Letter to my MP

This is my latest letter to my MP – in line with my suggestion to readers of my Birdwatch column – ‘the political birder’.  Why don’t you drop your MP an email along similar lines?

Dear Andy

First may I thank you for coming round and doing the Big Garden Birdwatch with me.  You seemed to bring good luck with you – lots of birds – and it was good to chat to you about my hopes that the Labour Party will offer more to rural voters like myself, who are passionately interested in the countryside and its wildlife.

As you drove home last Saturday I’d be willing to bet you saw a Pheasant on your journey. They are a common sight in the Northamptonshire countryside and, indeed, across the UK, so it might surprise you to know that this is not a native species. The natural home of the Pheasant is in a forest, up a mountain, on the other side of the Black Sea!

The reason that the Pheasant is, for much of the year at least, the commonest bird in the British countryside, is that 40+million of them are reared and released by shooting interests each year. Of these, around 25 million are shot and the rest die from road traffic accidents, starvation, predation etc.

If we weren’t so accustomed to this strange behaviour then we would regard it as bizarre.  There have been calls for our native wildlife to be culled because species like buzzards take the occasional pheasant poult, but the evidence is that such losses are tiny.

On the other hand, there are real reasons to be concerned about the scale and nature of the pheasant shooting industry – on animal welfare, economic and nature conservation grounds. Pheasants are known to eat reptiles such as adders and those who know much more about this subject than I, are concerned that released Pheasants may have been the cause of some local extinctions of threatened reptiles. Also, all those Pheasants that avoid the guns must be maintaining some scavenger and predator species at unnaturally high levels with unknown consequences for other species.

Would you please write to Defra and ask them for the following information please?

1. What research has been done that addresses the range of ecological costs and benefits of rearing and releasing Pheasants for shooting? Does native wildlife benefit or is it harmed by Pheasant shooting? Does Defra have plans to do any such research?

2. What are the economic costs of road traffic accidents caused by Pheasants?

3. How many Pheasant poults are imported into England each year from the continent and what regulations govern their transport?  What are the implications of importing live pheasant poults for the transmission of avian diseases into the UK?

4.  What are the main animal welfare concerns about the rearing and release of Pheasants and how are these currently regulated?

5. Please provide the same information for the other non-native gamebird, the Red-legged Partridge.

Yours sincerely

Dr Mark Avery



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37 Replies to “Letter to my MP”

  1. This needs to be put together as a petition to Parliament, it's gone on way too long, well done Mark for addressing this, the flames haven't gone out I'm glad to see- RE: Controversial Conservation debate.

  2. Nice letter. As well as asking questions of Defra about the economic cost of traffic accidents why not ask about the cost of human misery in terms of lives lost and time spent in hospital. I suspect there is a long way to go before there is any positive movement on this issue.

  3. Pheasants impact are a great concern to many Herpetologists. More research needs to be done in this area as its not hard to see an isolated population of adders on a moor having all it young eaten for a number of years by pheasants leading to it disappearing completely.

  4. Completely agree that there is a need for more research into the costs and benefits of pheasant rearing/shooting to the wider countryside. Out of interest, what evidence is there that losses of pheasant poults to buzzards are 'tiny'?

    1. Good question about losses to buzzards. Defra thought so too. Sadly they abandoned their study following pressure from some parts of the conservation community. The answer is still not clear.

  5. Mark, yes they have - or rather FC has - but I bet Defra don't know it and I wonder if they'll be able to lay a hand on it ?

    FC Bulletin 106 Woodland management for Pheasants by PA (Pete) Robertson who of course you'll know, published in 1992. He doesn't say a lot about impacts - other than the crucial point of density of releases.

    What he does demonstrate is that management - opening up woods and rides - is positive for both Pheasants and native wildlife - they surveyed butterflies specifically. This is very important because apart from everything else, keepers may well be the biggest positive (as opposed to simple inertia) force against woodland management in the countryside - once they've got a drive sorted they don't want it touched, even though it succeeds from a nice scrubby edge ideal for pheasants to a cold, windy wood with no 'bottom' and no flora and all that goes with it. And, as you'll have worked out, with it go the habitats for a lot of declining woodland birds. The leading estates which have converted to naturally reared pheasants are very different - obviously, none of the huge concentrations of reared birds, but also the incentive to provide the dense thickets for nesting and more open woodland for feeding - and therefore positive woodland management, good for a much wider range of species.

    1. Good point. For those searching for more detail on the +ive/-ive impacts of pheasant releasing - worth also look up the GWCT research in this area. This page is quite a good place to start http://www.gwct.org.uk/game/advice/game-bird-releasing/sustainable-gamebird-releasing/

  6. I would like to see a comprehensive study done on the impact of intensive pheasant rearing. My suspicion is that maintaining a relatively large, alien, omnivorous bird at such incredibly high artifcial population levels (via feed bins) must be having a detrimental impact on native species (although beneficial for rats).

