End of the line for Lady Amherst's pheasant

Amol Rajan
Monday 25 February 2008 01:00

One of the country's most beautiful creatures is almost certain to become the first bird to become extinct in Britain since 1840.

The glamorous Lady Amherst's pheasant is destined to disappear from the countryside after years of steadily decline.

Only one of the birds is thought to remain, in the northern Home Counties. Unless it can find a previously unsighted mate, and breeds successfully, Lady Amherst's will become the first bird species since the great auk to be lost from the British countryside.

Its gradual demise over the past decade is thought to be related to a steadily expanding fox population. Another factor may be culling by gamekeepers who believe they endanger fox hunts because they run rather than fly.

Introduced to Britain from China in the 19thcentury, the pheasant was named after Countess Sarah Amherst, whose husband, William Pitt Amherst, was governor general of Bengal.

For a century and a half it has been one of the most distinctive features of the English countryside. With a black and silver head, a long grey tail, and striking plumage of yellow, white, and metallic blue, red, and green, it was long a rambler's delight.

Despite its exotic colouring, the birds could be difficult to spot in the wild because their natural habitat is dark, dense foliage.

Conservationists have complained that decades-old wildlife laws prevent them from countering population decline. The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) includes a ban on introducing new breeding stock of species that are not native to Britain. The Act, intended to prevent the spread of pest species, also applies to more exotic animals.

Britain's bird population is under major threat from ecological destruction and turbulent weather patterns. Of the 247 species of bird in Britain, 40 are listed as being under severe threat.

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