lush times

England’s Green and Pheasant Land?


With over 35 million pheasants being bred and released into the countryside each year, the detrimental impact of this non-native bird on already precarious ecosystems should not be underestimated, writes Lush Times columnist and ecologist, Miles King.

Anyone visiting the countryside over the last few weeks will have noticed that, suddenly, pheasants are everywhere: Running into the road, or standing looking confused - they, at first, appear quite quaint and charming. Their sudden ubiquity, however, heralds the beginning of the shooting season.  Shooters will pay up to or even more than £25,000 a day for the most exclusive shoots, where hundreds of birds will be shot in one day. Others will shoot just a few, with friends, and for the pot.

Estimates vary but it is likely that considerably more than 35 million pheasants are bred and released into the countryside (mostly England) each year. These are not native wild birds - they are livestock, though their legal status is truly bizarre. There is a much smaller, though still very large, population of feral pheasants - now around two million in strength. Add these and their offspring to the 35 million released, gives a figure nearer 50 million birds out in the countryside at this time of year. That’s almost one pheasant for every person living in the UK.

Only about a third of those released, and a quarter of the total  - are shot. That’s about 12 million. And of those, less than half are taken by game dealers. Supply of pheasants far outweighs demand. Nearly half of game dealers only accept pheasants for free, while one in eight is now charging shoots for taking their pheasants, according to Savill’s benchmarking survey. The rest of those that are shot are either given away, or dumped. Dumping shot pheasants - either in specially created stinkpits, or just in the countryside, is an increasing problem. Although there are no official figures for how many are disposed of like this, it is likely to be hundreds of thousands, if not millions. And the fact that game dealers are now charging to take even the best carcasses, will only make this problem a bigger one.

So, what happens to the rest of them? A small number make it through the winter to add to the already burgeoning feral population, while the rest succumb to starvation, disease, predators and road accidents. Twenty million dead pheasants is a lot of freely available food for foxes, buzzards, other birds of prey, crows, magpies, other corvids and perhaps even the odd badger, which will eat carrion. So perhaps it’s no surprise that fox, crow and magpie populations are on the increase too. It’s worth considering how these predators then, in turn,  have an impact on farmland and especially ground-nesting birds. Could the pheasant industry be inadvertently contributing to the decline in farmland birds? It seems very likely.

Because of the confusing legal status of game-birds, they do not receive the same animal welfare protections as farmed birds

Pheasants don’t get the same welfare protections as chickens

There are other impacts too - pheasants are bred intensively and as a result are dosed with prophylactic antibiotics (given before infections arise). Only recently have vets considered that this could be contributing to Antibiotic Resistance - but so far have only proposed a voluntary scheme, to reduce antibiotic use.  In 2018, for the first time, a pheasant was found in England with symptomatic Avian Influenza. Now there is emerging evidence that pheasants can be infected, and release Avian Influenza virus, for prolonged periods of time, without showing signs of infection.

The welfare of pheasants is also given less credence than for say their domestic cousins, the chicken. Beak Bits are used to stop pheasants pecking each other, though beak removal is not commonly used.  Because of the confusing legal status of game-birds, they do not receive the same animal welfare protections as farmed birds and are only covered by a voluntary code of practice.

The shooting industry would love for us all to start eating lots more pheasants, to soak up all the surplus animals. They have even created a new organisation, The British Game Alliance, to promote pheasant-eating. Shooting advocate, the former England cricketer, Ian Botham, has  even suggested feeding pheasants to people in food poverty, although plans to provide pheasant meat to food banks via the Fairshare charity collapsed when it was noted that perhaps poisoning the poor with lead was not a great way of promoting the shooting industry. There is also something deeply unsavoury (and a bit Victorian) about the idea that food produced purely as a result of a wealthy person’s sport, should be made available to those at the bottom of society, who struggle to put food on the table.

In a way we all subsidise this sport - through our taxes. Farm and woodland payments to landowners help subsidise shoots. There are extra payments available for landowners to plant wild bird seed mixtures and cover crops. While these might provide food for truly wild birds, they will definitely also be helping to feed pheasants. And the same landowners also benefit greatly through tax incentives and tax breaks. There is even a public subsidy on shotgun licences.

It seems unlikely that the British public will start eating lots of gamey pheasant meat any time soon. We aren’t even particularly keen on brown chicken meat, exporting much of what the UK chicken industry produces, and replacing it with imported chicken breast - from the Netherlands and Poland. Indeed, it’s reckoned around half of the pheasant meat that does end up with game dealers is exported into the EU.  

There are undoubtedly many small pheasant shoots across the country where the landowners care about animal welfare, eat all the birds that are produced; and manage the countryside in ways which helps other wildlife. But there are also very large commercial pheasant shoots which are causing a wide variety of environmental problems. This is now a lucrative, influential, and for the most part, unregulated industry.

Instead of just allowing pheasant numbers, and their impacts, to increase year on year, it’s time this changed.  

Miles King is an ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons: @AVRS

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