I do regular birding walks at sites along fixed routes counting every individual of each species, bird and non-bird, that I can identify and have done so for many years. One walk is along a public footpath from Boxford Common south towards Bagnor and back. Part of the route is one of the transacts of a BTO Breeding Bird Survey that I have been doing for the last 21 years, so I am quite familiar with all the wildlife usually seen there. I try to do the walk twice a month, once as a minimum.
I was walking the route the other day (September) when it occurred to me that there was a regularly seen species that I could not recall seeing on recent walks here or elsewhere where I regularly count: no Pheasants or any gamebirds! A quick check on Bird Track showed that I had last recorded this species on the 9th June 2023, a lone bird seen on the Boxford Common walk. This year to the end of September I have only detected the species 30 times out of 174 trips around Newbury in 2023. Normally I would expect to record Pheasant on almost every outing.
To many, Pheasant is one of those "background" birds; like Woodpigeon, they are usually to be found on every trip when out and about in West Berkshire, even if it is just detected calling somewhere in the distance and they are so familiar as to go unrecorded by some. Often though there are many to be seen, particularly just before and around the beginning of the shooting season from September onwards when thousands are released annually to the wild. For me, one of the most evocative sounds of the countryside particularly in the autumn or any time of the year are Pheasants calling in the gloom as they fly to roost at dusk, just as the darkness of the night closes in.
So why am I seeing fewer and fewer Pheasant now? If you live or walk where there are active shooting estates, there are probably plenty of them still. However, the lockdowns of covid have had many unforeseen consequences. For the shooting industry, particularly for the Autumn, lockdown stopped all activity. Many smaller shoots don't seem to have recovered from this and no longer operate, and as a consequence the businesses that breed and supply birds for shooting has also declined significantly. I understand such of those that are still in business are finding it difficult to keep up with the demand for poults. At least one big estate on the North Hampshire Downs appears to have stopped the shooting element of its business - pheasant pens and release enclosure have disappeared, as have the gamekeepers regularly seen out and about. Also, the habitat maintenance associated with shooting has stopped, footpaths are growing over and there are no game strips, such areas reverting to agricultural use.
I began regularly watching on the Bagnor Estate in 1980 when I got permission from the then owner Mr Cambell and when it had a full-time gamekeeper. Since then, the shooting has gone through many iterations from a full-on commercial shoot to no shooting at all when Lord Polumbo, Margret Thatcher's arts minister, was the owner. Recent owners have had private shooting for a few friends or shooting syndicates from elsewhere have taken over, also the shooting was last let to a self-employed gamekeeper a year or two before covid. As the shooting was their only source of income, from September through to February shoots took place most days and rather curtailed my access to the estate for obvious reasons. The then owner was not comfortable with the frequency of the shooting and eventually cancelled the contract. Sadly, that owner passed on and in 2020 the estate was again sold, and the new owner has no interest in shooting, I am told. There is ongoing considerable change on the estate including the provision of a vineyard and extensive tree planting for a carbon off-setting business. Also, there is a proposal to reinstate the water meadows involving excavation of ponds. This last proposal has unfortunately been objected to by the archaeologists. The remains of a roman villa are nearby, and they fear any ground disturbance may compromise the surrounding archaeology.
As far as I am aware there have not been any gamebird releases on and around the Bagnor Estate since 2019. The other nearby known shoot at Honeybottom was last active in the winter of 2018/19. It seems in the ensuing years the local population of Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge, once sustained by annual releases, has dwindled to a few birds in the area. Incidentally Grey Partridge (known by the shooting fraternity as the English Partridge) disappeared before this century when release of this species for shooting was banned as the poults were of continental origin and it was feared that the native strain would be diluted by inter-breeding. Also there has been a national decline of this species for reasons yet to be deduced.
So, I wonder what will be the consequences of fewer game- birds in the area were their decline to continue? I know that since habitat management for shooting on the Bagnor Estate stopped there are fewer winter bunting and finch flocks; bunting and finch species are very scarce throughout the year on the estate now. Relatively large flocks were once present in game strips in winter with smaller gatherings around pheasant feeders. "Wild Justice" say that the release of up to 80,000,000 gamebirds each year has a significant impact on the larger bugs and similar sized small animals.
Should Wild Justice achieve their objective of getting all forms of shooting banned, or what seems to be the current situation prevail where only large shoots are viable, this will leave significant areas of farmland with a much reduced relict gamebird population. So will other native predators expand to fill the void? It will be interesting to see if a viable feral Pheasant population survives, the feral Red-legged Partridge population has always had an unsure existence so is more likely to disappear. Since I first drafted this note I have seen one male Pheasant along the Bagnor to Winterbourne Road and heard one calling from the direction of the Donnington Grove Estate in the distance on another occasion.
It is interesting to speculate what would replace game- birds should their population not be surcharged each year by releases for shooting. Maybe with global warming, and the projected increase in larger insects, small animals and the like, shrikes could make a comeback and/or the native Grey Partridge population will recover or even more exotic species like Rollers etc could become regular.