Fowl play: In defence of the pheasant

Pheasants get a bad rap. Not only are they bred fat and slow for easy hunting, they are all but ignored in art and literature. How did this happen to such a beautiful, intelligent bird? Guy Kennaway investigates

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Pheasants are the ultimate victims. I was shooting them the day it dawned on me. I saw a fine bronze and deep-blue cock bird in some tussocky grass surveying the carnage all around him and he seemed to say to me, "What precisely have we done to deserve this?". I spent the rest of the day thinking about things from his point of view, and realised that I had found a new subject for a novel.

This month, all over the country, approximately 40 million pheasants are being raised for what is termed sport. They started life on game farms in huge 10,000-egg incubators, hatched after 21 days, and spent the next four weeks in large boxes under hot lamps, eating enriched grain to bulk up into poults. In south-east Asia, where the pheasant originates, the birds grow up in clutches of three or four, each family on a territory of a few acres. In contrast, crowding of pheasants on game farms in the UK often leads to bullying and cannibalism, for which the solution is de-beaking.

By July, the poults will have grown big enough to be transported in crates to the shooting estates where they will then be penned in tennis court-sized cages inside the woods to get acclimatised to exterior conditions. A game-keeper will have kept a watchful eye on them, shooting predators like foxes and stoats, keeping the pheasants very safe – until it's time to kill them.

Fortified feed, often laced with antibiotics and called things like Bird Puller, prevents diseases and makes the pheasants fat, slow and a little tame, but the requirement of their breed is not now, as it was in Asia, to be cautious, swift and silent. Over many years of being bred for sport in Britain, the farmed pheasant has been refined to something with the aerodynamic properties of a flying teapot, and a noisy one at that – with clattering wings and a panic call that sounds like a pre-war car klaxon, to help the doziest sportsman spot them. There has been a kind of reverse natural selection going on – the ones that are easy to kill are the most valued and bred.

In August, the pens are opened and the birds pushed out on to crops of kale or sprouts to toughen them up and break their habit of running towards humans expecting food, believing man to be a benign, friendly species. In October, when the shooting season begins, pheasants will see another side of us.

A day's shooting begins, for pheasants, by being herded gently back into the woods before a small army of game-keepers, local enthusiasts, children and dogs frighten them into flight, out of the woods and over a field where usually about eight people stand ready to shoot them.

It can cost up to £8,000 for eight 'guns' – as the shooters call themselves – to hunt for a day, and some estates have made pheasants their primary source of income. Over about eight drives, anything between 100 and 400 pheasants will be shot. At the top end of the market, the day (for the humans) can be delightful, with lots of challenging shooting interspersed with bullshot cocktails, homemade pork pies and a sumptuous lunch, but the consequence of the popularity of shooting pheasants has been to turn what was once a quaint ancient country sport into a fully-blown mechanised industry. Nowadays,

many, many more pheasants are killed than are eaten by the hunters, or indeed by anyone, as the demand for meat cannot keep up with the supply of shot pheasants. Why we aren't all roasting pheasant on Sundays is a mystery. The pet food companies won't take dead birds as it costs too much to pluck the carcasses, and it is an open secret that many end up buried.

There are some exemplary shoots: estates that put down only a few hundred birds, which are given ample space and are as close to wild as you are likely to find on a shoot in Britain. But, of course, the sky doesn't blacken with thousands of beating wings and these wily pheasants move fast and are very difficult to hit, limiting their attraction to city-dwelling shooters who don't get much practice and are not very good with the gun.

It all sounds pretty depressing, but the fact is a day's shooting can be very exciting, and the men and women who shoot pheasants (me included, I hope) are not sadistic brutes. I personally find it thrilling to see a bird emerge from the top of the woods and, after gauging its speed and direction of flight, aim my gun in the right place to dispatch it cleanly. It certainly takes skill when done well.

Interviewing sportsmen during research for my novel, and thinking about my own responses, I detected a deeply ingrained urge to kill animals, which I put down to an ancient need to hunt for food. After all, it is not art, literature and architecture that our civilisation is built on, but the ability to bring back food to the cave. Until someone had accomplished that, there was no opportunity for the finer things of life. In a world where food production has been mechanised and largely concealed, this ancient impulse seems desperately out of place, and even wrong, but who knows, one day in an apocalyptic future it may be back in demand, and respected again. The hunting skill was embedded into our DNA and made enjoyable to practice, the way that procreation, also so important for the survival of humans had to be fun, to make us effective reproducers. Sex and hunting are entwined in the marrow of our bones. And it is proving as easy to ban killing animals that are not eaten, as it would be to ban sex that isn't reproductive. Recreational sex and recreational hunting are here to stay.

I discovered vestiges of the need to hunt in our everyday life: supermarkets, which have a pretty good handle on human behaviour, pander to the urge with the constant rearrangement of the food on their shelves, so we have to push the trolley up and down the aisles as though stalking our packet of lentils.

Once the pheasants have got over the shock of being shot at, perhaps they'll pause to reflect on why it is that others around them – birds of prey, badgers, and of course, most bizarrely of all, foxes – live under the protection of human law, while they are uniquely raised to be killed for sport.

