Remember there was a bit of fuss about pheasants and buzzards back in May?  Around that time I was writing an article for BBC Wildlife magazine about pheasants!  Now the article is out in the September (!) BBC Wildlife.

Pheasants are amazing birds.  They are tasty, beautiful and interesting.  They are also amazingly abundant in the countryside considering that they are a non-native species.

Tens of millions of pheasants are released into the countryside every autumn – around 35 million of them, perhaps 40 million, maybe even a few million more.  That makes them the commonest bird in Britain at that time.

Rather than worry about what impact a few buzzards make on these millions of non-native game birds I think we should worry about what impact the pheasants have on our native fauna and flora.  There are some examples in the BBC Wildlife article but I think that this would be a highly appropriate subject for research.  Indeed, I think such research is really necessary.

Pheasants are a bit like cats.  They are – you say? If someone suggested letting lose millions of a non-native ground predator in our gardens then we might just say Whoa there! Are you sure that’s a good idea?  And that is true of pheasant in the countryside as well as cats in our gardens.  For pheasants are predators too – they eat things including lots of seeds that might go into chinless linnets or yellowhammers or tree sparrows but they also seem to gobble up a few other bits of wildlife too.   And there are millions of them.

Of course, millions of pheasants are shot each year out of the millions that are released but millions remain (and since we are not knee-deep in pheasants they must be dying of something other than being shot).  Since only (only?) about 15 million pheasants are shot then about 20 million pheasants are feeding foxes, crows, etc.  that could be quite a big ecological impact, couldn’t it?

If you want a day’s pheasant shooting then it might cost you anything between £200 and several thousand pounds depending on the number of birds on offer, the snob-value of the address and the quality of the shooting experience.

There is a long history of the royal family being keen on this pastime.  King George V was a gun at a shoot in Buckinghamshire in 1913 when 3,937 pheasants were shot.  The 2nd Marquess of Ripon (1852 – 1923) killed 28 pheasants in one minute at Sandringham and there were seven dead pheasants in the air at once during those 60 seconds.  And, of course, Prince Philip was itching to get back to Sandringham for a spot of pheasant shooting last Christmas when he was ill (apparently this year he watched rather than shot) and the Queen herself has a deftness in despatching an injured pheasant.

Have a look at the article in BBC Wildlife and see what you think – the images are stunning anyway.

Have you ever plucked a pheasant? Are you a pheasant plucker?  Here is some advice;

Take your time.  Don’t rush. Have a bottle of sloe gin handy – it doesn’t actually help but it tastes very nice. Pull a small number of feather sharply in the direction that they grow so as not to tear the skin.  Hold the bird so that you can pluck away from your body.  Work systematically, eg neck, breast, wings (cut the outer wings off with strong scissors), back and tail. Each pheasant may take c15 minutes. There are lots of feathers, so plucking outside is a good idea if you don’t want to spend just as long tidying up afterwards. If you pluck the whole bird without tearing the skin at all you’ve done very well.  And once you’ve plucked – cook!

There is plenty else to read and look at in this edition.  Read Richard Mabey’s column and look at the swallows lined up on the wires on pages 5 and 6 for a start.



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35 Replies to “Pheasants”

  1. I quite like pheasants (to eat, and to look at) but I'm put off eating them until somebody will guarentee I won't get bits of lead stuck between my teeth...The BASC website quotes that 'game is food' but the figures you quote for numbers shot and the cost to each shooter make it seem a fairly odd, expensive, wasteful and elitist way of producing protein.

    In fairness, GWCT would probably point you to the fairly extensive pheasant/biodiversity studies they've done:

    But what I can't find is an answer to whether the massive annual release creates artificially high densities of foxes, crows, etc as you suggest....perhaps it is also fair to point out that the game industry is unlikely to fund research it has a hunch will make it look bad. I'd like to see a trial comparing two similar estates, on one of which pheasant release continues, the other it stops, with predator density monitored for several years afterwards - but I'm not holding my breath.

