I was thinking about non-native species at the AGM on Saturday on the weekend before last and wondered when the pheasant shooting season starts - it must be around now.  And it is - the 1 October.

Pheasants are not, of course, native to the UK.  They are an Asian species like the ring-necked parakeet - although pheasants have been running around our countryside for a lot longer so we have got used to them and, I guess, tend to see them as part of the natural scene.

When the Romans brought them here there was no great worry about transporting species around the world. But I wonder what impact, if any, all those pheasants have had, and do have, and may have, on our native wildlife.

We've given this a bit of thought but it is definitely work in progress.

The numbers of pheasants released into the UK countryside is enormous - about 35 million birds a year.  'Only' 15 million of them are shot each year, which means that although the BBS shows a steady increase in numbers, many of them must end up inside natural predators rather than in people's freezers, ovens and tummies.

That's an awful lot of bird meat that is feeding crows and foxes and a range of other species isn't it?

I wonder how much the increase in some predator numbers is fuelled by this meat bonanza?  Maybe not at all?  But given that many of those pheasants are available over the harsh winter period it seems possible that there is some impact.  The most mischievous might suggest that live pheasants are eating food that native species such as finches and buntings should eat and dead pheasants are feeding generalist predators - but it clearly is not that simple. 

Pheasant management at its best provides lots of cover and food that benefits other species.   But the increasing (I think it's increasing) trend for big-shoot days where huge numbers of pheasants are released worries many in the shooting community as well as seeming to me to be at the more worrying end of the specrtrum from an ecological point of view.

I think the pheasant illustrates some interesting points.  First, those 35 million non-native birds are released into the countryside without a licence whereas a few white-tailed eagles, a native species, require a whole lot of bureaucracy.  I'm with the bureaucrats on this one actually - but it's a very interesting difference.  Second, it's sometimes rather tricky to be sure what impact an introduction has or might have, but some species may be relatively benign whereas others cause lots of damage.  Prevention is always easier than cure in these circumstances.

If you have a look at the excellent BirdTrack you'll see that pheasant reporting rates (that is, the proportion of bird lists which include pheasants) have a consistent double peak in the year - in April and in late-October.  I imagine, please correct me if you know or think differently, that the spring peak is because male pheasants make more noise then so they are easier to pick up even if you don't see them, and that the second peak is to do with all those releases?  Is that right?

  • Pheasants present in reasonable numbers have a particularly adverse effect on many of or native species, especially amphbians and reptiles. Pheasants prey on the common lizard and newts as well as the young of sloworms, grassanakes and adders especially. I kinow of a number of locations where reptiles used to be present in good numbers and their demise has coincided with a massive increase in pheasant numbers. It is also strongly suspected that pheasants are responsible, at least in part, for the big drop in some of our butterfly populations through their predation of the catterpillars. So you are quite right Mark why is the reintroduction of a few White-tailed Eagles, which are essentially not an foreign species, subject to such bureaucracy when breeding hundreds of thousands of pheasants have no restictions and and the species is most definitely alien.