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Many of the UK’s favourite game species aren’t native

Whether fur or feather, many of the UK’s favourite game species aren’t native to these isles at all, discovers David Tomlinson

Though the grey partridge is native to England, its red-legged cousin was only successfully introduced in the late 1700s

Familiarity, goes the old saying, breeds contempt. I’m not suggesting that any sportsman has contempt for the pheasant, but I’m sure that when we lift our gun to a rocketing cock, we see just a pheasant, not one of the most resplendent and beautiful birds in the world. Look carefully at a mature cock, his plumage a stunning mixture of gold, bronze and black, his face as bright as a master’s coat, and you appreciate that this amazing bird is simply far too exotic to be British.

Pheasants may have lived in Britain since the time of the Norman Conquest, but they’re never going to be thought of as native.

In sharp contrast, there’s nothing in the least bit exotic about a brown hare, for it looks every inch a true Brit. However, research has shown that Lepus europaeus is as European as its Latin name suggests. The English Channel prevented it ever reaching the British Isles naturally. It was thought to have been introduced into Britain from the Netherlands or Denmark, possibly during the Iron Age.

The brown hare was unable to make its way to our shores without human help — thought to be during the Iron Age

The archaeological evidence is inconclusive, but it has certainly been present from Roman times. There’s little genetic variation in Britain’s hares, so they may all be descended from just a few animals.

Britain is far from the only place where hares have been introduced. They’ve been successfully established in both North and South America (I remember seeing one in Patagonia while I was watching condors), as well as Australia and New Zealand. 


The humble coney

It seems surprising that the hare beat the rabbit to reach our shores: it was the Normans who brought the humble coney to both Britain and Ireland, with the earliest recorded warren on the Isles of Scilly in 1176. They brought it for its fur and meat, not as a game species. 

We know rabbits as prolific animals but, somewhat mysteriously, they took an awfully long time to become established here. No one really knows why, but it may be because they came from Spain and didn’t take readily to our climate. Originally, they were confined to managed warrens where they were protected from predators and supplied with food. Inevitably some escaped, but wild colonies were slow to establish. These were mainly in coastal areas, though they favoured the Norfolk/Suffolk Brecks, where they found conditions similar to their native Iberia.

The 1950s saw the outbreak of myxomatosis, which devastated the rabbit population across the UK

One can only assume that over time they adapted to the vagaries of the British climate, but it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that changes in agriculture created more favourable conditions for them, resulting in a population explosion. They were helped, too, by the increasing interest in game species preservation, which led to the control of many predators. Populations grew, while further introductions enabled them to colonise most of our offshore islands. 

By 1950, 94% of the arable land in Britain harboured rabbits, while the population was estimated at up to 100 million. They were the rough shooter’s favourite quarry, and one that was seemingly inexhaustible, until the sudden onslaught of the great rabbit plague: myxomatosis. It hit the country in 1953 and within no time it had decimated 99% of the population. Over the years numbers recovered, only to be knocked back again by further outbreaks, along with viral haemorrhagic disease. 

These days it’s hard to imagine just how abundant rabbits once were. Some of the bags achieved in Victorian England are barely believable today. In 1861, 13 Guns accounted for 3,333 rabbits in a day at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire, while in 1885, Lord de Grey shot 920 in one day on an estate in North Wales. This was part of an overall bag of 5,086, achieved by nine Guns. 

Rabbits were traditionally shot over spaniels, and one wonders whether the English springer would have evolved as it has if it hadn’t been for the rabbit. By 1960, Peter Moxon, kennel editor of Shooting Times, was lamenting that the “shortage of rabbits has created difficulties for the gundog trainer, especially where spaniels are concerned”.


Daring sailors

Like the rabbit, fallow deer are also native to southern Europe. Quite who first brought them here remains a mystery. The artist and naturalist John Guille Millais thought that it was the Phoenicians, “great sailors who traded with Britain for many years before the Roman conquest… It is more than likely that the daring sailors should have brought and bartered strange wild animals that were at that time common on their coasts…”. Most authorities accept that fallow were well established in Britain in Roman times, while the Domesday Book (1086) records them in 31 parks. 

Fallow deer were established in this country in Roman times, becoming a favourite for deer parks

Their spread was certainly helped by the English enthusiasm for keeping deer in parks. By the end of the 19th century, there were around 400 parks in England. It was escapees from these parks that led to fallow becoming so widespread throughout Britain today.

Fallow are regarded as the most common species of deer in England, with a population of around 100,000, making them far more numerous here than in any of the Mediterranean countries where they are native. Very few genuinely wild herds still exist, though a remnant wild population in western Anatolia in Turkey is recovering thanks to conservation efforts. Fallow deerstalking is available in many European countries, but the stalking in the UK ranks with the very best.


Asian incomers

There’s no doubting the origins of Japanese sika or Chinese water deer, for their names tells us where they come from. An alternative name for Reeves’s muntjac, the diminutive species fast expanding its range across Britain, is Chinese muntjac. These deer are native to south-east China and Taiwan. The larger Indian muntjac was also released in Woburn Park by the 11th Duke of Bedford, but thankfully never managed to establish itself here. It’s the Indian muntjac that Jim Corbett mentions so often in his books about hunting man-eaters; he knew the animal as the ‘karkar’, the barking deer. 

The roe may be one of our two species of native deer, but by about 1700 this species was close to extinction in Britain, with just a remnant population surviving in woods in central and north-western parts of the Scottish Highlands. Reintroductions started as long ago as 1800, when individuals were released at Milton Abbas in Dorset. 

Nobody knows the origins of these deer, but we do know that German stock was introduced to East Anglia in around 1884, with Austrian animals released in the Lake District about the same time. Thus our so-called native roe are really nothing of the sort, and our fallow have been here for centuries longer. 

Our native roe were nearly extinct by the 1700s and were reintroduced a century later



Because they are often known as French partridges, or even Frenchmen, there can be few who believe that redlegs are native. It was King Charles II who first attempted to establish them, but though several pairs were released in Windsor Great Park in 1673, they failed to survive. 

It was almost a century later, in 1770, that Lord Rendlesham, the Duke of Northumberland and the Earl of Rochford made a more serious attempt to establish them. This was much more successful, and a population soon became established on the Sandlings Heath of the Suffolk coast, where the light sandy soil and heathland provided an ideal habitat.

Incidentally, they became known as Frenchmen not because they came from France, but because the Duke of Wellington’s troops often encountered the birds during the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal (1807–14). The British were fighting the French, who wore red trousers. When the coveys of redlegs ran before the troops, just like the French soldiers, they became known as Frenchmen, a name that stuck. 


True Brits

It is ironic that none of our most important lowland game species are native to the British Isles. That’s not the case in the uplands, of course, for red grouse are true Brits, and not found anywhere else in the world — though ornithologists regard the white-winged willow grouse of Scandinavia as the same species. 

In Victorian times, the grey or English partridge was our most important sporting bird, but its dramatic decline in the 20th century saw the pheasant take over the top spot, a position this handsome foreigner looks unlikely to relinquish.