Ground flora recovery in disused pheasant pens is limited and affected by pheasant release density
The release of large numbers of juvenile pheasants into open-topped release pens in woodlands is a common part of game management in the UK. Previous research has shown this practice modifies the soil conditions and ground flora community of these release pens. However, it is not currently known if and how these changes to soil and ground flora reverse once the pens are no longer used. We compared the soil chemistry, ground flora structure and community composition of disused release pen sites in ancient semi-natural woodlands with paired control sites. Some of the changes seen within release pens in active use persisted in disused pens; soil fertility and cover of species that prefer fertile soils were higher in disused pens, whereas winter green perennials, richness of species of ancient semi-natural woodland and overall species richness were lower. Total species richness and richness of ancient semi-natural woodland plants showed signs of recovery in pens that had been disused for longer than ten years, but this recovery only occurred in pens where <1000 pheasants/ha had been released. Pheasant release pens are sometimes relocated within woodland to reduce disease incidence but, as the flora within disused pens does not recover quickly, this practice may cause cumulative habitat damage. We recommend that release pen relocation should be minimised and suggest other management strategies that could reduce the need to relocate pens and increase the floral recovery in disused pens, such as reducing the density of pheasants released.