Pheasants in the balance

By David Croad (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

State of the UK’s Birds 2012 is full of interesting information.

I was struck by the analysis of the number and weight of birds in the UK as a whole.

In the early 1970s there were about 105 million pairs of birds in the UK – now there are around 83 million.  More than a fifth of UK birds have disappeared from our lives since my teenage years.  We can’t call that progress.

Lots of those lost birds are little birds – the sparrows, buntings, finches etc.

Such species (basically passerines) make up about 67 million of the 83 million pairs of birds that we still have flying around the place. But if you look at things in a different way, by weight, then  those 67 million little birds only add up to 6.7 thousand tonnes of bird mass out of a total of about 25 thousand tonnes in all.  The big birds are so much bigger than the little birds that even though they make up only c20% of the numbers they make up 75% of the weight.  It’s a new perspective.

And here’s another one. Non-native species number about 2.5 million pairs out of the 83 million total, but they make up around 6 thousand of the 25 thousand tonnes of wild bird mass.  I guess Canada geese and pheasants make up a large part of these numbers and these weights of non-native species.

These figures must be based on assuming that there is a breeding population of, I think 1-2million pairs of pheasants in the UK.  So it doesn’t take account of the 35 million released for shooting each year, of the 9 million or so red-legged partridges either.  We are weighed down with introduced gamebirds.  You’d have to think they make a difference to something ecological just by weight of numbers, wouldn’t you?


25 Replies to “Pheasants in the balance”

  1. I am sure that pheasants make some ecological difference but in general they don’t really compete for food and habitat but give food and habitat through game strips etc. very often this habitat is created in agricultural prairie.

    I am not saying everything is right with pheasant shooting but I think that much of the ecological benefits are overlooked. Finally shooting gets vast numbers of people engaged with the natural world, I believe that apathy is the biggest enemy of the natural world.

  2. I would think that pheasants and Redlegs must have some ecological impacts, some bad, may be some good but we don’t appear to really know. Surely with so many being released we ought to know about these impacts before we carry on allowing it? After all if I wanted to re introduce say Corncrake to my home county of North Yorkshire I would have to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to do so, yet an alien game bird no problem, I could release them on masse without a care——very strange.

  3. As you mentioned in your article in ‘BBC Wildlife’ in the september issue ( ‘Fair game’?) pheasants will eat anything they get their beaks on including Adders, lizards, lots of insects, eggs and probably ground nesting birds. The shooting industry tries to excuse itself by saying that it is managing the grounds for other wildlife.The situation is summed up in this extract of a letter from the next issue of the magazine. “And yet the shooting industry points to the beneficial effects of managing the landscape for gamebirds, and expects to be lauded for it- akin to a mugger expecting praise for giving first aid to their victims.”

  4. Add in Muntjac, Chinese Water Deer and Sika Deer, plus Grey Squirrel, and the biomass of non-native species v native must tilt even more towards the ‘nons’. The non-natives will be having an ecological impact. We ned to know what it is, and how it varies between different habitats and times of the year.

    I find it interesting that good scientific evidence has been collated on the impacts of these non-native mammals, but the research into the impacts of these n-n birds is so much weaker. Why is that?

  5. I am sure that pheasants have negative effects on our native flora and fauna, but on the other hand hunting is surely beneficial in other respects, if only by preventing the conversion of all our land to agriculture. It is interesting that there are few published studies looking into this. Of course, I’d rather it was all managed for ‘proper’ conservation, but maybe pheasant rearing etc. is the lesser of two evils…at least for now

    I think before we even think about tackling pheasants, we need to nail the grey squirrels – they’re having a demonstrable impact on native species, and must cost a fortune in terms of wasted bird seed and broken feeders. Kill ’em all

  6. Please excuse my ignorance here, but what relevance in ecological terms does the biomass of an animal have? What advantages are there to looking at things in weight? Is it to do with the impact they have on their environment?

    1. Big animals = large biomass = consume more —
      But also need to look at what is being consumed, as there is more ‘consumable’ biomass at the bottom of the food pyramid than at the top (ie herbivores generally have more biomass available to them than top predators).
      Sorry – thats an over-simplication, but this is a blog!

    2. Yes Luke. The amount of food an animal eats (and the amount that comes out of the other end!) is related to its weight. So it is much easier to compare the ecological demands of different species if you compare their biomasses in an area, rather than their numbers. 100 pheasants are likely to have a bigger ecological effect than 100 wrens, and their influence will probably be greater than 100 beetles. Of course, sometimes the effect can be out of proportion if a species carries a disease or has some specific beneficial or adverse effect on its habitat. (Think of the effect even a small biomass of honeybees or other pollinating insects can have.)