The grouse season opened on 12 August. The grouse isn't bred to be shot because it, unlike the pheasant, cannot be raised in captivity. For many years the number of grouse, particularly black grouse, has been falling, in some cases to catastrophically low levels. On the Minera moor in North Wales, grouse shooting ceased entirely in 1993, and the RSPB stepped in to manage a huge project of regeneration which involved manually cutting thousands of acres of heather and bilberry for more than 18 years, paid for by the thousands of people who donate money to the charity. This year, the population of red grouse has so recovered that the landowner has started shooting them again.

So, shortly after being being helped by humans – many of them bird-loving volunteers I am sure, who work tirelessly to improve their moor and reduce the ticks that are so injurious to grouse – the grouse are then harried into the paths of crackling shotguns by other humans.

The distinguishing characteristic of our attitude to shooting and hunting is inconsistency. But on what basis are the pheasants singled out for such harsh treatment? I believe that it is partially down to ancient British prejudices against foreigners.

Pheasants are, after all, conspicuous immigrants. They were brought over here by bird collectors and sportsmen from Asia. And now the pheasant is one of the last legally persecuted minorities in Britain, and like other oppressed minorities, it is excluded from mainstream British culture. Pheasants are absent from literature, art and films. I couldn't find a single one in any Disney (or other) cartoon. And despite pheasants being such attractive and distinctive birds, they are also missing from advertising. There are many brands with birds' names: swan, kestrel, condor, a vodka called Grey Goose, but as far as I could discover, nothing endorsed by a pheasant. The Grouse, on the whisky label, gets to be Famous – but of course he is an indigenous Scot, an ancient Celt, and not to be mocked and then excluded like the foreigner.

I believe that the most convincing explanation for why some animals, like the badger and the fox, are favoured over the pheasant when it comes to hunting legislation, is their contrasting depictions in culture, particularly literature and film. The fox, for example, in Norse, Chinese, European and South American myths, was depicted as cunning, violent and unpredictable, sometimes with magical powers. In the 17th century, Ben Jonson, writing Volpone, depicted the Fox as a trickster who conned people into thinking he was dying simply to get expensive gifts. Even Beatrice Potter's Mr Fox is a dangerous character, with Flopsy and Benjamin Bunnies imprisoned in his cooker. f

But more recently the fox has been rehabilitated, first by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince, where the fox manifests the true value of friendship, and then crucially in Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox, which marked a sea change in 1970, and from which point on the fox has gradually been fully sentimentalised. Thus we end up with the charming Basil Brush, and currently a genial, salon-bar fox as the joke-telling public face of, of all products, a beer called Speckled Hen. A more unrealistic depiction of the relationship between foxes and hens would be hard to conceive of. I trace a line directly from Fantastic Mr Fox to the Hunting Act in 2004, which attempted unsuccessfully to stop fox-hunting. The modern, kind, caring 'fantastic' Mr Fox is a very recent construct, and a thin disguise, as anyone who has seen a chicken run after a raid by a fox well knows.

In east London, in June 2010, a pair of nine-month-old twin girls were attacked in their cots while they slept. Had Isabella and Lola Koupparis been killed, the veneer of fox love would have peeled away to reveal the ancient suspicion of the ruthless predator.

Of the 258,000 foxes in Britain, 33,000 live in cities, and the numbers are growing fast. The first fox to kill a child in a British city will do for foxes what the 1980 Ayers Rock tragedy, in which a dingo supposedly killed a baby, did for dingos. Dingos were decimated. Expect urban fox-hunts of one kind or another. And the children of those urbanites will be reading stories of bad foxes, not fantastic ones, at night in bedrooms with the windows firmly closed.

In 1730, Jonathan Swift, in The Pheasant and the Lark, painted a charming anthropomorphic portrait of a cock pheasant, which included pointing out how clever the handsome fellow was: "No science was to him unknown/ For all the arts were all his own". As far as I can see, that was the last time the pheasant was mentioned, except in passing, in English literature, adults' or children's.

But nowadays, the pheasant is a byword for stupidity. What happened? The answer is, once again, Roald Dahl, and specifically his bestselling children's book, Danny, the Champion of the World. The main characteristics of the pheasant in Danny are its idiotic stupidity and utter dispensability. Dahl illustrates these with his notion that you can catch and easily kill a pheasant with a raisin in a small paper bag – it slips over its head, rendering it blind when it tries to eat the food. Just to be sure, I tried it. It doesn't work. My experiment was not very comprehensive, but it did establish that the pheasant at the end of my garden is quite clever enough to tear the bag to get to the raisins. Still, this little lie has done so much damage. That book taught children that pheasants were little more than animal garbage. In combination with their immigrant status, it did for them, badly.

It is time for pheasants to have a new myth, one that suits our own era of uncertainties, which dignifies the bird but doesn't make the simple and easy choice of coming down on the anti-hunting side of the argument. To illustrate how conflicted we are about shooting, I not only made the narrator of my new novel a pheasant, but a pro-shooting one at that. I hope that it might in some small way, while accepting the thrill of the chase, rein in the full industrialisation of the pheasant shooting scene.

'Bird Brain' by Guy Kennaway is published by Jonathan Cape on 6 October

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