Pheasants – wildlife or not?

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Flanders Moss NNR

It is just about the end of the pheasant shooting season so the pheasants that live around Flanders can breath a sigh of relief, until next winter. Pheasants are easily seen all round Flanders: during the winter they are often on the fields next to the access track or in the edge woodlands. And they seem very much part of the British countryside, appearing in many landscape paintings and Christmas cards.  The striking males are so colourful they draw the eye whenever you see them. Many people will know that they are not actually native but are here due to a series of introductions going back to Roman times but they have been here for so long they seem part of the traditional native wildlife.

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But are pheasants actually part of Scotland’s natural heritage? There are, in Scotland, about 350 000 pairs of pheasants breeding but these numbers are supplemented by about 10 million birds each autumn ready for the shooting season.  These yearly introductions happen across Scotland so establishing a pheasant population across most of the country. But if these introductions were stopped the pheasants would die out in much of this range because naturally they can’t survive the conditions. A ‘natural, self-sustaining’ population can only really survive across a small part of Scotland – basically the lowlands of southern and eastern Scotland and a few eastern areas further north. For most of the west, central and northern Scotland pheasants can’t survive naturally.
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And what impact do these non-native birds have on our native wildlife? Pheasants are generalist feeders – that is, they eat almost anything including vegetation, seeds, insects, birds eggs, reptiles and small mammals. Little is known specifically about what 10 million of these unfussy eaters can have but it is expected that there is some impact at least. At Flanders pheasants don’t go out onto the open bog very much and tend to be found around the scrubby woody edges. This means that they are feeding in areas where some of our rare moths are found. For instance the Argent and Sable and the Rannoch Brindled Beauty moths both overwinter as pupae in ground vegetation, often at bases of trees, while the Silvery Arches moth spends the winter as a small larva on the ground. All these species and more will therefore be vulnerable to being eaten by large numbers of a ground feeding bird that isn’t part of the natural ecosystem. Are these moths populations being limited by feeding pheasants? Currently we have no figures on what impact they are having on our rare invertebrates.

So next time you see a pheasant remember that wildlife, if in their case we can even call it that, can be complicated. Pheasants brings pleasure to many people who see them in the countryside and they are of economic importance to landowners who run pheasant shooting but also may be having a detrimental effect of some of our less showy but very important native wildlife.

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