    1. Surely there are parts of the country where Pheasants aren't released, so it should be possible to look at predator densities in those areas compared to Pheasant release areas. How far do these released Pheasants move, has anyone looked at that? I guess it also depends how far the predators move too, to feed on the local abundance of free food put down by gamekeepers.

      You can buy pheasants oven ready for £4 a brace at one of our local butchers and they are very tasty, just don't chew too hard!

      1. Phil - yes but the places where pheasants are released also have their predators manipulated by gamekeepers too,

  2. Don't pluck - skin them!

    Simple and very quick way without getting covered in features and guts -

    1. Chop head , wings and legs off
    2. Cut bird with sissors down chest between skin and flesh
    3. Turn the bird inside out - basically strip the skin and features
    4. Cut breasts and legs off
    5. Cook

    I love it in a casserole - brown meat, add onions, garlic, thyme, mushrooms and half a bottle of red to a dish throw it in the oven for a couple of hours.

    I can taste autumn already!

  3. I wish you stop going on about the Romans. There is no proof that they released Pheasants into the wild in Britain. In fact the next written statement regarding Pheasants in Britain comes nearly 1000 years after they arrived. One RSPB reserve worth mentioning is Ynis Hir in Wales. This was once a Pheasant shoot. In the year I was there there were no records of Pheasants actually breeding indicating that in natural conditions Pheasant could become extinct in Britain if allowed to!

    1. Interesting comments from John Miles and it is true that pheasants probably did not arrive in the British Isles until Saxon times. The original idea that the Romans brought pheasants to Britain comes from two sources - mosaics and remains found at a certain site. The remains have not been conclusively identified and are now thought to have been chickens. The mosaic idea is even easier to discount albeit that it is more interesting, quite simply the mosaics were copies of designs from Rome. Pheasants may not have been present even in Italy at the time but the Roman Empire stretched well to the east and it was not unusual for the Romans to incorporate exotic motifs in their designs.

      The question of whether pheasants would survive if they were not re-stocked is also interesting given that Lady Amherst's pheasants are effectively extinct in the UK and golden pheasant populations also seem to be on the wane. My big concern is that the over-stocking of red-legged partridges could be undermining any conservation efforts towards the grey partridge. The two species co-exist on the continent but that is no to say that the UK environment is not a little more marginal for two similar species.

  4. Not had a chance to read your article in the BBC Wildlife magazine yet but the mass release of pheasants (and red-legged partridges) into our countryside is incredibly disturbing. Why are there no statutory controls on the number released? We don't allow this to happen with species which were once native! Nobody is monitoring the effects of millions of pheasants. There are some incredible statistics about pheasants: the weight or biomass of the SPRING population accounts for 30% of the total UK avian biomass; the average density of pheasants was c50/100ha in the mid 1960s rising to over 200/100ha in 1999 and now?; between 1970 and 2003 the number of breeding pheasants in the UK increased by 67% so they are certainly not all dying after the shooting season ends. Then there are the other important issues not being addressed including the continued use of lead shot and the connection between the increasing spread of ticks and Lyme Disease etc. etc, Apologies if you have discussed some of these in your article Mark.

  5. I rather enjoy seeing pheasants around in the autumn, they add a splash of colour in the barren winter months too. Of course Mark you are right there is a possible negative impact to having them around in large numbers, but there's a huge positive as well.

    Imagine a countryside without the vast acreage of game crops and areas of rough cover that's set aside for game shoots. Imagine what would have happened in the last three harsh winters if game shoots, large and small up and down the country, hadn't kept up the expense of scattering feed that was eaten not just by the game birds but by the rest of our farmland species and imagine how over run the countryside would be if it by ground predators if it wasn't for the tireless efforts of gamekeepers. Shooting contributes to environmental improvement annually an area the size of Wales and is the largest private planter of new trees, it adds 11,000 to the rural job figures in an area that is becoming a desert of employment opportunity and annually puts millions of pounds into the beleaguered UK economy.

