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.