    A possible way to test hunch this might be to carry out an extensive ecological survey of woodland managed for pheasants, ideally over a number of years, then stop releasing pheasants onto that land and observe any changes in flora and fauna... There could also be a variety of test states, e.g. keepered woodland with low numbers of pheasants for rough shooting, deer stalking etc. versus completely keeper-free woodland perhaps? There will likely be different winners and losers in all three states so as ever diversity is probably the key to er, diversity. Of course what we have now is a monoculture of pheasants... It's why I think of England's countryside these days as green and pheasant bland.

    Another test might be to analyse a large sample of dead pheasants for their stomach contents (although not sure "soft" prey items like caterpillars will be identifiable like this)?

    1. Hello Hugh, whether pheasants are bad for the native wildlife or not, the feeders put out for them also provide much needed food for other birds which have a great difficulty of finding seed in fields which are intensively managed. If cereals were sown in spring, as they used to be, then stubble fields could be left rough over winter, providing much needed food for native birds.

    2. "Of course what we have now is a monoculture of pheasants".

      Really? I'm by no means an expert on taxonomy but I feel there are more species than just pheasants in the woods round here.

      1. Monoculture is an exaggeration, but 40 million pheasants weigh near enough the same as ALL our native bird species including seabirds, combined. That can't be healthy and in terms of species evenness is not very biodiverse....

    3. Important questions; more work has been undertaken in this area that many realise. For those that would like a summary of what science has/has not been published by the GWCT see http://www.gwct.org.uk/game/research/species/pheasant/the-impact-of-pheasant-releases/

      1. No actual references to peer reviewed research on that GWCT link, just a lot of claims. Nor any reference to the impacts of keepers on (native) predator populations in terms of legally shooting foxes, trapping stoats and weasels etc. or illegally shooting/poisoning/trapping buzzards, goshawks etc.

        GWCT, BASC and the like would have us believe that introducing millions of non-native omnivores is good for native wildlife. I just don't buy it. There "science" just coincides too conveniently with their interests.

        Incidentally here's a link to an actual peer reviewed article that suggests pheasants are partly responsible for preventing the recovery of native grey partridges:


  7. Mark - Get a life - what utter tosh !!

    Wasn't it this time last month that you threw a wobbly?

    It's very very 5th-formish - there must be something better to do with your time

    Best regards

  8. Mark, a friend of mine has a small pheasant shoot on his land. When he used to introduce pheasants he said that a third were shot, a third were predated (human and animal) and a third escaped to breed.

    1. Diapensia - sounds about right although the third that escape to breed can't do that well otherwise the Pheasant population would be increasing like nobody's business. So they die too!

      1. Diapensia, I agree that wild birds might benefit from bird seed provided for pheasants, but it works the other way too. In my garden pheasants take the seed I put out for wild birds - which is annoying because I am then feeding a non native potential pest species, and I am paying for it! Yesterday morning there were two cock pheasants plus five or more females in my garden. They appear to be on the increase but maybe it is just that they have found a source of food that attracts increasing numbers of birds. I think these are all naturalised birds, breeding in the wild as, though there is a shoot a few miles away, I have seen nests in and in the countryside around my garden and pheasants are around all year. Now I'm bothered about the grass snakes that breed in my compost bins. Do the tiny baby grass snakes survive or do they get eaten by pheasants?

        1. Hello Wendy, do you put seed for the birds on a bird table? My bird table has a supported roof (home made) so that the seed is kept dry, except in windy conditions. It also prevents large birds from using the table. The largest being wood pigeon. The pigeons have moved into the built areas as there are now hardly any woods in the parish. I suppose Evolution and Taxonomy will change their name to House Pigeons? I live in a very large village (more like a town now, and have recorded 75 species of birds in and overflying my garden. These include Raven and ring necked parakeet (now-where near london).

  9. Interestingly last autumn in places on the road where we usually see lots of Pheasants killed when they are released ready for shooting season there were hardly any so guess this means the release place was moved to further away from road or does it mean shooting is now so expensive that Pheasant rearing is in decline.

  10. Looking back through my BTO Garden Bird Watch (where Pheasant and red-legged Partridge are classified as "rarer birds") I note that Pheasant has been recorded 369 times in 401 weeks 92%, and RLP 167/401, 42%. In the last three years both spp. have only not been recorded when I was on holiday! These guys get through a hell of a lot of my bird food. I believe that the shooting estates stop feeding at the end of the season and this is when competition for food mediates against the indigenous spp.

  11. It will be interesting to hear what your MP has to say. We haven't seen so many pheasants this year, but I too am concerned about the young grass snakes as I was happy to think they were safely breeding in the garden. Also concerned about the tawny owl we found dead in the garden ? Poisoned.

