Pheasant releasing began in response to a decline in the traditional shooting of grey partridges as agricultural intensification in the 1950s and 1960s led to reduced wild stocks. Since then, demand and economics have led to continued increases in the numbers of pheasants released for shooting, which was estimated at 35 million in 2004 (PACEC report The Economic and Environmental Impact of Sporting Shooting in the UK).
The practice began some 10 years earlier than for red-legged partridges, so was already well under way by the start of our index series in 1961. Since then the NGC index of releasing has increased nine-fold, with an average rate of increase over the last two decades of 2% per annum.
The bag index has increased more slowly, as it is now only 2.5 times as high as in 1961. Most noticeably, there was a complete lack of growth during the 1990s despite the increases in releasing and it was only from 2000 that the bag index began a slow climb. The PACEC report estimates that 15 million pheasants were shot in 2004.
The reason why higher releases do not appear to feed back into higher bags is probably that many shoots now offer shoot days in January. Because of ongoing losses of released birds from August to December, disproportionately more pheasants must be released at the start of each season to achieve good late-season bags.
Index of pheasant bags and numbers released from 1961 to 2011 (see statistical methods and interpretational considerations). Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.