Here’s a wizard wheeze …

Let’s release a non-native species into the British countryside that will predate on and compete with our native wildlife for the sole purpose that people can kill it.

You would have thought Defra would have something to say about it.

I am talking of course about pheasants. 47 million of them are released into the countryside every year. That is in addition, to 10 million Red-legged Partridges, another non-native game bird.

Just think about that total number, 57 million. 45,000 tonnes of biomass. Half the weight of all the birds in our British countryside1British Trust for Ornithology (2019). What effect might annual releases of non-native gamebirds be having on native biodiversity? [online] BTO – British Trust for Ornithology. Available at: https://www.bto.org/community/blog/what-effect-might-annual-releases-non-native-gamebirds-be-having-native-biodiversity [Accessed 30 Aug. 2021]..

Of course, the density of game birds will not be uniform across the country. In parts of North Yorkshire, a square kilometre will contain over a thousand birds2Who owns England? (2019). The English shooting estates that rear 20 million pheasants a year. [online] Available at: https://whoownsengland.org/2019/04/02/the-english-shooting-estates-that-rear-20-million-pheasants-a-year/ [Accessed 30 Aug. 2021].. This is a huge ecological imbalance. Although their feed is supplemented, once released they will compete with our native birds for food.

Our Common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) is native to Asia and is thought to have been introduced into Britain just before the Norman Conquest but had been virtually extirpated by the 17th-century. The development of the breech-loading shotgun in the mid-19th-century saw the reintroduction of pheasants as a game bird.

In its native Asia, pheasants would have been predated on by snakes, and hence they retain an inbred aversion to reptiles, killing them on sight. Although the only British venomous is the adder, its bite cannot penetrate the birds’ feathers. Pheasants will peck at adult snakes, often leaving them blinded and will swallow young snakes and slow worms whole3Milton, N. (2020). Game birds “could wipe out adders in most of Britain within 12 years.” [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/01/adder-extinct-across-britain-snake-threat-game-birds-release [Accessed 30 Aug. 2021].. There is a fear that adders are becoming extinct where there are pheasant releases.

It is argued that the management of the countryside for pheasants benefits other wildlife species. This may be true to a certain extent but it has been shown that the pheasants’ foraging habits can alter the structure of hedgerows which is detrimental to  some nesting birds4Sage, R.B., Woodburn, M.I.A., Draycott, R.A.H., Hoodless, A.N. and Clarke, S. (2009). The flora and structure of farmland hedges and hedgebanks near to pheasant release pens compared with other hedges. Biological Conservation, [online] 142(7), pp.1362–1369. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320709000688?via%3Dihub [Accessed 30 Aug. 2021].. Furthermore, the high density of released birds will clearly reduce the numbers of invertebrates available for other native birds to feed on.

Pheasants may also increase disease or parasite transmission5Tompkins, D.M., Draycott, R.A.H. and Hudson, P.J. (2000). Field evidence for apparent competition mediated via the shared parasites of two gamebird species. Ecology Letters, [online] 3(1), pp.10–14. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1461-0248.2000.00117.x [Accessed 30 Aug. 2021]..

Increditably, only about 40% of the 47 million pheasants released end up being shot6Madden, J.R., Hall, A. and Whiteside, M.A. (2018). Why do many pheasants released in the UK die, and how can we best reduce their natural mortality? European Journal of Wildlife Research, [online] 64(4). Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10344-018-1199-5 [Accessed 30 Aug. 2021].. The remainder are hit by cars7Madden, J.R. and Perkins, S.E. (2017). Why did the pheasant cross the road? Long-term road mortality patterns in relation to management changes. Royal Society Open Science, [online] 4(10), p.170617. Available at: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.170617 [Accessed 30 Aug. 2021]., predated, or just fail to survive the winter. Some do manage to become part of next year’s breeding population.

Are pheasants wild or livestock? Well, it depends on when you ask it.

About 40% of pheasants (and 90% of partridges) are imported in the Spring as eggs or day-old chicks, mostly from France, for captive rearing in farms or pens8Sybille de La Hamaide (2019). Brexit may clip wings of UK game shooters. [online] U.S. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-brexit-shooting-idUSKCN1QF1TB [Accessed 30 Aug. 2021].. And just like your free-range chickens, they are classed as livestock. They’re tax-deductible.

When they are old enough, they are released into the countryside and they miraculously stop being livestock and become wild birds. And as wild birds they are not owned by anyone. So if a pheasant flies flies into your car causing damage, their former owner is not liable as it’s a wild bird and not livestock for which they would be responsible9Markavery.info. (2019). The Common Pheasant – livestock or wild bird? – Mark Avery. [online] Available at: https://markavery.info/2019/06/13/the-common-pheasant-livestock-or-wild-bird/ [Accessed 30 Aug. 2021]..

Now on the 1st February when the pheasant shooting season has ended and any survivors can be persuaded back into their pens to become next years breeding stock, they suddenly revert to being livestock.

Cracking wheeze isn’t it.

One Reply to “Here’s a wizard wheeze …”

  1. Completely agree with you! To release any other species into the wild is either a complete ‘no-no’ or requires a vast amount of bureaucracy and pre-release trials, yet in this case there seems to be no issue with it. I didn’t know about pheasants killing adders and other reptiles – very sad. Another detrimental side-effect of having them is that public footpaths and bridleways are sometimes incorporated into pheasant pens, with awkward gates and ugly fences. Again, putting a new gate on a right-of-way can’t normally done without special permission – so why is it allowed in these cases?

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