Wildlife Column: Looking out for local pheasants

Cock Pheasant.
Cock Pheasant.

The Common or Ring-necked Pheasant though non-native or alien’ in Britain, is one of our most familiar wild birds. 

Originally found in Asia, our closest population was somewhere around Asian Georgia. Widely introduced and naturalised in Britain by the Normans, and maybe earlier via the Romans, the pheasant is now one of the most abundant game-birds in the world. The original birds were the Caucasian species or sub-species and this was often called (mistakenly), the ‘Old English Pheasant’. Certainly by the eleventh century Common Pheasants are recorded in documents and as gifts, for example the Saxon King Harold in 1059 offering the canons of Waltham Abbey as a specific privilege, a pheasant instead of a brace of partridges. By the 1500s, pheasants were popular for food and ornament, and were becoming widespread and relatively abundant.

However, our birds today have a ‘Heinz 57’-style ancestry as landowners employed special pheasant breeders to care for their precious birds. Henry VIII for example, employed a French priest as a ‘fesaunt breeder’ for the royal table. Pheasants began to be reared by artificial means to supplement naturalised stock, with new species and sub-species being introduced. The Chinese Ring-neck (Phasianus torquatus), first called the ‘Ring Pheasant’ arrived in 1768 as an import from southern China and this sub-species was bred into the established populations. Today the bird is present around the world wherever the habitat is suitable. In Britain however, its rise is also closely linked the to the transformation of the countryside known as the ‘enclosures’ – when the open commons were taken from the commoners and turned into hedged farmland such as we know today. (That is a story for another time!) According to Mark Avery, around 35 to 40 million pheasants are released into the countryside every autumn, making them the commonest bird in Britain at that time of year. Their population (average density of pheasants around 50 per 100 hectares) accounts for about 30% of the total UK avian biomass. These are beautiful  birds and it is worth watching out for them.