By Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education
5 minute read
Back in early November I was treated to two fantastic days of hill edge sport in of the Pennines. We had a combination of walked-up, mini drives, and an evening flight. While the few grouse were the highlight for a lowlander like me, wild pheasants were the bread and butter of our days. It may seem strange to think that there are pheasants up there, and with no releasing for miles around they really are wild. The thing is, all the ingredients are in place to support the full life cycle, and with top notch gamekeeping “spilling” over from the grouse moors, they really are only doing what comes naturally.
The Three Legged Stool
The late Dr Dick Potts, who was Director of Research and later chief executive at GWCT, coined this phrase in relation to wild partridges, but it applies equally to pheasants. What it says is that you need a suitable habitat, food throughout the life cycle, and then reasonable freedom from predation. Just as a three legged milking stool falls over when a leg breaks, so, if you knock out one of these three basic supports, the population collapses. So, lets look at each in turn.
In their native Asia, pheasants are described as jungle birds. While we tend to think of tropical rain forest, the original Sanskrit word really means rough and wild, even with an implication of aridity. When it first came into English, it probably referred to the wilderness where danger lurked in the form big wild mammals, so if we think scrub, bushes, thorn thickets and willow carr, we are not too far away.
So, from the edge of the moors to lowland heath and chalk downland, what pheasants really want is warm sheltered cover. To get the best from this, it needs to be patchy too, with lots of nice sunny clearings where the cocks can strut their stuff in spring. That spectacular plumage is about showing off, not hiding in the dark depths of the forest.
Sunny clearings and scrub edges also mean rough grass margins which are perfect for hens to hide in as they incubate their eggs. In a more ordered countryside, this can also mean woodland edges provided they are not shaded by overhanging branches, and hedgerows, especially if they have a wide rough grass margin at the base.
Most gamekeepers automatically think of roosting too, always fearing that pheasants will stray if there are not plenty of safe and sheltered paces to spend the night. Most of the time, pheasants ‘go up’ to roost, but the truth is that they do not need tall trees for this. Indeed, if they are high up in the canopy, that is an indication that roosting cover is in short supply. They will quite happily spend the night 3 or 4 metres off the ground if there is decent shelter.
Because we usually feed them wheat, we think of pheasants as seed eaters, and that is largely true of adults in winter. Wheat alone is not a complete diet though, and weed seeds, acorns, beechmast, berries, and fallen apples are a few amongst many things that they will take to add variety to their diet.
As winter turns to spring, these foods get scarcer, and pheasants start to eat more greenstuff. The green shoots of spring are full of vitamins and minerals, and form a vital part of the diet, but they need calories too. Indeed, hens are now at their peak requirement; they need to build up resources to form a clutch of eggs, and then have the resilience to sit on them, with just a few minutes a day to sneak off for a quick snack and a poo.
Once upon a time our weedy agriculture provided what was needed, but today there is so much less by way of spilt corn and weed seeds out there. This is why it is essential to continue to feed after the end of the shooting season and into May, so that the hens have an easy calorie top up till their eggs hatch. Simple hoppers filled with wheat and set out along wood edges, hedgerows, ditch sides, pit holes, scrub patches and in sunny clearings are all that it takes, and GWCT research shows that your hens will fledge twice as many chicks as a result. They will also be much more likely to have a second try if the first fails.
When the chicks hatch the diet changes again, following what the changing seasons bring. Given an average spring, increasing warmth will have set insect life cycles going again after the winter slow down, and this provides just what Mrs Pheasant and her chicks need. Just like partridges, insects are the key to survival. Small, slow-moving, creepy-crawly larvae are the bulk of what she takes her young to forage for.
In the uplands these are likely to be present in plentiful supply in the rush beds of hill edge pastures. Here the young families can be hidden from view as hunt between the rushes, filling their bellies, and huddling under mum with the boiler well stoked when rain comes. Similar habitats in the lowlands can be equally productive, as can weedy, low input cereal crops.
Once upon a time this is exactly how we grew our corn, but today we are much more efficient, leaving little space for weeds and the chick food insects that live on them. However, strips of cereal based wild bird seed mix, or unharvested cereals are great options available in countryside stewardship schemes, and if they are spread across the shoot, rather than concentrated in big blocks, they can make a huge difference to wild game production.
Freedom from predation
Pheasants are potentially very productive birds, that are adapted to stand high levels of predation. That said, if we do not do our best to limit the pressure we cannot expect much result, even if all the above has been put into place. Foxes, rats, stoats, weasels, mink and corvids all have their impact, and the combined effect can be huge. A late winter and springtime campaign to address this is essential if we want to see much result. This is the third leg of Dick Potts’ stool, and we neglect it at our peril.
One of the great joys of a wild game project like this is that there are many other beneficiaries. The combined effect of habitat improvement and predation control can have a huge impact on a wide range of species. This really is conservation through wise use in action, and our countryside and its wildlife need it more than ever.
Reasons to control corvids
Due to the current silliness of our general licences in England and Wales, corvid control for conservation of wild pheasants is not allowed. However, most of us have other species of “endangered” wild birds that we wish to conserve. So, these days, my wild pheasants are incidental beneficiaries of a Larsen trapping programme to help wild grey partridges, corn buntings and skylarks among others.
This article first appeared in Shooting Times