Dealing with poor breeding in released pheasants

Hand-reared released pheasants that survive shooting do not breed well. Research shows that even with good habitat and limited predation, juvenile released birds might produce only one chick for every ten produced by wild birds. Adult released birds (i.e. those that survive a second season) do better but these are uncommon on shoots.

For breeding pheasant populations, our past and recent research work has shown again and again that there are three core management considerations when aiming to improve breeding success. These are:

  • Effective predator control during the spring.
  • A programme of spring supplementary feeding.
  • Good nesting and brood rearing habitat.

While these things are important for both wild and released birds, because the latter are intrinsically less able to breed well, it can be argued that even greater attention needs to be paid to them. For many release shoots this is a daunting task so what would be useful is to look more closely at some of the specific issues with the released birds. Our recent research work in this area now indicates it is worth focusing on these, often neglected areas:

a) Maintain predator control throughout the spring – the released birds are vulnerable not just during and after nesting, but straight after the end of shooting.

b) Think about the inability of the released birds to adapt to a wild diet as soon as shooting finishes. Use numerous hoppers and keep them topped up to build up the reserves that provide the strength to both lay their eggs and sit on them for 25 days.

c) Look specifically at the relationship between nesting cover and brood rearing cover on your site. Can released pheasant hens easily lead their new born chicks to the high protein insects that they will need in the first 6 days of their lives?

Our recent research at one major release site indicated that attention to these things can make a big impact and provides an insight into the art of the possible when a package of measures is in place. The statistics at this site were impressive with around a quarter of the released hens producing a brood resulting in on average 70 wild poults per 100 released hens. This represents for us an achievable maximum. Our work at this site in the context of some less successful situations also further confirmed that we need to think more about some of the underlying factors that cause released birds to breed poorly compared to wild ones. We identify three areas:

a) The genetic origin of released birds.

b) the rearing environment and pre-release management.

c) density related factors on release shoots.

Both a) and b) affect the behaviour of individuals, for example to avoid predators, and b) affects the physiology of released birds as well, for example the ability to adapt to a wild diet. The third factor c) is important in determining whether parasites and disease on a site can become a significant factor for breeding and this is more likely to be a problem on release based shoots.

Teasing out the effects of these things and looking for clear solutions is the aim of our latest programme of research in this area. In particular we are looking at making the rearing environment more interesting to chicks and how that might affect the behaviour and physiology of pheasants later on.

In the meantime, it is useful just to think about some of these things when making management decisions in relation to, for example, purchasing eggs or chicks, managing a rearing facility or deciding about where and how many to release. More generally, it is useful to refer to some of the game management information available from the GWCT in leaflets and elsewhere. They contain a wide variety of specific management recommendations in relation to predator control, spring feeding and habitat provision for pheasants.

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