  7. I’ve said it before so apologise. If you wish to see the damage pheasants can cause, you don’t have to travel far just a short trip to Jersey. Go and speak to the potatoe farmers and ask them what they think of pheasants.

  8. I’ve seen it all now… shooting is a good thing as it gets people involved with the natural world?! That’s like saying golf gets people involved with the natural world. Both involve pursuing a leisure interest in the countryside, and both involve some damage to that very countryside – be it habitat destruction (Donald Trump and the Aberdeenshire dunes, anyone?) or impact on native species that don’t quite ‘fit’ with a managed game shoot (Hen Harrier persecution, for example).

    Game strips are all very well and good, and yes, winter passerine flocks will make abundant use of them; but wild field margins, decent hedgerows and some sympathetic agricultural practice will have the same positive impacts. Justifying shooting Common Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges on the grounds of the good habitat game strips provide is a bit like justifying a golf course on the grounds that the rough might be quite good for nesting Skylarks and Meadow Pipits.

    In the final reckoning, it’s all about choices. Is it okay to introduce an alien species in vast numbers every single year just so people can enjoy shooting them? Is it okay for farmers to choose not to farm in a more wildlife-sympathetic manner? At least the latter produces something useful at the end of it – whether we like how it’s been produced, there’s food as an output. But shooting Pheasants? (Yes, yes, I know you can eat them and they’ll go to game larders – but really, this isn’t about the food is it? It’s about the pleasure of shooting something).

    Paul V Irving’s point is well-made: there are stringent laws against the introduction of alien species into the countryside. Let’s say I decided to introduce something relatively benevolent into the wilds near me – my very own colony of Large Heath butterflies. I think they’d probably do pretty well here, and would find plenty of foodplant that they’d not be competing with any other invertebrate for. They’re not here simply by an accident of geographic isolation – their niche was never filled. I would however, rightly, be liable to prosecution. Yet strangely if I were to introduce Pheasants, those adaptable omnivores, nobody would bat an eyelid.

    Another example. Let’s say I lived in the south of England, and decided to start breeding and releasing Grey Squirrels – because I thought they were cute, and perhaps I enjoyed chasing them off the lawn and into the trees (yes, I know – strange, but no stranger than shooting a Pheasant for shit and giggles). Again, I’d be liable to prosecution. But not if I bred and released Pheasants.

    As ever, the shooting industry carries a lot of political clout. Nobody wants to challenge it. But perhaps we should. Why is it okay for an industry to release non-native species into the countryside with complete impunity, year after year? Why is it okay for an industry to systematically and repeatedly persecute native species that they happen not to like? We shouldn’t be tolerating this.

    1. Golf, not being agriculture, is unaffected by the NVZ regs. The grass on golf greens receives, per unit area, vast amounts of fertiliser nitrogen compared to, say, a grass ley cut for silage. No-one looks at the amount of nitrate leaching from this, even if the course is in or near a SSSI wetland.

      Game cover mixtures have an interesting assortment of species – there are millets and sorghums in a field 200m from where I sit, not to mention the melilots, clovers lucerne, durum wheat, kales et al. I don’t see any other birds in the strip except for pheasants and partridges – but I don’t keep a watch. What I do see is the appearance of a rag-bag of the above growing alongside paths and tracks, spread in the excreta from game birds, I betcha.

      I have seen hen pheasants eat voles/mice in my garden, when they where incubating eggs.

      Recently I counted 27 pheasants in a small field near here, one of which was a buzzard. It was not interested in the pheasants at all, and appeared to be peering beadily at the ground. It was still there 20 minutes later when I drove home, and was in fact waiting patiently at the end of a line of molehills.

  9. I’m glad you’ve picked up on this issue Mark. I recall exchanging posts on this issue with one of your regular contributors (Filbert Cobb) following your RSPB guest blog. I have since spoken to some shooting folk about the issue and they tell me they expect to shoot around one third of the birds they release. The rest they lose to predators, roadkill and other sources of mortality (or occasionally they survive!). If an adult shootable pheasant weighs at least 1kg then this third of birds shot represents a biomass of at least 12 thousand tonnes. Added to the standing biomass of non-natives (6 thousand tonnes) and making some allowance for the birds that die before they are shot or the 9 million released red-legs, then the total biomass of non-natives present in our countryside over the course of a year clearly at least equals the total biomass of all native birds, including our seabirds, added together (±19.5 thousand tonnes)! This astonishing fact is driven largely by the enormous mass of pheasants released.

    Another way of assessing this is simply to take a walk in the countryside and record each bird you see. Around me (North Yorkshire) at this time of year pheasants at least equal the total number of all other bird individuals I see. Their biomass is greater by several orders of magnitude.

