Alien invaders 2: Pheasants

Pheasants are splendid looking birds, and very common in many parts of the country. But despite their prevalence, they’re not native to the UK.

While pheasants look good, they are definitely not the sharpest sandwich in the picnic – ask anyone who has driven behind a pheasant running desperately along a road for half a mile before it remembers it can fly over the hedge.

Pheasants have been around in the UK for around 1000 years, so are well established. But while it is illegal to release most non-native species into the wild,  pheasants are an exception (under licence) and around 35,000,000 are released each year in Britain.

The reason for this is shooting. Shooting is big business (or at least rich business), generating around £1.6bn each year (not all of which is from pheasant shoots).

There’s quite a lot of controversy over the impact that the release of so many pheasants each year has. A lot of controversy, but not a lot of solid evidence.

On the plus side, around £250m gets spent each year on habitat management for shooting, which some native species benefit from as well.

On the down side, 35m pheasants take a lot of feeding. Pheasants are omnivorous, and have been known to eat reptiles as well as  grain and anything else they can fit in their beaks. While little is known about how big the impact is nationally, for scarce reptiles this could be a big problem.

Pheasants also damage crops, although the law means that the person who released the pheasant isn’t responsible for the damage.

And then, as I mentioned, pheasants haven’t much road sense, and cause road accidents (although the government doesn’t keep a record of how many).

While shooting does invest in habitat management, there are less benign impacts on British wildlife. In recent years Naturally England has issued licenses for (native) raptors’ eggs to be destroyed to protect (non-native) game birds. And that’s the legal stuff that goes on – there are regular reports of birds of prey being killed illegally, probably for the same reason.

I think more reliable evidence is needed to accurately assess the impact of pheasants on the environment, and identify ways to minimise the impact on our scarcer reptiles and raptors. But this is unlikely to happen when the shooting lobby has so much influence over the government.


10 thoughts on “Alien invaders 2: Pheasants”

  1. It’s so difficult to get unbiased evidence on how much benefit the shooting industry has on UK conservation. They undoubtedly put money into the areas they want but if you look at the overall impact I think we’d be better off without them altogether.
    I do totally agree, more objective research needs to be done. We can only hope!

    1. I guess you could argue that if it wasn’t for the landed gentry being fond of a spot of shooting we wouldn’t have all the ancient woodlands and moors that we still do have – they’d have been plowed up, and then built on, long ago. But that’s no reason for things to continue as they are, without proper research looking at all the ecological, social and economic costs and benefits. Let’s hope someone takes the initiative to do this.
      I vaguely recall the RSPB having an interesting article on issues of game hunting and conservation in their magazine a few issues ago, but I can’t find a link to it.

  2. Alien invaders? I’m not part of the landed gentry set but can understand the dynamics of rearing pheasants for shooting. I don’t shoot but I would rather see the pheasant rearing created landscapes than say a whole new eco-town developed in its place. I think people have to be careful what they wish for, as a local estate I know of has wildlife in absolute abundance. Kites, Buzzards, Goshawks (very closely linked to pheasant shoots) and rare mammals such as Polecats exist alongside these businesses. As a townie, you might wonder how I could have this viewpoint but perhaps that is because I get to see these delights on a regular basis. I say, in general we should let landowners go about their business and as Chris Packham would say “keep our nosey noses out of their business”. I don’t think many of us would like it if we were constantly under the spotlight whilst going about our daily tasks. Yes, it’s not always clear-cut and you can’t always defend the undefendable but they do provide a fantastic environment for much of our wildlife as already stated. Incidentally out of the 35 million birds, something like only 40 percent even make it to the timing of the shoot.

    1. You’re right – a sensitively managed shooting estate offers a home to many wild creatures. But things don’t always go well when we mess with the food chain by introducing large numbers of new creatures to the wild. Pheasants have been around in Britain for hundreds of years, but in evolutionary terms that’s the blink of an eye. Reptiles haven’t had a chance to evolve strategies to deal with pheasants.
      I think we need to be careful when introducing large numbers of creatures into the wild. Reintroductions of native species like water voles and dormice are carefully monitored and planned. It seems strange that the volume of pheasant releases is allowed without proper evaluation of the impact (positive and negative)

      1. I think you’ll find there is a lot of peer-reviewed science out there and studies which I know of are currently in progress which are looking into this perceived impact. I think the greater issue for our birds has to be the generalists are and have ruled the roost for far too long. Woodpigeons damaging crops and taking up precious space in our ecosystem are a far greater problem. All in all, nothing will change until we adopt a radical new approach to managing our farmed and wooded landscapes. The birds (my area of research) are increasingly forced into corners of poor habitat and where the habitat is rich, they then have to compete with the Woodpig fraternity etc. simply to breed themselves. So so complex and I don’t expect the general public to have the vaguest idea as to how this can be changed when they presume, wrongly, that things are fine as they are. At least, you and I and a great many others (still a minority) can tell it how it is and in turn, changed things for the better. Phew, hope that doesn’t sound like a rant!
        Kind Regards

      2. Certainly need to keep their numbers down to a manageable level and I’m sure a few would participate in that activity given its high conservation value. Yes, I did say high conservation value, I reckon that is the case because fewer woodpigeons in the breeding season would help eleviate the onerous task of trying to protect our food crops and free up space in the limited nesting available such as hedgerows and isolated bushes and trees. It all has an astounding impact in my opinion.

      3. See my other reply, its all about the overall impact of generalists but I guess there is limited science out there as of now, given that the rise of the generalists in the Bird Atlas is obvious for all to see. Fascinating area of research though and one to keep an open mind on as with the role of shooting (legal) and its link with nature conservation.

        Thanks for letting me have this mutual debate on your blog, you can expect similar content on my own in time.

        Kind Regards


  3. Thanks Tony,

    It’s been fascinating. I need to do some reading up on generalists now!

    I hope we can have further stimulating debates on both our blogs in the future!

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