Choosing the right breed of pheasant for your shoot can be tricky. As well as the numerous pure-breeds being offered by gamefarmers, there are cross-breeds to consider. It is widely acknowledged that shoots want the same qualities from pheasants ? they need to be strong flyers that don?t wander off the shoot and they need to be hardy. There has been little scientific research conducted into how each of the different varieties behaves once released, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest substantial variation. So, how do you make sure that you choose the right birds for your drives?

Eastern promise

A spokesman for the Game Farmers? Association (GFA) explained that many of the varieties on offer are sub-species of the common pheasant, Phasianus colchicus. ?Confusion arises because different names are often applied to the same variety. There are fewer stand-alone varieties than you may think,? he said, adding that many believe the best-flying pheasants are from Mongolian and Chinese strains. ?These are often sold as French common, Bazanty, Scandinavian and Michigan bluebacks. These varieties are well suited to shoots in flat country, where a bit of lift is needed to show sporting birds. The downside is that all these varieties are more inclined to stray than others.?

According to the GFA, shoots with naturally good topography ? such as the deep valleys of the West Country ? often prefer the more traditional blacknecks or

a Mongolian cross. ?These varieties hold better and the birds are only required to fly straight, owing to contours,? its spokesman told me.

According to gamebird vet John Dalton, a bird?s performance could be down to nurture rather than nature. ?I do not think that shoot owners, and even most gamebird vets, know the intricacies of the various breeds and cross-breeds that are available,? he explained, adding that choosing the correct variety depends on exactly what is required of the bird, apart from its flying ability. ?The reputation of the way the bird variety behaves is not the whole deal ? even the best-behaved birds will not hold if the environment they are offered is not satisfactory to them and if there is a lot of disturbance on the shoot.?

Choice of bird

So, are some varieties more hardy than others? ?It would be great to think that we could select birds on their resistance to disease,? John said, ?but I am not aware of any variety that is scientifically superior in this aspect over others. However, if a shoot?s environment is climatically challenging, a hardy strain is vital. My advice is to find out what your neighbours are doing and see how it works for them.?

John added that it is easy to see why some shoot owners may feel confused by the contradictory reputations of some varieties. ?Last season, I was shooting on a cocks-only day and the instruction was to make sure that all melanistic birds were shot,? he told me. ?The headkeeper had time for them at all and thought they were ?soft and lazy?. There are other shoot managers who actively purchase melanistic birds, however.?

Some gamefarmers have had to adapt the varieties they rear to suit their clients? needs. Paul Jeavons, of Worcestershire Game Farm, hatches around 300,000 pheasants each year, the majority of which are a Scandinavian/Chinese cross. Since establishing the gamefarm in 1985, he has developed an understanding of how certain varieties perform and is a great advocate of cross-breeds. ?In the beginning, we reared pure-bred Scandinavians, as Worcestershire is fairly flat,? he said. ?We needed a sharp bird that would fly well, which they do, but they were low egg producers, small and difficult to rear. We then crossed them with a Chinese strain and the resulting bird flies well, holds well and suits being gamefarm reared. Due to its smaller size, it also eats less food compared with the bigger French ringnecks, which is something to consider with wheat now at £200 a tonne.?

Paul cautioned that cross-breeds are not necessarily right for every shoot. ?We have customers with blocks of dense, cold, coniferous woodland and the larger pure-bred blackneck pheasants seem to show a better return. There is always a need to compromise between the boss wanting strong-flying birds and the keeper wanting birds that stay in the drives and show a good return.?

Keeping Guns happy

Frustrated by the sometimes conflicting advice available, Northamptonshire shoot owner Nigel Smith decided to release four different varieties last season. ?We bought Japanese green crosses, whites, blacks and ringnecks, so that we could learn which variety worked for us,? he said. ?There is so much speculation surrounding each variety that I decided to experiment.? Nigel added that more could be done to help shoots to make informed decisions. ?Bird varieties seem to come in and out of fashion all the time. Simply because a variety has not worked for someone does not necessarily mean it will not work for me.?

Gamekeeper Ian Farndale-Brown has spent a lifetime studying the behaviour of the different varieties of pheasants. ?We have tried birds from many sources and of many different strains over the past 30 years,? he said. ?As well as the terrain, much can depend on the needs of the Guns. Can the accounts be balanced if the return drops due to presenting better birds? Would regular Guns seek days elsewhere if the birds consistently outperformed them? I would never choose types based purely on cost and return, but most shoots are run as a business to some extent.?

Ian urged shoots that are dissatisfied with their birds? performance to do some research. ?See what works on your ground and experiment until you get what you want,? he advised.