    I do not buy the argument that pheasants “give” food and habitat. Game strips are rarely occupied by anything other than pheasants or partridges and on the rare occasion that some seed eating birds may benefit from the omnipresent grain bins, so too do rats (which are then supported at inflated numbers with their own ecological impact). Overall, given the long list of species the omnivorous pheasants will hoover up I am certain that their impact is significantly negative on our native fauna, both in terms of direct and indirect competition.

    Sadly as mentioned by others, there has as yet been little research done that might support my hunch, but I feel this is a big scandal waiting to be revealed when someone finally gets around to crunching the data on this and the full impact of the pheasant industry is revealed on our declining native biodiversity, from invertebrates to reptiles and ground-nesting birds.

    1. Hugh, And if the the ‘habitat’ shooting estates create does have a benificial impact on our native biodiversity then its not as though anyone can go into an estate and check because estate owners get touchy about NGO’s visiting them let alone members of the public

      Also the fact all the estates are private that makes it so hard to prosecute people for bird of prey persucution. Although what I’ve said sounds obvious it means you never quite know what’s going on behind closed doors.

      1. …and we should. They may own the land but we all own the landscape, and the wildlife it (should) support.

  10. The numbers of pheasants and partridges released each year equate to around 40,000 tonnes of biomass (more than all breeding birds combined). This must result in an increase in the numbers of generalist predators in the countryside, given that GWCT figures suggest that 43% of released pheasants are predated, killed on the roads etc. rather than being shot.

    It would be interesting to research whether the benefits of predator control for ground nesting birds of conservation concern are simply offsetting an increase in predator populations as a result of pheasant and partridge releases.

  11. Twenty five thousand tonnes of birds in the UK. At an estimated 75kg and 63,000,000 thats around 4,750,000,000 tonnes of one mammal.

    You’d have to think they’d make a difference to something ecological just by weight of numbers, wouldn’t you. Even more than 6000 tonnes of pheasants!

    I’m not taking the piss, just making a point about a sense of perspective and how screwed up our ecology is that one species of mammal contributes so much biomass.

      1. Indeed, 3 decimal places, I meant 4.75million, thanks for pointing it out. Still alot more than 20 thousand though.

  12. Pheasant, Red Legged Partridges, Grey Squirrals even wild mink the answer is simple just pop up to Scotland and borrow a few sea eagles they will keep em down and as they’ve been reintroduced by the RSPB they must be native!

  13. I’ve been thinking about this on and off all day. Lets start with a mass release of pheasants in late summer. Lots of stupid birds fairly concentrated to start with partly held in place by lots of grain fed to them and put out in feeders for them. They trash the immediate area around the release pens( this is widely accepted) so that will have little wildlife interest, but it might have been a great place for woodland butterflies, a declining part of the wild. The grain attracts rats, so the keepre puts out lots of poison and being a busy chap finds few bodies to dispose of. so lots of dead and dying rats about eaten by buzzards, barn owls and red kites, some of which die directly as a result, some indirectly. but of course that still leaves lots of unpoisoned rats whose winter survival is aided. The same is true of red fox initially killing but also scavenging road kill, yes the keeper kills some but not all and again winter survival is aided, the same is true of crows, magpies, may be polecats and goshawks. Of course the supply of pheasants is dwindling through roads, shoots and the predation to the point in late winter when the shooting and feeding stops and the pheasants start to spread more and they are less easily caught. We end up with a higher density of rats and all these other scavengers and predators (except probably goshawks which are very easy to trap and kill ask any keeper) and these turn at least in part to the native fauna living in habitats already trashed either by the pheasants and us at the very time when it is critical — the breeding season. Come the end of that breeding season the glut of pheasants arrives again and so on and on.
    Yes there are positives about properly managed game estates if they don’t persecute but how many are well managed? shooting may be adding something to the countryside but I bet the above is closer to the truth.

  14. We supply wheat to a local shoot and to be honest I can’t believe how much they use. On average they have about 60 tonnes of wheat each year which seems a lot considering the number of pheasants and redleg partridges they release. I would say with the grain put out and the cover strips, more is being put in than is being taken out by the practice of releasing and feeding game birds. You have to wonder which wildlife is eating the grain though. On the subject of rats, I don’t think much poison is put down by gamekeepers. Rats don’t like change so if you move feeders around they won’t use them as they need to get accustomed to them in the environment. I have been monitoring some of my own feeders which I put out to feed wild birds and you can see some of the species under the twitter hashtag #partridgecam. I’ve had a few species of bird and mammal using them but as yet no rat, but that’s not to say they won’t find them eventually. This time of year rats are confined to farm buidings mostly and that is where rat baiting with poison is mainly carried out.

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