Undoubtedly one of the most gorgeous creatures to be found within these isles is the male cock pheasant. For once, the term is not an exaggeration. Should the sunlight catch its iridescent green and indigo head with its pure white ruff or the subtle bronze, grey, blue and vermilion shading of its rather ample body, you will see a bird that would not be out of place in a tropical rain forest. Among the rich reds and golds of an English autumn it is simply splendid.
There is one that currently visits us, coming close to the house, attracted by the spilled grain from the bird feeders in the trees above. Now the breeding season is well and truly over I often see birds like him gathered in small single-sex groups, anything from two to six individuals, dressed in their finest, with nothing very much to do except prance and preen. They vary a good deal in their plumage, some being a deep purple colour overall and others quite pale, but all them beautiful. The hens by contrast wear a rather pleasant if slightly dull mottled brown, more suited to the practical business of rearing chicks, which they perform with no help at all from their more flamboyant mates.
Though it is an introduced species that has its origins in Georgia, the pheasant has been part of the British countryside for some time. It seems to have arrived first with the Romans, but was properly established by the Normans. Before the advent of effective weaponry it was a relative rarity on the table, but from the middle of the 19th century the breech-loading shotgun enabled the shooter to fire fast, reload and fire again. Pheasants prefer to hide in dense undergrowth rather than fly, but when they do they fly quickly, rising rapidly over short distances. Shotguns and pheasants go so well together that the bird is the staple object and focus for a multi-million pound industry that dominates parts of the countryside.
The sport has attracted a good deal of criticism, mainly for its intensive rearing practices, which are sometimes akin to battery farming, and for the way that competition from other species was and to an extent still is ruthlessly and comprehensively pursued to allow the well-to-do to have their sport. But though no-one is transported or hanged for poaching a pheasant, as was the case in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there is much less persecution of birds of prey and other predators now than previously, it still remains in some areas. Nevertheless, some argue that the rearing of pheasants, which prefer dense woodland cover in which to hide, has benefited a large number of creatures that would have found their otherwise unprofitable habitats destroyed for more lucrative purposes.
The days of the massive bags of dead pheasants that characterised the Edwardian shoot might have gone, but still millions of birds are reared and released every year. It’s an expensive and complicated business, requiring much skill, planning and capital investment, and its done on a large scale. A seven week old bird can cost an estate £4 to buy in, and the young birds are often reared by specialist firms. Once sold on, the birds are gradually released into the wild around August time, a couple of months before shooting begins. By the start of the shooting season they will have become semi-wild. Part of the gamekeeper’s task is to make the shooting experience more reliable by feeding the birds, but not so much that they become tame and won’t fly. That would spoil a day’s shooting, for which hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds will have been paid per gun. That’s an expensive meal, but one for which there is a seemingly endless demand.
With so much money at stake it is not surprising that intensive methods are used to bring the birds before the guns. Intensive rearing brings problems of disease and behaviour management, and a range of interventions are used to make sure the maximum number of birds reaches the estates in time. Some of these methods have been heavily criticised, but others argue that good care need not be cruel, and that the business is highly and appropriately regulated and plays a key part in wildlife conservation and countryside management. That does not stop cases of bad practice occurring, nor concerns that the business as a whole is immoral and ultimately damaging.
I don’t know if the pheasant that comes to eat beneath our bird feeders is a lucky escapee or if he has spent all his life in the wild. Given his lack of timidity I suspect the former. He’s one of the lucky ones. So far.