Country diary: farmed pheasants are little more than free-range livestock

Sandy, Bedfordshire: The birds on southern shooting estates are poles apart from their wild cousins

Out of breath and panting heavily, I breasted the summit of the Lion’s Haunch, paused, then turned, slowly. A stiff pull up a frozen path through low gorse had brought me to the lesser peak of Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano that looms above Edinburgh. I stopped to feast on the view, my gaze sweeping along the Firth of Forth, out to the reddish-orange burn of sunrise over the Pentland hills and back to the twinkly lights of the city.

My descent had barely begun when I shocked a pheasant out of its bed of thorns. It exploded grouse-like from gorse, tail feathers quivering, and my first startled thought was: this is a wild bird.

Three mornings later I was back in one of the pheasant pamperlands of southern Britain, where the bird is little more than free-range livestock. The weight of pheasants raised and released in the UK is greater than the total weight of all wild bird species put together. Numbers set free locally last year were more than double the human population of the nearby town.

A female pheasant, almost fully camouflaged among autumnal ferns
A female pheasant, almost fully camouflaged among autumnal ferns. Photograph: Church Green Studios/Alamy

Cuk-cuk calls from out towards the wooded ridge and tyre tracks through sodden grass led me to a sloping field on a big shooting estate. A summer-planted strip of maize looked stripped of seed, but on two sides of the field were the big bird feeders. Blue barrels the size of water butts were spaced out, each with a tray at its base brimming with seed that constantly refilled from the container above. I could see from the path that the nearest seed hoppers were twinned with off-white water troughs cut from the bottom of a plastic drum.

A gate took me into the adjacent field of jittery bullocks, each animal bolting a little at my approach. They were not the only timorous beasties. I had not spotted it out in the open, in the middle of the field, but it had seen me. When I had drawn too close, the pheasant bolted in a volley of indignant clucks. I saw the same quivering tail feathers I had seen in Scotland. The same bird, living a very different life.


Derek Niemann

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Country diary: Anxiously checking the colour of my yow’s bottoms | Andrea Meanwell
Tebay, Cumbria: For an upland farmer, the long haul until springtime begins now. But one task is of utmost importance

Andrea Meanwell

01, Dec, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: cattle herd attracts a flurry of winged activity
Chantry Hill, West Sussex: In the long grass of the summit, birds flit between the feet of grazing cows

Rob Yarham

10, Sep, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a delayed harvest after the frost
Sandy, Bedfordshire: The gulls had changed their behaviour, as if they had got wise to the futility of foraging

Derek Niemann

11, Nov, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a scruffy wood pigeon finds peace in the grey morning bustle
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: Blackbirds arrive, robins flick between hedges and jackdaws vanish into trees, all watched by the unkempt pigeon

Paul Evans

28, Nov, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: free accommodation for feathered folk
Buxton, Derbyshire: Feathers are amazing, as Alfred Wallace said, but sometimes it’s good to give the owners a helping hand

Mark Cocker

19, Jan, 2021 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: this landscape has little to offer a shy fieldfare
Crook, County Durham: starving birds lose their inhibitions if apples are available in gardens

Phil Gates

15, Mar, 2018 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: The hair-trigger pigeons are up again, more dance than flight
Brighton, East Sussex: How many times a day do they do this? How do they decide who goes first?

Paul Evans

27, Jan, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: the sound of saturation
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: Slow-motion sloshing, drips from moss and the seeping of leafmould are among nature’s delights

Paul Evans

10, Dec, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: fresh cowpats are nature's nutrient-rich smoothies
Copped Hall, Essex: Within minutes of landing, these glistening patties of insect fast food become complete minature habitats

Jeremy Dagley

26, Aug, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: colourful jays with electrifying chat
Froggatt, Derbyshire: It’s their family natters that I appreciate most; the soft exchange between individuals, the ties that bind

Ed Douglas

28, Feb, 2020 @5:30 AM