enforcement.