  12. No-one mentioned lead yet?

    25million at say 1.2 shots per bird to cover misses, at say 32g per cartridge = 960kg I think!

    So (for pheasants) that's about a tonne of lead each year into the environment. (the Ely cartridge company could probably tell us how much lead is 'consumed' by the environment each year. Doesn't sound a lot, but none would be better?

  13. Interesting stuff Mark,

    The effect of over-release of game-birds into the countryside is a subject definitely worthy of research. And as Andrew Gilruth points out above, the GWCT has already, and helpfully, produced best-practice guidelines for stocking densities, release procedures and so on.

    I wonder if your MP also spotted any non-native, free-roaming domestic or feral cats as went about his constituency business, or any non-native grey squirrels? The natural homes of the domestic/feral cat and grey squirrel are in the Near-East and eastern North America respectively. The evidence of damage done to native species by these two is truly frightening – tens of millions of song and other small birds and small mammals killed per annum see here - http://tinyurl.com/oo6ujgh - and here - http://tinyurl.com/ppohk2n and the near extinction of the native wildcat through hybridisation by free-roaming domestic and feral cats, see here - http://tinyurl.com/yl3wjox & http://tinyurl.com/78eq2. Moreover, the mere presence of domestic cats close to breeding songbirds has a very deleterious effect on their productivity and likely subsequent survival rates, see here - http://tinyurl.com/nbw6ovd.

    Meanwhile, the virtual extirpation of the red squirrel as a breeding species in England through lethal infection and competition, coupled with significant damage done to native broad-leaved woodland, and to song and other small bird populations through predation, and competition for scarce resources in lean times, see here - http://tinyurl.com/nfcrg96, makes the grey squirrel a very high priority for concerted action.

    And in terms of absolute numbers of non-native species ‘released’ into the UK, let’s not forget the Sitka Spruce and rainbow trout etc.

    All certainly worthy of bringing to your MP's attention as well.

    1. Keith - thank you for this comment and indeed all your comments. Are you going to take up the offer of a Guest Blog on where Songbird Survival is going under your leadership or are you expecting us all to piece together the pieces from your comments here?

      I'm glad you agree that the benefits of Pheasant releases are questionable and that more research would be needed before anyone should assume that they exist as net benefits. that is what you are saying I assume?

      And it's one thing to have guidelines - who sticks to them, I wonder?

      1. Mark, guidelines, who sticks to them? One government department doesn,t even bother to stick to the legislation.

  14. Mark,

    As I have mentioned here before, and as we discussed at charming, flooded Stanwick Lakes a couple of weeks ago, I post here in a personal capacity, so I am not expecting you all to piece together anything particularly. A guest blog though is still certainly on my agenda, but not near the top yet I'm afraid - currently en-route with RAFOS colleagues to the north coast of Caithness & Sutherland for a week's Wetland Bird Survey for the BTO.

    Not sure I quite stated that the benefits of pheasant release were questionable, after all, and as we all know, there is a plethora of evidence that management for game shooting brings with it many significant benefits for biodiversity. It is the consequences of over-release that merit study.

    Anyway, I'm glad in turn that you agree that some scavenger and predator species are being maintained at unnaturally high levels with unknown consequences for other species. What I can tell you is that some of the research SongBird Survival is currently in the process of commissioning (and therefore higher on my priority list than your guest blog) is looking at those very consequences, and possible mitigation strategies thereof.

    Anyway, A9 next up, hope Drumochter is relatively clear.......

  15. When is a bird still an introduction? Current theory says the pheasant, if not introduced by the Romans, was certainly introduced during the 15th Century. In my book that makes it a native. So is it the mass release or their very existence in Britain that is so offensive? Let us be very clear about that before ranting about this very excellent food source.

    1. Nick - this is a bird that is introduced to the tune of 40+million every year. Not much doubt about its introduced status. Let's see how many there would be if the releases stopped.

  16. Obviously the newly released Lynx and Brown bears will probably eat the sea eagles but hey ho we will have the beavers to console us!

  17. Release of a pheasant should carry the same penalties that are incurred for the release of any invasive species. Unfortunately the rule makers and people who enjoy artificial hunting are not mutually exclusive. The fines generated by those who release pheasants can be used for further research into their impacts on our ecosystems.

  18. Sure there can be some benefits in very well managed estates but overall this on-going release is a disaster. So many reptile sites in trouble with adder all but gone in central England - there are other reasons for this as well of course but the strong suspicion from herpetologists is that pheasants are a huge problem. Can't find any research looking at pheasant stomach contents during spring/summer in areas with reptiles present. Maybe this is because it's easier for researchers to get dead pheasants to examine during the shooting season but of course this coincides with when reptiles are hibernating. Thank you Mark for raising this important issue.


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