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The Pheasant Plucker...

I recently engaged on Twitter with a local farmer. He typically pushes a - please ‘buy local food’, please ‘support local farmers’, please ‘reduce food miles message’ - I agree with him. He does not respond well when disagreed with and has some unpleasant going’s on with people of a vegan persuasion. I don’t engage with that conversation.

He did, however, recently report he’d been shooting and brought home some pheasant to eat. He was preparing the pheasant and putting some of it in the freezer. Locally caught, locally reared, shot to be eaten, pheasant. On the face of it, nothing wrong with that. This pheasant is from a local farmers shoot, it’s a small scale affair and whilst pretty uninspiring to myself it’s difficult to be very opposed to it, each to their own, I suppose.

Unfortunately on a larger scale the pheasant industry is not quite so friendly. Pheasant is not a native bird. Pheasants are imported every year for shooting, even the local famer’s shoot imports pheasant chicks to be reared in cages, then released to be shot. A very strange pastime in my mind, but each to their own. There’s an odd quirk that whilst they are in their cages they are domestic livestock, but once released they become wild animals. This does not apply to Eagles, beavers or lynx (never mind wolves!).

What is quite remarkable is just how many of these birds are actually imported and released by the shooting industry.

2016 data was used by the RSPB to suggest that 57 million gamebirds are released in the UK countryside each year, made up of 47 million pheasants and 10 million red-legged partridges.

This figure has been widely reported in the press and media. It is a very large number so I thought it deserved investigation. I came across a website titled ‘What the science says’

‘What the science says’ reports… “The most recent figure published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature for the number of game birds released is for 2016, when an estimated 47 million pheasants and 10 million red-legged partridges were released, a total of 57 million game birds.

Release numbers have been rising year on year, and updated estimates for 2018 using the same methodology suggest numbers have reached around 61 million, but this has not been formally published in the scientific literature.

However, as there are no formal records, these figures are estimates, not absolute numbers. All estimates have to be based on underlying assumptions and are only as accurate as the data that is available. Another recent paper, which is awaiting peer-review, used several different methods to arrive at an average estimate of 34.5 million gamebirds released per year in the UK.”

What the Science Says ‘The UK’s Conservation Fact Checking Service’ is set up solely for the purpose of fact-checking and is a distinct sub-section of the GWCT.

Who are the GWCT? This is the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

“We are a leading UK charity conducting conservation science to enhance the British countryside for public benefit. For over 80 years we have been researching and developing game and wildlife management techniques. We use our research to provide training and advice on how best to improve the biodiversity of the countryside.”

The GWCT is an organisation funded and managed by the shooting industry. I’m quite sure they do excellent work, but they clearly have an agenda.

Further research was required. Joah R Madden has written a couple of papers (available on line) on this subject for the European Journal of Wildlife Research. Joah cannot confirm the number of birds released, but what she/he does go on to say is “Around 60% of pheasants released for shooting in the UK, an estimated 21 million birds, do not end up at their intended fate: being shot” Clearly this raises environmental concerns. The organisation Wild Justice has chased the Government to undertake a proper Environmental Impact Assessment of the release (and escape) of non-native game birds, as yet, to no avail.

Even the GWCT report the following

25% of released pheasants died before the shooting season began.

Most predation was due to foxes.

37.5% of released pheasants were shot on (or off) the estate.

16% of released pheasants survived until after the shooting season.

What impact these birds have on their local ecosystems is not fully understood. It is suggested that they may be in part to blame for the low number of adders. They must, logically be in competition with native species for food. But, without doubt they themselves are a major food source for fox, raven, buzzard, magpie and a good few other species, species often deemed less desirable (particularly by many farmers), certainly in the numbers they’re now seen.

Understanding our contemporary ecosystem’s food webs is complex and to some degree arbitrary. We will never get back to a fully functioning natural ecosystem on these islands, not whilst people survive anyway. The best we can do is manage it for diversity and create space for native species to thrive. Exactly how this is done, where this is done and how this is funded are big questions which should, in all fairness, be further up the political agenda.

As a group of people who lead others in the countryside we should take some interest in these conversations and raise awareness with those we lead. If no one knows the battles going on, they’ll never be able to pick a side…

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