    If of course you're suggesting that the RSPB, the BBC or your good self are going to fill this gap should shooting ever cease in its present format, then you have my attention. Oh yes, I do shoot. I am a working class man who scrimps and saves to do so, I eat the game I shoot and have done so for thirty five years without incident, as have my wife and kids. These days my greatest satisfaction comes from managing the land and the habitat that the few birds I release live on. If this makes me in your eyes a bad person, I can live with that.

    1. It is a strange notion that in the absence of game keepers the countryside would be over-run by ground predators. Do you believe that the only things limiting predator numbers are the shotgun and the snare? As suggested above there is a distinct possibility that the numbers of foxes and crows are actually inflated by the vast numbers of surplus pheasants realeased every year...

      With regards to the correct way to pluck a pheasant I would agree in general with Mark's method but would query the bottle of sloe gin which in my opinon tastes like cough mixture - but each to their own!

  6. Chris, I think the gwct have done and still are doing a long term study of the effects of realeases and preditor control on a rough shoot somewhere. I don't have time to look it up but I see, to recall it was along the lines of releaseing birds + preditor control versus no releases and no control etc.

    Don't worry about the lead ! It's quite soft and I'm always amazed that it is very rare that you find any on your plate. Personally I'm with Mark in that eating a pheasant is such a better experience than all these tasteless chickens.


  7. Over-run by ground predators? I think not. I'd look forward to seeing the occasional stoat and weasel. They'd brighten up a winters day as much as another damn pheasant. I'd also like to see more than the rare sighting of a slow worm or lizard. Popular prey items for the pestilential pheasant. The bird needs to be added to the general licence so that at pest proportions they can be controlled when causing harm.

  8. I once plucked a Pheasant and cooked the breasts on a shovel over an open fire as part of a 'Survival weekend experience' - a complete waste of time - the prospect of me being marooned in a wilderness away from a box of matches are exceedingly slim. Anyway, it was horrible - the taste - not the plucking. They are my least favourite bird to see and eat and seeing that there are millions of the things the Buzzards can have my portion.

  9. As the put-and-take type of lowland shoot is well-established the overall impact may well be a stable element of the status quo. Like other farmed species, pheasants mostly have a short predictable life. They don't stray far from the feeder bins where they stuff their beaks with wheat. Gangs of blokes shaking plastic sacks on sticks drive them away. Some of the birds take reluctantly to the air, the rest turn round and run back to the feeders. Three days later the process is repeated. When the survivors get a bit thin on the ground a new batch arrives.

    After the season there is no re-stocking and remnant populations of pheasants and partridges do attempt to breed in hedge bottoms and field margins. They are not very good at it. In five years (as a tenant on a southern shooting estate) the only pheasant chicks I have seen have been in our garden, and they diminished daily until none were left. I have never seen a pheasant poult, so I think it unlikely that their numbers increase naturally. The keepers attempt to catch up the survivors in cages during the summer, for return to the hatchery. Evolution in action - the survival of the flightless. Dumb or what?

    In the breeding season I have seen hen pheasants catch and eat voles. There is a thriving population of buzzards here, we see the occasional kite, kestrels, sparrowhawks, and infrequent other raptors which are too fast for me to i.d. with any confidence, but there is no lack of small mammals.

    If the pheasant biomass is supporting the numbers of predators - I don't see evidence of it. I've only seen a buzzard carrying a pheasant once, chasing pheasant once, and eating roadkill partridge once - there is plenty of traditional small prey, anyway. I've only seen two foxes here in five years - but the keepers shoot them at night, which is very inconsiderate as I find unscripted gunfire quite confusing during Wallander.

    If I needed something more to worry about it would more likely be the establishment of new breeding populations of large predatory stuff - like those big white birds with nasty pointy beaks in the Somerset Levels. Is anyone counting newts?

  10. Those big white birds on Somerset Levels arrive under their own steam.
    Not bred and released like Pheasants,lets get rid of the lot of them and Grey Squirrels.Lots of species would benefit.

