Pheasants: Modern Roadkill Phenomenon

In line with many frequent road-users, I regularly come across both dead and live pheasants whilst out and about. Today is the opening of the pheasant shooting season in the UK and this led me to recount an afternoon trip my partner and I took to Roadford Reservoir back in March (2016). Whilst on route we counted 40 dead pheasants on the A30 between Okehampton and Broadwoodwidger; this is just an 11-mile stretch within Devon and demonstrated plainly the vulnerability of this bird. It prompted me to learn more about the history and current status of the common pheasant in England, through researching answers to a number of questions…


What is the origin of the common pheasant? Pheasants are distinctive birds, with their ear-piercingly loud call, long showy tail-feathers and strutting walk. They have become such a common sight in the English countryside that it is easy to forget that they are not a native species. The scientific name for the common pheasant is Phasianus colchicus. ‘Colchis’ was the historic name given to the region lying between the Caucasus Mountains, on the south-eastern shores of the Black Sea, which mostly lies within the modern borders of Georgia {1}. ‘Phasianus’ or ‘bird of the Phasis’ relates to the river Phasis, now known as Rioni River {2}, which runs through Georgia to the Black Sea. The area is thought to be where the species originated and where most of the European introductions were sourced from {2}.


Which habitats do pheasants tend to inhabit in their native environment? The common pheasant expanded its native range outwards from the western part of Georgia, on the crossroads of Europe and Asia {3}, and over time the species spread eastwards across central Asia and into China {4}. In their natural environment, pheasants will occupy a range of habitats including farmland, grassland, moorland and woodland edges {4}. They prefer fairly open ground for feeding during the day, with a water source nearby, and they will use trees to roost in overnight to evade ground predators {4}.


How do pheasants behave in their natural environment? Their breeding season begins early in spring when male birds begin defending a territory. Female birds then select a male to breed with, based on his strength and dominance as well as the quality of natural resources that lie within his territory {4}. Numerous females may choose the same male simultaneously if he has secured a suitable territory. Female pheasants’ feather colouration provides them with good camouflage, which is important as they nest on the ground. Females usually lay 7 to 15 eggs in a clutch, which they incubate for about 1 month; after the chicks hatch they generally stay with their mother for 2-3 months {4}. Intensively reared pheasants that survive after being released by the shooting industry are likely to have low breeding success in the wild {5}.


When did the common pheasant arrive at our shores? The pheasant was perhaps first introduced to the UK by the Romans for use as a table bird {6}. The use of common pheasant as a game bird rose exponentially during the 1900s, and a number of modern sub-species have been bred for shooting. Approximately 35 million semi-wild common pheasants are released each year by the shooting industry; this constitutes at least 80% of the UK population, the remainder of which consists of naturalised birds that originate from historic introductions {7}. The fact that the released birds are only semi-wild perhaps explains their indecisive, unpredictable and seemingly suicidal behaviour when faced with vehicles on our roads.


How does the shooting industry manage pheasant breeding/releases and is it ethical?

The value of the game/shooting industry is believed to be roughly £1.6 billion and there are estimated to be around 70,000 persons employed within the industry {8}. As mentioned above, approximately 35 million semi-wild common pheasants are released each year by the shooting industry {7}. Pheasant ‘open season’ runs between October and February {8}. The cost of participating in a supervised one-day shooting event can reach sums of £1000 or more {9}. However, conditions of captive reared game birds are not statutorily monitored and there are multiple factors of potential concern within the process, particularly with regard to the welfare of birds reared in intensive systems, which constitute approximately 70% of imported UK stock {8}. These factors include stocking density, restrictions on the ability of birds to carry out typical behaviours and social interactions, appropriate staff training and veterinary collaboration, and the use of equipment such as ‘bits’ that are inserted into the birds’ beaks to prevent antagonistic feather pecking and more serious hostility that can often occur in crowded concentrations of captive birds that are provided with limited environmental stimulation {8}.


What is the scale of the issue of road collisions with pheasants? The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust recommends a maximum of 1000 pheasant per hectare (400 per acre) for releases in non-ancient woodland habitat {10}. Annual releases of captive-reared common pheasant can lead to periodic, high-density populations of up to 20 birds per hectare in comparison to the natural carrying capacity of 0.1 birds per hectare {11}. The ability of semi-wild birds to react adequately to dangers in the wild, such as predators, may be hampered {11}, so too may their ability to recognise and react to danger from road traffic. Due to lack of available data there is no national dataset to provide figures of, and reasons for, losses of birds prior to and following release {8}.


Many of the pheasants that we come across day-to-day will have been bred solely for the purpose of income for the shooting industry, which provides jobs for many people, but these birds do portray a rather sad image of vulnerability, from which those showy feathers, bold voice and strutting walk can not protect them, and it makes one wonder; is it really fair game?



{1}Language Matters: Definition of Pheasant in English. Oxford Dictionaries, 2016 (viewed 19/03/2016).


{2}Common Pheasant. Wikipedia, 2016 (viewed on 19/03/2016).


{3}Colchis. Wikipedia, 2016 (viewed on 26/03/2016).


{4} Phasianus colchicus. Animal Diversity Web, 2014 (viewed on 26/03/2016).


{5} Game: Dealing with poor breeding in released pheasants. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, 2016 (viewed on 05/05/2016).


{6}The History of the Pheasant, The Field. Yardley, 2015 (viewed on 26/03/2016).


{7}Common Pheasant. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, no date (viewed on 26/03/2016)


{8}Opinion on the Welfare of Farmed Gamebirds. Farm Animal Welfare Council, 2008 (viewed on 26/03/2016).


{9}Pheasant Shooting in the UK. Guns on Pegs – The UK’s No.1 Shoot Finder, 2016 (viewed on 26/03/2016).


{10}Guidelines for Sustainable Gamebird Releasing. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, 2007 (viewed on 26/03/2016).


{11}Pheasant Shooting in Britain. Robinson, 2000 (viewed on 26/03/2016).


Code of Good Shooting Practice. Countryside Alliance, 2012 (viewed on 26/03/2016).

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I grew up in the Devonshire countryside, where I developed a great passion and respect for nature and the environment. I completed a BSc degree in Environmental Studies in 2006, and following that I gained practical skills in a countryside ranger apprenticeship, worked in the organic farming and growing sector for over 3 years, and as an ecological surveyor for 5 years. My partner and I moved back to Devon last year, and I have been re-connecting with many of the natural spaces that I grew up with down here. I have been writing wildlife and environmental pieces for a local organic farm, which have been successful, and I am keen to explore the world of wildlife writing further: this looked like a good place to start.

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