The pheasant is not native to Britain, but has a long history of residence here. There is some debate over the success of various possible introductions dating back to the Romans, but it is generally agreed that pheasants were common by the 15th century.
The pheasant, although often thought to be a bird of woodlands, is really a species of woodland edge and agricultural land. In areas where woodlands are not common, shrubby wetlands provide suitable habitat. Despite its introduced status, the conservation of the pheasant is important because of its long history of naturalisation and importance as a symbol of our traditional countryside.
During the 20th century the pheasant became an increasingly important gamebird. Lowland game bags at the turn of the century suggest that the pheasant comprised about 15% of the bag (the main gamebird then being the grey partridge), whereas by the 1980s it had increased to more than 55% of the bag.
In 1900, the average bag of pheasants was approximately 25 per 100 hectares, rising to almost 150 per 100 hectares in the 1980s. As a direct result of increases in rearing, nowadays nearly four-fifths of shoot providers rely on released pheasants, with an estimated 35 million pheasants released each year. The total pheasant bag stands at around 15 million birds, although the bag and probably the population of truly wild pheasants has not increased or has even declined over time. The present percentage of wild-bred pheasants in the harvest is difficult to estimate but may be as low as 10%.
It is difficult to separate geographical areas with truly viable wild stocks from areas where the population is mostly supported by rearing. At present, pockets of wild pheasants occur in arable areas of East Anglia, Kent, central and southern England, northeastern England and some lowlands of Scotland. Because the pheasant is so adaptable within rather wide constraints, many other areas may be capable of supporting wild pheasants at low densities. This, along with stocking, accounts for the much wider distribution found in nationwide bird surveys compared with that given here.
The increase in pheasant rearing and releasing have raised issues such as the effects of releasing on biodiversity, the transmission of diseases in pheasants such as hexamita and mycoplasma and welfare of devices such as anti-pecking spectacles. The Trust’s continues to research these issues and provide recommendations for sustainable releasing and the management of habitat to benefit wildlife.