  11. All these words about Pheasants. I was once present at a talk by Bob Scott on 'British Birds' magazine. His catch question was what bird is least mentioned in British Birds and of course the answer was the Pheasant. I suspect with this blog and your article Mark there have been more words on this bird than in the 100+ years of BB.

  12. Mark mentions Richard Mabey's column in the Sept BBC Wildlife mag, and if you read Mark's article I strongly recommend reading RM's too. For here I suspect is a goodly part of the core of the problem around pheasants and RLP's. I agree with Wendy and with such steep and seemingly uncontrollable declines in our native wildlife it is time to stop pandering to the big shooting businesses. It has always left me stunned when I see landowners/farmers/NFU etc calling for controls on our native wildlife [which are so out of control of course], yet never once do they recognise that their non native semi-stuffed walking 'clays' are the creatures out of control.
    Crows, Magpies, foxes and other such general predators have all benefitted from pheasant management and rearing. In Mid Wales however, corvids increased substantially in the hills probably due to good winter survival, not just relatively mild weather but also as a result of an almost doubling of the sheep population and the resulting massive increase in dead sheep left lying around, until more recent regs which meant this was supposed to be banned. This same period [mid 80's to now] also saw the collapse of breeding Lapwing in those same areas. The blame cannot be laid completely at the corvids door - there are other causes too - but as we all know, Lapwings rely on numbers to protect their nests and chicks - 2 Lapwings don't stand a chance, 200 do. Here in Norfolk fresh water habitat managed for breeding waders rarely does well - it is part of a very active shooting estate. Are the two connected?
    Pheasants are a symptom - when you look at the whole picture it is as much about land management as anything else - there are definitely too many estates 'feeding the world' and 'feeding the guns' both at huge cost to Britains native wildlife.

  13. Julian - thanks, I will see if I can find it. Credit to GWCT in that when they do a piece of research, it does tend to be done thoroughly and generally is worth a read. They have a good searchable index of their published work too. Something for the RSPB Conservation Science website to aspire to, actually!

    I think I was put off by an unlucky experience, in which every mouthful seemed to contain a pellet or fragment - must have been a bunch of very bad shots going after that poor bird!

    I don't think the people running small scale wild or semi-wild shoots are the 'bad guys' here, if we could use that word - I'm trying not to be inflammatory..... It's the very big, mass releases for the expensive pleasure of corporate away days et al. I'm less comfortable with. It just seems a strange and bloodthirsty way to get enjoyment from the countryside, especially if, as I suspect, many participating in such shoots have little interest in actually cooking and eating every bird they shoot (which would be much more understandable).

  14. Maybe visiting a keeper to learn a bit about wildlife and less reading propoganda led mistruths would help ?

  15. Andy,when you say visit a keeper you surely do not mean one of those that have made Hen Harriers extinct in England.I have spent more time in countryside than 99% of keepers.

  16. Can visiting a gamekeeper really heal the blind Andy? I suspect with all due respect not. When the RSPB and it's increasingly militant hierarchy are prepared to ignore and rubbish peer reviewed reports from others in its field of expertise as irrelevant, because they don't conform to its internal and external PR strategy, then God help the British countryside.

    When one can sit just off the main M40 near to central London and witness forty to fifty Red tailed Kites, no matter how magnificent they might be, or count thirty seven buzzard in one five acre field and yet the Corn Bunting in close to extinction in parts of Scotland and songbird species are in serious decline, then we have a major problem in priorities within the RSPB. Nevermind Pheasants sort out the real problems first!

    1. "it’s increasingly militant hierarchy are prepared to ignore and rubbish peer reviewed reports from others in its field of expertise as irrelevant, because they don’t conform to its internal and external PR strategy"

      Sounds like a very good description of the Countryside Alliance.

  17. Since you mention the Duke Mark, doesn't the WWF issue a Duke Of Edinburgh conservation medal in honour of his time as president? Surely no contradiction then.
    Mass-release of non-native species for sport and the ex-president of the WWF confuses predator control to protect sporting interests with conservation? I would accept that species conservation will require control measures but not to protect sporting interests.
    Oh, and didn't he shoot a Tiger too?

