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Is the pheasant the perfect gamebird?

Fast and beautiful.... the pheasant is perfection

springer spaniel

Good looking, fast flying, delicious as well as easy to rear, tough and adaptable. The pheasant comes in a perfectly designed package. Like anything that’s relatively trouble-free, we don’t think about it much. So are we in danger of taking the pheasant for granted?

An exotic alien

We expect it to thrive and provide good sport wherever we release it. But we forget that it’s really an exotic alien that has never occurred in a natural state closer than 1,000 miles to our shores.

ringneck pheasant

The go-to bird for many shoots, the ringneck is a large and powerful pheasant that deserves Guns’ respect

The pheasant’s scientific name is Phasianus colchicus

It’s thought that the Romans brought the pheasant to Britain and the Roman villa at Woodchester in Gloucestershire shows a recognisable ringneck pheasant. However, the earliest documentary evidence dates back to about 1177, suggesting that the first birds were introduced during the early part of the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066).

Polish bazanty

Polish bazanty

The different varieties of pheasant

There are around 30 recognised subspecies of pheasant, with names such as the Prince of Wales’s pheasant and the Sungpan pheasant. Though each of these races is isolated geographically in the wild, they will readily interbreed if given the chance. The birds we know today are a virile hybrid mixture, with the grey rump and distinctive white neck ring coming from Chinese birds, while the so-called old-English birds are black-necked with a purple-red rump.

Semi-domestication of the pheasant has led to the development of a number of distinctive breeds. The Michigan blueback, for example, isn’t a native of the US, but a bird that has been selectively bred there for its flying ability. Similarly, the so-called jumbo ringneck pheasant is another American domestic bird. As its name suggests it’s very large (up to 6lb), and has been bred for the table rather than shooting.

Heavyweight and lightweight pheasants

The jumbo is the heavyweight of the pheasants, whereas the Japanese green is a light, agile and fast-flying bird. Many authorities grant it full specific status as Phasianus versicolor, while others regard it as no more than a race of the common pheasant. Full species or not, it will readily hybridise with its mainland cousins, and produce fertile offspring. In Japan it is widespread and the national bird.

100 years in the making

The pheasant became our most important gamebird over a century ago.Its rise was quite sudden, mirroring the development and refinement of the breechloading shotgun.

Blackneck pheasant

Old English blackneck

  • In his 50-year shooting career, spanning the period 1802- 1853, the redoubtable sportsman Colonel Peter Hawker bagged 7,035 partridges (all of which would have been greys), but a mere 575 pheasants.
  • It wasn’t until the early years of the 20th century that big battues became not only accepted, but popular largely because of the enthusiasm of King Edward VII. It is rumoured that he took up shooting because he was too fat to go hunting.
  • There are various claims for the record UK bag of pheasants shot, with the 3,824 birds shot at Warter Priory, East Yorkshire on 5 December 1909 rivalling the 3,937 shot at Hall Barn, Buckinghamshire, on 13 December 1913, achieved with a team of six Guns.
  • Fortunately such enormous bags are no longer fashionable, but are a reminder of the huge numbers of birds that must have been reared and released before World War I.
  • Hand-rearing pheasants in such great numbers required a considerable amount of labour, for the birds were all reared under broody hens.
  • The big pheasant shoots were the preserve of the great sporting estates that could afford to employ the numerous keepers needed to work in the rearing fields.

Changes in pheasant rearing

Things changed in the second half of the 20th century. The then Game Conservancy helped to perfect the art of hatching eggs in incubators and rearing the chicks under brooders. Work was also done on releasing poults successfully into the wild.

Eagle Hall Shoot, Lincolnshire, June, 2015

An adaptable bird

  • The pheasant can be found throughout the British Isles, and is only absent from the northwest of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides and Shetland.
  • It’s as happy on the humid shores of the Black Sea as it is on the arid central Asian steppes.
  • In China it can be found at higher than 10,000ft.
  • Some populations survive in areas where winter temperatures remain well below zero for weeks.

So how big would the British population be without annual releases? If releasing stopped, the pheasant would quickly disappear from the uplands and places such as Exmoor. There would probably also be a sharp reduction in the population density in all but the most favourable parts of the country. However, the pheasant is a survivor, and it would be unlikely to disappear from our countryside.

flying pheasant

Do your homework on the breed of pheasant you will be shooting – they are all different

Pheasant Facts and Figures

  • Dominant cock pheasants have harems of anything from two to six or more hens. But sub-dominant cocks rarely get the chance to mate.
  • The crowing calls of individual pheasants differ from each other in pitch and tempo.
  • Cock pheasants have nothing to do with either incubation or rearing the chicks.
  • Wild hen pheasants lay a clutch of between eight to 14 eggs, though clutches of up to 17 are not exceptional. The incubation period is around 23-24 days, with the chicks all hatching at once (synchronous hatching).
  • Pheasants fly at 60mph. Partridges can reach speeds of about 40mph
  • There are around 50 species of pheasants in the world. These include the junglefowl, the  ancestor of the domesticated chicken.
  • A pheasant’s short and rounded wings allow rapid acceleration, but are not suited to sustained flight, so pheasants are non-migratory.
  • A characteristic of all the pheasants is that the males have specialised ornamental plumage (unlike partridges, quails and francolins).