by Steve Westerman

AT the moment, pheasants are easy to spot in some areas of the Wharfe valley. There is some doubt as to when these spectacular, large, non-native birds were introduced to Britain. It may have been by the Normans, or possibly much earlier, in Roman times. In any event, today there is a wild population, estimated to be some 4 million birds in the spring. However, such estimates are complicated by the fact that each year much larger quantities are reared in captivity and then released for shooting. Although debated, it has been suggested that, in the UK, the number of released birds may be in the region of 35 million.

Wildlife conservationists have raised a number of concerns. Of course, there are issues about birds being shot for sport and worries about the use of lead pellets. However, a large proportion of birds reared in captivity do not succumb to this fate. According to one publication, this may be in the region of 60%. Apparently, those that escape generally do not fare well, with mortality rates substantially higher than for wild birds. Perhaps this is because they have only experienced artificial conditions before suddenly having to face the perils of nature (and road traffic). A further key concern is whether the release of so many pheasants has a detrimental effect on native wildlife, as they may compete for limited resources and change the balance of the ecosystems into which they are introduced in a number of ways.

However, counter points are advanced by those involved in or supporting the shooting industry. Aside from issues of local employment and revenue, they argue, for example, that benefits accrue from the associated management of the environment. Recently, I saw a small flock of Curlew (a UK red listed bird) feeding in a field that I thought might have been prepared to support pheasants. A number of sets of guidelines have been produced by related organisations that are intended to ameliorate negative effects. In some areas, it seems there is agreement that more research is needed.

So, it is difficult to know whether a pheasant that you see is a wild bird or a released bird. In Wharfedale pheasants can be found in all sorts of locations. For example, there are small numbers on the lower levels of Ilkley Moor. The males (as shown in the photograph) are particularly colourful and - when the light is good - their red wattles contrast wonderfully with the green vegetation.