  18. As a falconer all the pheasants caught by my goshawk are strictly 'lead free' so there is never a worry about broken teeth. It is one of the most challenging flights for a male goshawk and worthy of the praise given to them by falconers - they escape more often then they are caught which, despite being an apparent paradox, also pleases us falconers .

  19. I had to stop putting out bird seed feeders last winter. Instead of feeding the house and tree sparrows, chaffinches, tits et al. I was feeding pheasants. I've had up to nine (males and females) in my semi-rural garden at one time. We live miles away from the nearest shoot. I believe they do breed and survive off their own resourcefulness, though probably dependent on people to the extent that they are attracted by food we put out for wild birds. Also they feed on chicken and duck food put out by a neighbouring farmer (along with hungry moorhens) during the previous cold winter!).

  20. Mark you may personally feel my last post was nonsense but it appears that your previous employer doesn't. According to the RSPB and GWCT over 5million acres are maintained as conservation areas by shoots in the UK and birds like the Skylark, Lapwing and Corn Bunting are 5 times more likely to survive and breed on land used for shooting. Hardly nonsense I'd have thought.

    Perhaps you might like to shed some light on why, after a historically close working relationship between shooting interests and the RSPB, there now seems to be a widening gap between the two on several key issues, or why the RSPB continues to refute reports from other ornithology groups that do not agree with its own findings?

    1. Connormead - only some of your comment was rubbish, to be fair! To suggest that the RSPB has ignored declining farmland birds is a bit rich - you should flick past the other chapters and start Reading Fighting for Birds at Chapter 7 to catch up with reality.

      The RSPB has an increasingly militant hierarchy does it? That sounds encouraging - I'm glad I'm a member. But I can't explain that to you as I belong to the soft history rather than the militant future.

      If there is a widening gap between shooting interests and the RSPB and other conservation organisations it might be because: there are hardly any hen harriers left in England; the attack on buzzards; the Walshaw Moor case; and the call from BASC and GW(C)T for cormorants to be added to the general licence.

  21. Well said Mark. People have always tolerated the complete nonsense spouted by the shooting fraternity because, well let's face it, they never really made any sense and it was amusing to read. The thing is, that recently the village idiot is now informed by a manipulating core with huge ambitions, greed, vanity and vulgar ignorance. Amusingly though, without actually knowing they are doing it they are helpfully bringing many Longstanding issues to the attention of the public. Of course a rift is appearing! How could anyone fail to notice the staggering arrogance of the new shooting crew. Rather than depressed by it, I am pleased as the dim wits have probably done the best thing for nature conservation in the last 40 years by airing their dirty washing. Thanks to the utter stupidity of the ring leaders in kicking up a fuss about harriers, buzzards and Walshaw, everyone now knows about the staggering abuse they subject our habitats and species to.

    Many thanks to the brain dead leaders of Moorland Association, CLA, CA etc. indirectly you are all doing a pretty good job of showing the country how incapable they are of looking after it. Well done. If there was an Olympic event for shooting yourself in the foot, you would win gold.

    1. Absolutely, BB!

      What's even more hilarious, is that these idiots expect to be taken seriously at sites like this!

  22. There is a demonstration walk arranged on Walshaw Moor on August 12th if anyone would like to see what grouse shooting is doing to the state of our moorlands.

  23. Sorry to arrive late but I've been on holiday. Where does the 40 million plus 'a few more million' come from? I'm sure I should know but I just can't recall.

  24. Great article Mark!

    Loads of phesants round these parts, we are also a hot spot for adders, the adder expert lady who was interviewed on Springwatch lives here, so next time I see her I might ask if she has any opinions. (she is the lady who can tell each adder by their markings and is involved in the tracking of them-do you remember her from last years Springwatch?-lovely lady and absolutely dedicated to the adder)


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