Balancing the positive with the negative
There are legitimate questions relating to the release of pheasants for shooting and impacts on habitats and wildlife. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust research in this area over the last decade or so has been substantial but has still tackled only some of the issues. It has highlighted so far a number of possible unwanted impacts, which are usually a result of the released birds themselves, and a number of positive effects, which are usually associated with habitat management work for game. We have used the findings of our research to encourage a better balance between these two things and to encourage a sustainable low impact approach to releasing.
Looking at benefits first, we know that woodlands are usually better places for wildlife following game management activities. Game managed woodlands have better shrubby edges than other similar woodlands, they have more open spaces and sunnier rides. There are more woodland birds and wood-edge butterflies in game woods than in other woods. In a similar vein, birds of open farmland are maintained at higher numbers on areas that have a variety of game crops and game feeders during the winter. The research work that documents these benefits of releasing is objective and has been, or is in the process of being published in peer-reveiwed scientific journals.
On the other side of the coin we also know that the presence of large numbers of released pheasants at pen sites in particular can impact on the ground flora inside those pens. We can provide advice on how to minimize this and this advice now forms part of the Code of Good Shooting Practice, but there is no doubt that release pens usually have a local adverse effect. Similarly large releases of pheasants moving from release sites to game crops can cause subtle changes to the structure and species composition of hedges on farmland. It is actually easier to avoid this but the potential is still there for adverse effects. The research work on this has also been published by the GWCT in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
What we need to look at next
There are other possible effects of releasing for shooting, good and bad, that currently we can only speculate about. One of these relates to the potential for an increase in predator populations alongside large pheasant releases and the possibility that these enhanced predator populations affect other wildlife, in particular ground nesting birds. We would like to study this and have had discusssions with the RSPB and other groups. We need to take account that fox diet is rarely dominated by pheasant (so other food sources will be more important) and that most shoots control predators (albeit with varying degrees of success). There is also a wider issue too relating to the availability of food for wildlife on farmland due to the farming itself. Growing crops, storing feed, the presence of farm animals and game management all provide the potential for a food resource for generalist predators and other animals and the relevant importance of each needs to be considered.
Another potential issue that has been flagged up by the RSPB is that the naturally occurring seed resource on farmland is being depleted by pheasants and other birds are suffering as a consequence. This hasn’t been looked at specifically either, but pheasants are nearly always fed on release based shoots and they cannot access many of the food sources available to smaller birds. It is also relevant that most release based shoots tend to plant seed bearing game crops and hence attract many more seed eating songbirds throughout the winter than otherwise similar tracts of non-game farmland.
A third potential issue brought to our attention by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust is that released pheasants might impact reptile colonies in and around woods. In particular the birds may predate young lizards and snakes following release in August and September, before the reptiles hibernate. It may also be the case that opening up the canopy for pheasant releases in woodlands might improve opportunities for reptiles such as common lizard or slow worm. This is another issue where we actively seek to identify whether there is a problem here or not. In this case we are now working with the ARC trust to study the relationship between reptile presence and releasing.
In summary, the GWCT has undertaken a substantial amount of research on the subject of releasing for shooting and its impacts on habitats and wildlife. We have looked properly at some of the wider issues of releasing pheasants and impacts and we have good information on aspects of this and are always ready to provide information to anyone who is interested. We also have had many good discussions about other, as yet unresolved, issues with Natural England and conservation groups such the RSPB and ARC. We think that it is always good to discuss these things and air competing views and arguments even when we have no firm information because this often provides the basis for research ideas and opportunities for funding.