Country & Garden: Golden and nearly gone

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AS THOUSANDS of pheasants on sporting estates go under the gun this winter, spare a thought for the spectacular golden pheasant, which is rapidly becoming endangered. Not that this cousin of the common, ring- necked variety is a shooting proposition: it tends to live in the thickest undergrowth and rarely takes to the air. But its numbers are dwindling - a trend that is mirrored by its close relative the Lady Amherst's pheasant.

Today the golden pheasant's greatest stronghold is Breckland on the Norfolk/Suffolk border (Thetford Forest in particular), but smaller populations are found in Dumfries and Hampshire. Environmentalists are concerned. "There are few introduced species that aren't a nuisance," says Chris Meade, of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). "Golden and Lady Amherst's pheasants, mandarin duck and little owl are the only exceptions. Although they've been with us for a while, until recently no one has detected any problems."

Mark Rehfisch, now head of the wetland and coastal ecology unit at the BTO, conducted a two-year radio-tracking study of birds: "One of their most fascinating aspects is that for the entire incubation period the female sits tight and goes without food and water," he says. "They are incredibly sedentary for such a large bird - over the course of a year none of our study birds moved more than 500 metres."

Mr Rehfisch makes a special plea for action to be taken to protect our naturalised population of golden pheasant, and also the Lady Amherst's pheasant (which is found at just a couple of sites in Bedfordshire). He points out that both birds, along with our thriving stock of mandarin ducks, are imperilled in their native homeland. As a result our naturalised stock could be vital for their long-term survival (indeed Britain's 7,000 mandarins probably account for a third of the entire global population).

The declining pheasant numbers are now believed to be down to no more than 1,000 pairs of goldens and 100 pairs of Lady Amherst's. No one is quite sure of the reasons, but loss of habitat seems the most likely. Both species are dependent on young conifer plantations with a dense understorey. As the trees mature, their foliage cuts out the light and the undergrowth dies back, exposing the birds to predators. A trek to pastures new is too much for birds with a such a limited range.

In spite of their small territories, spectacular plumage and relatively large size, golden pheasants are maddeningly difficult to see. The best bet is to wait for a cock to call, in late winter, and then run like hell, hoping to catch a glimpse of him through the undergrowth. The best opportunities are probably on the Mayday Farm nature trail, between Elvedon and Brandon in Suffolk, where golden pheasant cocks often call near the path - listen out for a raucous double screech, completely unlike anything else to be heard in the countryside.