Country: After fox-hunting, people are wondering what else the socialist killjoys may try to suppress

An illustrated pamphlet about one species of game bird does not sound like a document of much political moment. But with the threat to fox-hunting brought sharply into focus by the size of Labour's majority in Parliament, country people are nervously wondering what other field sports socialist killjoys may try to suppress. The Game Conservancy Trust's recent report, The Pheasant, has suddenly acquired increased significance.

The trust is a charity dedicated to scientific research, and its report contains fascinating information about the birds' history, biology and habits. Pheasants originated in the Far East, and were probably imported into Britain by the Romans; the Latin name Phasianus colchicus reflects the legend of Jason and his Argonauts, who returned from seeking the golden fleece in Colchis (now part of Georgia), bringing pheasants with them.

Today, the pheasant is easily the most numerous game bird in the British Isles. Yet even when it is not shot, its life expectancy is pitifully short: most live just one year, and only outstanding survivors reach three or four.

They have many natural enemies. Crows, magpies, rooks, jays and rats eat their eggs, and stoats massacre whole broods of chicks. At this time of year, when the hens are nesting on the ground, they are vulnerable to foxes. The report does not mention a theory I have often heard gamekeepers expound: that an incubating bird's metabolism slows down, so that its scent is greatly reduced, thus giving it a measure of protection.

The potentially explosive part of the report is the section on shooting, which reveals what a major industry the artificial production of pheasants has become. More than 20 million birds are hand-reared in Britain every year, and about 12 million are shot; the sport is now so popular that the overall annual bag is five or six times higher than in its heyday, 1900 to 1910.

Those in favour point out - as the report does - that management of land for shooting does much to enhance the landscape: woods are thinned to encourage the growth of shrubs; coppices are planted; hedgerows are maintained. A survey of 712 landowners shows that among estates where pheasants are reared, 61 per cent had planted new woods, compared with only 21 per cent of non-shooting properties. In short, estate owners spend huge amounts on improving the environment for shooting.

Research has also shown that establishing a shrub understorey is beneficial to many other birds, among them willow warblers, spotted flycatchers, chiffchaffs, song thrushes, blackcaps, garden warblers and nightingales.

Similarly, benign agricultural practices, such as leaving unsprayed conservation strips or headlands, helps species such as buntings and finches.

So far, so good. But many landowners now fear that the Government, after it has got rid of fox-hunting, will seek to ban the rearing of game birds - something that has already been done in the Netherlands.

There is no doubt that a ban here would have far-reaching ecological consequences. Many shoots would close down. On those that went under, woodland maintenance would cease and, with fewer gamekeepers, predators would flourish to the detriment - or even disappearance - of game birds and songbirds.

No true countryman wants this to happen. Yet a feeling is abroad that some shoots are too commercial, and that bags are obscenely large. A few far-sighted estates, notably Raby Castle in Co Durham, have given up rearing, and returned to the healthier practice of nurturing wild birds only.

Raby has shown that substantial stocks of game birds can be built up by a combination of strict predator control in spring, and sympathetic husbandry throughout the year. My bet is that, with the threat of bans in the air, more landowners will soon be following its example.

`The Pheasant' is available from the Game Conservancy Trust at Fordingbridge, Hampshire SP6 1EF, price pounds 10.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map